One of my favorite classes during middle school was woodworking. Our first project was to make small wooden trays from pine and ply wood. I learned to cut wood with a miter saw, glue them together, and correctly hammer a nail. The class moved onto drills and various electric saws like the jigsaw, circular saw, and planer. (We were never allowed to use the table saw, however, as the exposed blade was too risky to trust with eleven-year-olds.) With these tools I made a two-level shelf that could be placed on desk to hold paper and various knick knacks.

To finish our woodworks, we’d polish them with rotating sanding drums or sandpaper wrapped around wooden blocks and earnest elbow grease. I’d start with a low-grit sandpaper and move progressively onto higher grits while frequently running my fingers over the wood’s changing texture until it felt luxuriously smooth.

The class used pine because it was cheap, but we stained the wood afterwards so it’d have a nice hardwood finish like maple or oak. But pine is soft and easily dented, so for my second semester of wood shop, I ordered hundreds of dollars worth of maple to build a large bookshelf. Maple is much harder than pine and also much harder to work with. But the timber’s reddish-brown color and sturdiness was well worth it.

I’ve thrown out notebooks and papers from all my classes, but I’ve kept the tray and two shelves. I still feel proud when I see my mom using the desk shelf or when I feel the cloverleaf molding on the maple bookshelf’s crown.

Woodworking taught me that I find delight in working with my hands and in creating something from nothing. I’ve only made bookshelves, but it was still magical to conceive of an idea and gradually produce a physical object from unstructured material. I’m sentimentally attached to these works in a way that I can’t extend to physical goods I’ve simply bought.

The notion of working with one’s hands, being passionate about one’s trade, and striving to be better at what one does reminds me of the word “craftsmanship.” I respect and am awed by people like Jiro Ono in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi because they epitomize this word.

Here are videos that might better convey what I getting at:

Vimeo’s Machines and Crafts videos

Vimeo’s Artist/Craftsmen Mini-Documentaries