Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ethical woodworking?

How can a hobby such as woodworking be ethical?

Well, for me it is not really considered a hobby. Its actually something close to spiritual, but that is a topic for another post. Any pursuit will have costs and impacts associated with it; consider the impact of riding off-road motorcycles or the acreage and feed requirements of keeping horses. Even using computers involves lots of toxic materials, shipping parts across the globe and back, and so on.

Once the initial impact of creating metal tools is considered, there is very little other waste. There is no electricity created and burned, no fuel burned, no batteries filling a landfill. True, wetstones and frame saw blades might be purchased from time to time, but compared to other activities, woodworking has very little waste.

What waste there is, in the form of sawdust and shavings, is rather valuable in its own right. Both my home and my shop are heated using wood stoves. Cardboard is viewed as a precious resource in winter here, and wood shavings are the best of all for getting a fire going. Sawdust is valuable both as a mulch for plants and to create firestarters with wax.

Living inside a National Forest, I am all too aware of the problems with logging. It might seem paradoxical to be ecology minded while also utilizing wood products - however, I have also seen that truly sustainable harvesting of forests is not only possible, but is essential for forest health. Overcrowded forests are not healthy; just as a forest benefits from predators controlling an exploding deer population, so selective harvesting of trees helps ensure forest health. Its possible to fell, split, and process small trees directly for woodworking, and this is my aim whenever possible. When its not, local species are preferred. Here in the Pacific NW, we have rampant growth of alder - a beautiful hardwood widely considered a "weed" tree. We also have copious quantities of cedar, douglas fir, and hemlock... all excellent materials for various projects.

The very act of woodworking with hand tools brings about an ethical mindset. Conservation of material (its expensive!) is important. Care of tools is also important. You do not want to replace a $300 plane after carelessly dropping it or letting it rust. At the same time, if creating projects for others, great care is necessary to ensure the end product will last for generations.

Its taken me many years to realize that people understood many of life's issues hundreds or thousands of years ago, and it is to me an exciting honor to connect with other woodworkers through the ages by tracing their footsteps, feeling the same sensations in my hands as they did, viewing trees as they did, and hopefully, on occasion, thinking the same thoughts they did.

A final thought regarding the durability of this work: I would like to create woodcraft using tools similar to those my grandfather used.  At the same time, I would like for my grandchildren to end up using my tools.  This is simply not possible with most pursuits, especially computers and other high-tech fields such as the one my daughter's father is employed in.  The longevity of the tools, techniques, and artifacts of woodworking are the very essence of sustainability in every sense of the word.

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