“The hand is the window on to the mind”

Paul, who built his own 6′.0″ hollow wood fish out of Western Red Cedar, told me a story the last time he was at the farm that relates to board building and working with your hands. The daughter of a friend of his had started doing craftwork and had described the process of working with her hands as taking her to a place where she was neither happy nor sad, just there.

If that sounds zen-like, it is. I’ve often completely lost myself in the making of a board and I know guys that have built their own boards with me have felt something similar.

Building hollow wood surfboards is so much about a process. It can take a week of full-time labour. So, the question arises, why engage in something that takes such a long time? What is it about working with wood and building surfboards?

It’s been clear to see, to a greater and lesser degree, that people have got something more from the process than just the end objective of owning a functional, beautiful hollow wood surfboard. What is it they’re getting? What is the common denominator?

It’s not something that I’ve been able to immediately articulate, but it has led to me thinking, talking and doing background reading to try and figure it out, for myself and also to understand more clearly what it is that I’m offering as a business. Today, for example, I was taping up a pinline and suddenly realised that I was so absorbed in what I was doing that I was completely in the moment. Which might not seem like much, but with our modern lifestyles how often are weable to say we’re in a place where we are ‘neither happy nor sad, just there’? At the same time I had a heightened senseof consciousness about what I was doing. This was no abstract activity, like scrolling my Facebook feed; it mattered that I got this right. I was conscious of my hands and my mind working together.

That’s the immediacy of it, but there’s also been the ‘big picture’ societal questions. When we live in a throwaway culture, ironically at a time when we’re supposed to be even more concerned about the environment, and where we generally depend on imported products rather than making our own, what does it mean for us as people and societies to have our agency over any kind of craftsmanship removed? What does it mean for us as human beings, our communities, our children? And how does this apply to surfing and surfboard manufacture?

One of my stops in reading up about these questions was, of course, Google. I haven’t had time to order or read the books that I’m going to refer to below, but I am going to quote from some of the reviews which identify the main themes.

I was surprised with the amount of available material that tackles these themes. One of the reviews I came across was about a book by Matthew Crawford called ‘The Case For Working With Your Hands: Or Why Office Work Is Bad For Us And Fixing Things Feels Good’. Manual competence, writes the reviewer in summarising the thesis of the book, makes you feel better (and behave better, apparently). “It gives you a sense of autonomy, a feeling of responsibility for your work and for the material world, and ultimately makes for better citizens.”

The reliance 0n things that are made for us and the decline of manual skills has divorced us from our physical environment. Crawford argues that this makes us passive, dependent and manipulable.But what physical work does for us is re-engage us with reality; it gives a sense of power and forces honesty about what can and can’t be done, teaching humility and empathy.

The reviewer writes his story from the experience of working with a stonemason, whom he quotes: “You do feel good at the end of the day, because you’re knackered…You’ve been concentrating, but you’ve probably also been doing a lot of heavy lifting, and also, you know, you’ve done your work, and you’re like, yeah, I did that. It’s done. Proud of that.”

Then there’s a book called the ‘The Craftsman’ by Martin Sennett, which was reviewed in the Guardian UK by Fiona MacCarthy, who tells us it’s a book“about perfectionist skills, the desire to do things well that (he thinks) resides in all of us, the frustration and damage once these urges are denied.”

Craftsmanship is about “the deep inner satisfaction that comes from work perfected for its own sweet sake.” MacCarthy writes about the slow rhythms involved in making things and picks up on Sennett’s argument that while we work there are “submerged processes of thought and feeling” taking place which lead to us striving to do the very best we can do. This, in a fascinating way, leads to a commitment to a greater good. This is closely connected to the quote used as the headline for this article, from philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Not sure I buy this argument that if we all picked up a craft the world would be a better place, although it’s a nice idea and, like I said, I haven’t read the book so I could be missing some nuances to the discussion. Then again, maybe if we were all more connected to our physical environments, more fulfilled, more in touch with ourselves and our communities, then the world would indeed be a better place.

Sennet himself, in a previous article, writes that: “Of all our limbs, the hands make the most varied movements, movements that can be controlled at will. Science has sought to show how these motions, plus the hand’s different ways of gripping and the sense of touch, affect the ways we think.”

This reminds me of the BBC documentary called ‘The Incredible Human Hand’ in which the hand is dissected to work out and explain what makes it such an amazing part of the human body. We take it for granted, sure, but it is the practical tool that has propelled human civilisation. It is of“extraordinary sensitivity of the nerves in our fingertips and how they interact with our brain, allowing us to perceive and understand our environment”. Thought of in this way, Sennet’s argument above begins to make more sense. If we have lost the connection between our hands and our brains and subsequently the ability to feel and understand our environment and relationships, it would certainly explain a lot of the things that are wrong with the world we live in.

Sennet doesn’t believe that people have to be talented or classified a genius to become highly skilled. He writes: “…most people have it in them to become good craftsmen. They have the capacities to become better at, and more involved in, what they do – the abilities to localise, question and open up problems that can result, eventually, in good work. Even if society does not reward people who have made this effort as much as it should, in the end, they can achieve a sense of self-worth – which is reward enough.”

Seen with the above in mind, building a hollow wood surfboard is about discovering the craftsman that is in all of us, about re-engaging the mind with the physical world and rediscovering the natural rhythms of our hands in creating something functional and beautiful. I can’t help feeling there’s something ephemeral about the process, as there is in trying to describe the feeling that we get from surfing for that matter. We know it’s important, that it’s touching on something that is at the core of our beings, but somehow we can’t quite describe it. I do feel I have a way to go in understanding the nature of craftsmanship, but I’m glad and thankful for the small answers working with my hands has given me thus far. And in some sense there’s no need to rationalise the experience: riding a wave is in any case a craft-like activity and that makes all of us surfers crafts people in our own right. 

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