An Ornithologist who Builds Boats

I used to know a bloke who's father was a Professor of Entomology at a reputable University in the States. Being the son of this prof, Mark felt he needed to pursue a similar path of academic achievement and head into a likewise career path. So he finished his undergraduate work and went on to do graduate studies in Ornithology.

While doing his graduate work, someone asked Mark 'why' he was pursuing advanced study in Ornithology and Mark realized he couldn't answer the question. So, he spent time thinking through it and after arriving at an answer, went back communicate his realization. The answer? "I don't know." So the questioner proceeded to talk with Mark and ask him what he really wanted to do were he to do anything he wanted. Mark knew the answer immediately...he wanted to learn how to craft wooden boats by hand by learning from a Master.

What Mark needed to do thereafter became immediately self-evident and quite the surprise to his professors, wife and father. Mark quit grad school and moved he and his wife to another part of the country that had a large co-location of Master Craftsmen in the wooden boatmaking business where Mark started out as an Apprentice and through the years, became a Master wooden sailboat craftsman.

Years later, I had the privilege of hiring Mark to do some custom woodwork for me using sixty-year old redwood. Given this redwood was a custom crafted solution for an old house, I wanted someone who knew how to craft the wood into an updated design with clean lines while honoring the original design intent and natural beauty of the wood. The final work could not have been more lovingly, correctly and completely crafted than what Mark did for that old house and the custom redwood designs. Doors perfectly aligned, hardware beautifully matched the age, design and architectural context, and the natural grain and character of the redwood itself was amplified by the shaping, sanding, planing and re-fitting of each individual piece into the larger picture. It was art.

Through the months while Mark was doing the work right in front of me, I asked him a myriad of questions including what motivated him to spend so much time crafting solutions with such care, time and energy. I offered that he didn't charge very much, but that he put in more attention than anyone I'd ever known (including the guy I fired previously because he told me a sixty-year old house only merited equivalent effort). Across all of these conversations, he told me the following (in aggregate summary)...

"There are things you as the owner can see and cannot see and you will likely pay me no matter what. However, I know every piece of wood, every corner, joint, mortise, tenon, and grain direction. I know what the wood was, how it needs to be re-formed and what it should become. I could very easily do just enough to pass your visual inspection, bill you and move on; but I learned a long time ago that what you cannot see is just as important as what you can.

I know what it takes to merely build a boat good enough to float for awhile and I know what it takes to build a boat that lasts a lifetime that can be handed down to the next generation. No one makes me choose one path or the other. I love working with wood, I love shaping it, and I love crafting something useful for others that lasts. The boatmakers I learned from didn't teach me to make boats; they taught me to shape wood. I do this because I love the journey."

Mark eventually finished the work. His work alone increased the value of the house by US$15k; though no amount of money can communicate the art, time, blood and sweat taken to shape what was once a redwood tree into something of beauty -- honoring the forest from which it came, the tree itself, and the use of its wood within that old house. Mark was, and still is, a craftsman who started as an apprentice, learned to listen, learned to be patient, and learned to shape wood into a useful solution that others would value.

The art is not lost; it simply needs to be chosen.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written. I wish more people looked at software this way. It isn't just about getting the job done. It's about getting it done well and having pride in your work.

    Peter Edstrom