It’s about relationships-
Of axe to oak.
Of edge to grain.
Of hands to helve.
Of Advil to every 6 hours…
Walk the Line
I have a confession to make…
I went to England and had a thing with quercus robur. She was knotty. She had a really big heart and I LIKED it.
Please don’t tell quercus alba or quercus rubra about this.
I love American white and red oak. They are the meat and potatoes of my trade. I am nothing without them.
I went to England on business. But I was caught up in her foreign, insouciant air, and the way her delicate leaves reflected the morning sunlight. She would wave to me from an open field and I stared awestruck at her beauty. Maybe it was the cask beer–but have you seen her fetching knot patterns? I don’t know. It was just a fling of the axe, I swear. It was a tree-tryst.
The bevel made me do it.
Oh American oaks, I’ve come home to you, with open and cramped arms, axing your forgiveness. Please don’t leave me for tomato stakes or pallets.
But English oak, why must you beguile this wayward Yankee so?
You Hew and Cry
There’s been a whole lot of hewing this year. If I was filling out a job application, I’d have to write “Hewer” in the space provided, if I could get my fingers to hold a pen.
You think about things when you hew so much. You begin to see the process a little more for what it actually is. You begin to speak the language of the ancients when you hew day after day. It’s really a form of time-travel, this hewing business.
But to hew, to really hew, you need to go through fire.
There’s the physical torment-
The knuckle below your middle finger will never become calloused. Get used to the bloodletting. Some mornings, just when you think it’s about healed, you hit that nice square corner you just created. Before the workday starts, you almost want to just get it over with and use a hammer to knock off yesterday’s scab. (There must be so much blood on ancient timbers. Some kid from MIT should figure out how to extract DNA from ancient house timbers, go all Jurassic Park and create a carpenter using a 14th-century genome sequence).
Your arms and back cry mercy and it’s not even first tea yet. You try various positions to find just the right stance. Sometimes you just lie down and stretch. Or walk away in disgust.
And the mental games soon follow-
There are several thousand swings and misses. Is it just me?
Come ON, you tell no one in particular as you miss the line by a quarter inch. No, I don’t have Tourette’s.
The line seems so impossibly narrow. How on earth can you be expected to hew to that atom’s width of a line?? Oops, missed again.
The grain will change in direct proportion to your budding confidence.
You have Ally McBeal fantasies about embedding a broad axe into your shin while Al Green croons.
Tell me once again how much more there is left to hew?
If you want to hew, to really hew, you’ve got to be committed.
Keep your axe sharp, clean the dirt off your bearers, and take a deep breath.
A musician learns the scales and the changes before soloing. It’s mundane and tedious and oh-so necessary. Your first attempts at hewing will feature stop cuts, undercut faces, and a line which is anything but walked. It will look like a Cub Scout on Twinkies has been let loose with a dull hatchet.
But you watch how others hew, how they change the angle of their axe to the grain. You get a feel for the rhythm and pace of the work. You begin to look differently at the timbers in old houses, both the refined and the utilitarian. What does the final face need to look like? How does my axe affect that? The tribulations of a long-dead carpenter begin to resonate with you.
It’s a constant adaptation of a moving axe to changing grain. But there isn’t much time to think about it when you’re actually doing it. You’ve practiced your scales and chords–now you’re beginning to just play.
In time, your faces are square to each other and in wind along their length. You have begun to see plumb and square even as you build up a muscle memory for the process.
As with any piece of music, there are dynamics throughout the work. Sometimes you stand menacingly over the prone oak. You hold the axe towards the bottom of the handle for greater leverage and you strike down with great violence and send large pieces of sapwood and heart flying. It’s brutish and efficient and teetering on the edge of chaos. At other times, the same axe in the same hands is choked up towards the head and is played with delicate precision. You finish a side by taking off translucent shavings as if planing. The distinctive sound of a sharp edge finishing an oak face is a different part of the arrangement.
The broad axe is a wonderful instrument.
You cannot stress or overcompensate trying to hit the line. When it’s right, you just do it.
But even seasoned hewers are not always in a zone. You may give several hours of pedestrian hewing and missed lines for an hour of focused, Zen-like prowess.
And when you’re locked in, it’s magic. It’s Bobby Orr going coast to coast to score unassisted. It’s Keith Jarrett becoming one with his piano. You don’t want to stop. You have built up the physical strength to work through gnarly grain. When you’re in that place, you know exactly where the edge of the axe will land. You play the grain while hewing as if reading music or improvising. It’s worth all the misery and tedium because frankly, it’s sublime.
Which came first–the blowout at the bottom of a hewn face or the chamfer?
In the flora analysis, oaks will be oaks, whether they’re red, white, or blue. Take a splint from the hewing, put it in your mouth and taste the wine. You’ve earned it.
For a direct connection with the material, there’s nothing like hewing. Your relationship with the tree and its grain will lead you to a more elemental place. And that experience will follow you through all other aspects of the work–the planing and sawing, the cutting and assembling of joints.
I’ve been hewing for a couple of decades and I’m still learning. On this trip, I really began to understand my broad axe. We’ve been friends for years, but in England she was in her element. She taught me things. I was a little slow at first, but she was patient with me as I realized how she was meant to approach the grain. Physically and mentally I was prepared. All I had to do was hold her and let her take me where she would.
I love both English and American oaks. There I’ve said it.
But my true love, I suppose, is my axe.
It’s about relationships.