Why (and how) I think about not-knowing

21/2/2023 ☼ not-knowingwood

Most people don’t find thinking about not-knowing as inexhaustibly fascinating as I do. Their view, loosely, is that if not-knowing is unavoidable, there’s no point in spending [= wasting] time thinking about it. We just have to live with it.”

I understand why this view makes sense, but I have good reasons for disagreeing with it. The easiest way I’ve found to explain these good reasons for disagreement is by analogy — and the analogy is about two different approaches to working with wood.

About 15 years ago I became obsessed for a time with studio furniture and particularly with working in wood. I joined the workshop of John Grew-Sheridan, a master furnituremaker. John sold access to his meticulously maintained woodshop in Bayview for something like $5/h to a handful of Silicon Valley types. It was billed as a semi-self-directed sort-of workshop-school. John’s encyclopedic expertise and grouchy but superb instruction and advice came free with the already risible hourly fee, making this undoubtedly the best deal I’ve ever found.

Above, you see the Grew-Sheridan Studio, which later became the San Francisco Community Woodshop (whose photo it is). In the front right is one of John’s deceptively simple stools — one of the very few high-top chairs I’ve ever enjoyed sitting on.

The first thing John taught every new shop member was how to process raw lumber into pieces that are dimensionally stable (i.e., they don’t change shape while you’re working with them) and square (i.e., the surfaces, edges, and corners are truly parallel/perpendicular to each other). Furniture depends on accurately measured and cut components and joints. Dimensional stability and squareness are essential for accurate measurement and cutting. The idea is to make the lumber as close to a Platonic solid as possible to enable the precision work to follow.

Trees are not Platonic solids. A tree grows irregularly, depending on the slope of the land it’s on, how much rain it gets, whether it was shaded, whether an insect bored into it, and innumerable other factors. Bacteria, fungi, and the drying process affect the shape and appearance of wood in unpredictable ways. Raw lumber milled out from a tree is highly irregular — it is very much not a Platonic solid either (hence crooked timber” as a metaphor for human imperfectness).

I processed the raw material for my first project (a simple set of folding shelves — it was a training wheels project) to remove as many imperfections as I could. Knots, strange grain, odd colour; I tried to get rid of as much of it as possible. With mild resentment, I adapted the design around unavoidable imperfections in the wood.

This is how almost all novices and the vast majority of experienced furnituremakers approach raw processing of lumber. It’s conceptually much easier to approach a project deterministically like this: Come up with a design plan for the piece in advance, get the material, process it to get rid of whatever the design does not envisage so the design can be accurately implemented — change the design if forced to by unavoidable imperfections in the material.

The second piece I made at John’s was a large table. To make the top, I bought big century-old beams salvaged from a demolished factory in Mission Bay. Each beam was a single piece of Douglas fir about 10 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 3 inches thick, with some nails still protruding. I wanted to take off the dirty, torn-up outsides to reveal what I hoped would be pristine rose-gold cores1, then mill these cores down even more before gluing them up and milling them yet again into a single magnificent, massive panel.

Sawing up big recycled lumber is disruptive. Heavy equipment has to be moved around so that there’s room to maneuver the pieces. It can be dangerous: Hidden metal (like a sneaky buried nail — there’s always at least one) can snap the bandsaw’s blade and send it zipping around the wheels. John wanted me to wait a week before processing my enormous beams so the other shop members could finish up what they needed to … and so I could make a plan of attack.

In the meantime, John lent me his copy of The Impractical Cabinetmaker by James Krenov, who taught at the College of the Redwoods at the far northern end of California. This book brings the reader through three of Krenov’s furniture projects. These are, in my view, only a pretext for illustrating a different approach to working with wood.

The essence of this alternative approach is not to start by coming up with a design, then imposing that design on the raw materials. One of his students at the College of the Redwoods relates how Krenov talked through his approach to designing and constructing: He allowed his eye to determine the proper dimensions, proportions and details for the particular type and character of wood that he was using. Jim [Krenov] didn’t work from a drawing — rather, he designed and built on the fly, by composing.’”

