CHRISTINE: What did you learn from this project?
ERIC: Working with vets gave me part of my life back that was taken from me. The American Indians got it right. They knew, just like the VA, that it took two years to train a villager to become a warrior. But they also knew that it took 1-2 years to train a warrior to become a villager again. When the young warrior came back, he was not allowed into the village. He was met by an old warrior outside the community. For a year or two, they would make circles around the village, smaller and smaller until they brought him back home again.
That’s what the military can’t get their heads around today, and the work I’m essentially doing with them now, in projects like this.
Here Eric shares how his intelligence between Orientation and Tools connect. He’s a master wood turner and historic preservationist, not a handyman. He organizes and connects to a project in a way that emphasizes the details, bringing a heightened awareness, authenticity, and quality to his work. While he revised his interpretation in collaboration with historians and built custom tools to create unique molds and parts for the hearse, he never changed his fundamental stance toward woodworking.
Eric is guided by quality, aesthetic, meaning, and challenge. He arranges his work and his life to achieve these in a way that ensures consistency in his results. And he defines that consistency. Some work he does over and over (such as millwork), other projects (like the hearse) are opportunities of a lifetime. Small or large, Eric uses his Experience to create and judge the work he does.
Eric’s aesthetic, his choice in tools, and his drive to engage in challenging projects just beyond his level of skill influence how he goes about his work. He didn’t invent the windows, doors, cabinetry, decorative items, or wrought ironwork he produces, he interprets them. Reconstructing Lincoln’s hearse using the measurement from a wagon wheel highlights perfectly one of the paradoxes of craftsmanship: how expertise and ingenuity relate (see figure 3.1). This relationship is shown through various contradictions of his story. He is true to his values and the skills he knows. He won’t compromise on quality work. In parallel, he employs ingenuity to produce signature qualities he wants in all of his work. For example, he’s developed a craftsman’s apothecary where he boils the essence from redwood, black walnut, amaryllis, and iron oxide to make his own varnishes, stains, and paints.
Where a musician has scales and a painter has a palette, Eric has wood. He uses mostly redwood, but also oak and birch. Based on his training, Eric cuts these into basic sizes and gets to work. He uses his theory of the particulars of wood—how it bends, manages heat, negotiates water, or absorbs stress—to imagine the possibilities for a project. Then, to produce each piece he has to predict how it will look. He uses those predictions and techniques to make the piece he wants, then recognizing the look, textures, smell of the wood or stain he wants when he achieves the finished product. This is Experience in action.
We might take it for granted that Eric has this applied ability. After all, he’s had well over than 10,000 hours working with it. Every woodworker has to be well-acquainted with the qualities and temperament of wood; without that knowledge, he would have to rely on books to tell him what to look for. However, the number of woodworkers that achieve Eric’s level of integration between creativity and skill are few. He does what he does well. He’s gotten very good at it and as a result, people have beaten a path to his door. Those people include U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who was so impressed by what he observed that he included Hollenbeck as a featured participant in the 1993 timber summit in Portland, and President Clinton, who honored him in his 1994 Earth Day speech.
Even as Eric is creating a simple window, he is doing so to his own sense of aesthetic. His applied experience has enabled him to create his own standards. Arriving at this level in his craftsmanship, he has fully integrated expertise and ingenuity in his work.
Figure 3.1 shows this relationship. The forces that drive expertise are conventional. Expertise relies on predictability, standards, refinement, and controlled action. In contrast, ingenuity is driven by risking some of what you know in order to learn something new. Craftsmanship is propelled by the back-and-forth of these two competing forces.
Working within the paradox and tension of change, Eric relies on traditional tools and skills from the past, established by others. And, he follows his own aesthetic and standards for quality. He reads a lot of books. And, he operates instinctively solving problems by improvising his own tools. He follows classic technique, while also spontaneously responding to his materials and project constraints. He uses varnish as they have always been used. And, he creates his own version of them, to his specifications. The knowledge of others has been incorporated in his foundation and he has built on top of that. If you really want to understand woodworking, Eric suggests, you have to “get in the shop” but he also embodies a more philosophical approach.
ERIC: … the answer to everything is floating around us all the time. Kind of like droplets of water in a mist. For those who are open enough thinkers, without boundaries, without walls, we can reach out of and grab those little pieces of answers—those drops of mist—and act on them. And I truly believe that. If you can get yourself focused enough and eased up enough to be receptive, you can reach out and grab the answer to the problem at hand.
The constant interplay between expertise and ingenuity, or in Eric’s case traditional approaches and creative workarounds, contributes to the quality in his work and what we recognize as craftsmanship in the work of others. It is not a skill easily obtained. For Eric, it has taken a lifetime of effort, belief, failure, improvisation, creativity, and perseverance.
 A gyppo logger (sometimes spelled “gypo logger”) is a lumberjack who runs or works for a small scale logging operation that is independent from an established sawmill or lumber company. They avoid borrowing money, make do with the resources available, avoid hiring help he does not need and remains willing to adapt to whatever circumstances dictate.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.