#389: Working with Your Hands

Dashing this letter off ahead of book and class deadlines next week, mainly to share with you this sentence I read in a woodworking book:

When working with machines, you take the wood to the machine. Conversely with hand tools, you bring the tool to the wood.

Or to generalize it: You bring tools to the material; you bring material to the machine.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been building physical scale models for the house design project in my studio class. I’m already spending 2–3 hours on Zoom each weekday, and getting to work with my hands in the afternoons is a welcome reprieve. Sometimes I’ll do it at my usual desk, and put on a podcast or audiobook. Other times, like last night, I’ll work at the downstairs dining table while Julia’s watching TV.

If I were building models in software, I wouldn’t consider it “working with my hands”—even though my hands are technically involved. And I think this has more to do than only with the physicality of the RL models, their tactility, the greater motor-sensory awareness. It has also to do with the fact that I’m using tools–pencil, ruler, utility knife, glue gun–instead of machines.

Materiality gets slipperier we start talking about computers. When I’m making a model of a house in a CAD program, what is the material I’m using? Is it the bits and bytes of the Infinite Home Depot that exists within the CAD program? Is it also the ideas and concepts I’m bringing to the program when I launch it? Am I not bringing those same ideas and concepts to my physical models?

There’s a lot to puzzle over, and I’m very much still puzzled and puzzling. But maybe a way to think about a tool or machine is this: the thing that mediates between an idea and a material. And while some of these media may be more inert than others – maybe demand less out of us – they still, like all media, are never neutral.

See also: Tools and Platforms