The alternative approach to wood actively considers the raw material (including any irregularities and imperfections) and designs in a way that profits from what is there, irregularities and all. The design is provisional, continually evolving in response to learning more about the material.

The parquetry cabinet of white oak and Mendocino cypress above was made by Krenov in 1997 (the photo is from the Krenov Foundation). As with his other work, the finished product shows the the effect of approaching the wood with the intent of understanding it (imperfection and all) as opportunity. High-contrast irregular wood grain is often considered a liability because it is visually distracting. Uniform grain is prized because it is a material that does not compete with the design it is used to construct. In Krenov’s cabinet, the extremely high-contrast grain is not a liability. Instead, it has become the core design detail (on the top and front doors) that orients the flow of the rest of the cabinet.

Other master furnituremakers like George NakashimaSam Maloof, and Wharton Esherick — and John Grew-Sheridan — seem to have worked in a similar way, allowing design and material to be in mutually productive conversation.2

With this approach, two things stand out about how the maker relates to the material and the work to be done. First, the maker is intentionally open to what is actually there. Second, the maker is actively working to understand and appreciate the material’s affordances. Third, and most important, the maker resists the urge to predefine aspects of the material as imperfection or irregularity, so that things that would otherwise be considered a liability or constraint may be interpreted as resource and opportunity instead.

Furniture made with this alternative approach feels different, alive.

This walnut rocking chair was made by Sam Maloof in 1980 (the photo is from the Smithsonian’s Renwick Collection, which now owns the rocker). Maloof says, there’s a lot of work being done today that doesn’t have any soul in it. The technique may be the utmost perfection, yet it is lifeless. It doesn’t have a soul. I hope my furniture has a soul to it. I do not feel that it is possible to make a working drawing with all the intricate and fine details that go into a chair or stool, particularly. Many times, I do not know how a certain area is to be done until I start working with a chisel, rasp or whatever tool is needed for that particular job.

Returning to that widespread view about not-knowing, the view that if its unavoidable, there’s no point in spending [= wasting] time thinking about it. We just have to live with it.” I disagree with this view even though it is true because there’s a different, better way.

That view of not-knowing is analogous to the conventional approach to wood: Get rid of whatever not-knowing (irregularities) you can, adjust what you do (your design) to accommodate the rest suboptimally. This is hard to do, but also conceptually easy.

The alternative approach to wood is analogous to how I think not-knowing should be approached. It’s actually and conceptually hard. It requires actively acknowledging the reality and unavoidability of not-knowing (imperfections). Avoid grudgingly adjusting actions (designs) because of unavoidable not-knowing (unavoidable imperfections) — instead, work on understanding not-knowing so that it can become a motivation and an integral part of the actions chosen.

Like the alternative approach to working with wood, this alternative approach to not-knowing won’t be for everyone. But with this alternative approach, actions and their results will likely feel different, alive. I don’t know exactly what this alternative approach consists of yet — it is definitely a work in progress.

The table I built out of those Douglas fir beams was my first conscious foray into approaching situations in this actively appreciative way. The difference in approach is a feeling that is entirely noticeable in practice though nearly impossible to put in words. The finished table has many small details that made it great fun to use and is very tactile. I’m aware that these are absurd-sounding things to say about a table. It currently lives in Woodside, California and I hope to have it back one day.

This is a revision of Approaching the wood (22/2/2023) which improves the illustrations and (I hope) clarifies some concepts.

  1. There are doors, tables, and cabinetry made of quarter-sawn, slow-grown Douglas fir all over the Bay Area. Most of these date from a time now long-past when old-growth conifer forests were abundant and treated cavalierly. This wood is finely striated and pink-tinged gold when fresh-cut, and the scent is wonderful too. It eventually weathers to a warm medium brown I always associate with the colour palette of Northern California.↩︎

  2. The alternative approach isn’t restricted to furnituremakers. It seems to be common to people working at a high level in situations which are filled with not-knowing. Donald Schön calls it a conversation with the situation” in his book, The Reflective Practitioner.↩︎