Updated: Mar 26, 2021
Perhaps I had forgotten how this felt. Last spring wasn’t much of a spring, what with the world coming to an end and all, and I can’t remember a winter that felt as long and as bleak as this past one. But recently we’ve had our first stretch of glorious, sunny, shirt-sleeve days; the last stubborn corners of snow have melted, and I’ve been enjoying the weather, spending hours out on the patio hand-sanding. It’s a short season between too cold and too many mosquitoes so I’d better take the current when it serves.
I’ve completed hundreds of pipes under artificial light, and there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s not always sunny in Denmark, either. That said, there is nothing like natural light, and I love working outside. When I lived in New Mexico I met a number of artists, who all said that they moved there for the light. While I have to agree that the light in Santa Fe is pretty special, the Western Pennsylvania light is okay too, I mean, when it's there. You get sharper and better shadows from sunlight, and I had put off one particular commission of a demanding shape, saying that we were close enough to being able to work outside, might as well wait for it. I try to work mostly in the shade, but when I get to the higher grits nothing shows fine scratches and unevenness like direct sunlight.
You can see how some shapes really benefit from being able to see. On this Hex Panel Acorn, all of those lines need to be straight, like the seams on a six-sided football. Every surface affects every other surface, and this piece of briar was typically perverse, with stunning grain but just enough sand pits to keep me chasing symmetry all over the place. I first made this shape for the Kansas City Pipe Show carving contest, the category being paneled pipes. I swore I’d never do it again, but that was a long time ago and I guess I forgot my vow when somebody came along and held a checkbook to my head.
Beyond the light, it helps my focus and mood to work outside. Working indoors, there often seems to be a need for some distraction; music, the Golf Channel, a YouTube video. Something to frame the time, something to make the room seem a little bigger. Outside, there are sounds of birds, dogs, lawn equipment, jet skis down on the Allegheny River. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something invigorating about feeling like you’re part of the world instead of shut away from it. Which may sound strange coming from somebody who has done his best to shut the world out completely this past year, but I guess it depends what you mean by “world.”
Feelings are one thing, but dust is real. Granted, some kinds of dust — say, coal — are worse than others, but none of it is good for you. Maybe some of you have noticed the filter in the background of my workbench shots. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t do anything, on the lathe or by hand, without some sort of dust collection or air filtration going, and most of the time I wear a mask as well. It’s one thing to be exposed to a little dust here and there. Being exposed to it constantly will hurt you unless you take precautions.
Outside, with a stiff breeze at my back, I can hand sand without a mask. And daydream about a shop with a broad, covered, screened porch, where I could just nip back inside for another coat of stain or a different file rather than wend my way through the sun room, dining room, kitchen, down the basement stairs and back to my workbench. The patio is actually only about ten feet from my workbench in a straight line, half of that distance being vertical, but not being able to bore straight through like those mining machines in Total Recall makes it a longer trip. Hmmm, maybe I’ll make some kind of toolbox or caddy like phlebotomists carry around in the hospital, then I could take more stuff that I need out there at one time. Like stain.
I guess my mind is wandering somewhere a lot of the time while I’m working, but it seems a more pleasant meander when I’m outside. Maybe the view isn’t the surf or a mountain stream, but the Allegheny River Valley isn’t bad, and the hawk that just screamed or the woodpecker hammering for his lunch could be anywhere. The sun limning every scratch, scoop and bulge on a surface is the same sun in Taos, so I could be anywhere, too. As Buckaroo Bonzai said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”