Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bellowing at the Rate of 19 Strokes Per Inch

This week I have been finishing up a commissioned rope bed similar to the one I made for my wife and I a few years ago. I usually tell folks that building by hand is just as fast or almost as fast when building one item of furniture. Long rip cuts in 12/4 hardwood are an exception. At 19 strokes per inch for 84” of length that makes 1,596 saw strokes per rail. I’m not gonna lie: a tablesaw would have cut these faster.

So as I was sawing the third rail, my mind began drifting and, probably because of my level of caffeination, I began getting impatient and bored. The silence of the shop (I don’t play the radio or music in my shop) and the repetitive nature of the sawing motion got me thinking. I remembered the research of Bennett Konesni on the tradition of singing worksongs. My introduction to Bennett’s research was at the Common Ground Fair 2014. Don and Carolyn Williams were up visiting our family and we all went to the Fair (which Don affectionately calls “hippie fest”). At some point during the day we decided to split ways by gender (and interest). Don and I bee lined for the woodworking and traditional craft folks. In our wandering we stumbled across a large circle of people bellowing hearty acapella music. When we got there, we discovered a timber framer hewing a log into a beam. The axe provided the rhythm and the singing reciprocally inspired the hewing. I’d never seen anything like it.

Bennett explains on his website, “That's how it's always been with musical labor, people have just gone out there and started working and singing, trying to pass the time a little faster. It's about finding a way to transform the drudgery of repetitive physical labor into something a little closer to play. When it clicks you end up somewhere between work and play: getting something done and having a damn good time doing it.”

So I decided I’d sing to pass the time. It’s not that singing is a natural gift of mine. In fact, my singing voice is quite atrocious. But no one was listening and I wasn’t performing anyway. Bennett tells me it’s about play. But what would I sing? I remembered a quotation from 5th century theologian Jerome that explained, “The Psalms were continually to be heard in the fields and vineyards of Palestine. The plowman, as he held the plow, chanted the Hallelujah; and the reaper, the vinedresser, and the shepherd sang something from the Psalms of David… These Psalms are… the instruments of our agriculture.”

Fortunately, our family has been singing the psalms in our daily family worship time so I had a few tunes to pick from. It was an ironic scene: Me, alone in my shop, handsawing three inch thick hardwood while belting out Psalm 1 from the 1650 Scottish Psalter to the rhythm of the saw strokes. To top it off, when I forgot some of the words, I pulled up the Scottish Psalter on my smart phone to help. What a scene.

You know what, though? That 25 minutes of 1,500 strokes went by really fast. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. So next time you have a monotonous task, turn off the radio blather to warm up your voice. Don't be shy. Sing your heart out.



  2. Sounds good. Try WUMB, here in Boston they play nice mix of folk /american music.

  3. Sounds good. Try WUMB, here in Boston they play nice mix of folk /american music.

  4. Fantastic! I often work to music, either sung or canned. It defiantly helps. I wish Bennet would get back to me about some work songs that have a good rhythm for morticing by hand. Bang, bang, rest , rest.

    Sing on.

  5. Thanks for this reminder it made me smile and remember the sea chantys that my sister taught me after her semester at sea.

  6. Thanks for this reminder it made me smile and remember the sea chantys that my sister taught me after her semester at sea.

  7. As a reenactor, I have always found song makes the day go a lot easier...especially if you are paddling a canoe the length of Lake Superior. Let's see.....40+ strokes per minute, 11 hours a day.....
    Likewise, deck work, raising anchor, hauling sheets on a ship goes lots easier and focuses the work of a few or many....get a bunch of newbs on board that have never worked together, and they can raise a yard in no time when singing (or working to someone singing....).

    The idea of working and singing is an OLD one.

  8. When you saw through very thick stock, you set a lot of pressure on all from the blade engaged in the cut. Each saw tooth shaves out waste. Blades with 3 teeth per inch (tpi) have large gullets that have room for a number of waste.