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Articles About Heartwood

A Student's Journey
by Jack Witherington

from Timber Framing, #61, September 2001

The ride through western Connecticut in springtime was very relaxing. Route 8 winds through lots of small towns on its way to the Massachusetts village of Becket, home of Will and Michele Beemer's Heartwood building school. A bit of snow remained, dotting the countryside as I hurried along. The sun was shining and my mind was energized, perhaps my foot a little as well. I was playing the usual game in my mind when I go to see someone for the first time. I thought about what I should say, how I should act—typical sales call preparation stuff—and what about a summer in New England learning timber framing? Where would this path take me in the long run? This is such a new direction, I considered, a bold step. Did I answer all the questions in the application? What would it be like to work as a carpenter? Could I afford to do this? Could I afford not to? With the blessing of my wife, three months pregnant at the time, I pressed on.

This ride was different. I was not going to see a customer or investigate an opportunity for contracted manufacturing services, or listen to a complaint. This time I was in pursuit of a dream. Working as a manufacturer's representative, I'd traveled these roads many an hour in search of business, making appointments, discussing capabilities, looking at drawings—all of these things were a part of my day, and I was sick of them. But how was I going to convince a guy I had never met that I wanted to be a woodworker? And not just any woodworker, but a timber framer?

We sat down at Will Beemer's kitchen table to discuss the possible summer ahead. Will was relaxed, attired in what I now know to be his customary Guildwear, a shirt memorializing a notable timber- framing event, and I was in a shirt and sport coat. (Will said I should leave my necktie at home.) For my part, I set the stage with quarts of homemade pickles and wax beans as a good faith offering.

Will leafed through my application. Had I said enough? Was it that he needed to choose me over someone else? Did I have the traits of a good woodworker? And what the heck are those?

"You put a lot of effort into this, thanks," Will began. Well, this is a good start, I thought. (I have since learned that my 20–plus page "application letter" was more than he usually receives.) Will explained the efforts of the Guild, in conjunction with Heartwood, to develop people to fill positions in a growing trade. This wasn't to be a summer seminar for college students with nothing to do.

"You are aware that you have no real experience to speak of in carpentry," Will said as we discussed the program. "But that's okay," he added. "We're looking for people who are interested in pursuing this as a full-time profession." My reply was enthusiastic. After all, the Fortune 500 companies I had been selling to had less and less use for a salesman like me—they could find their resources via the Internet, and with fax and phone investigate suppliers the world over. "Yep, I'm committed," I said. "And how does your wife feel about your moving to the Berkshires for the summer?" Will wondered. "She supports my efforts," I said. My wife and I had talked about this at length and reduced our questions to a simple issue: one of us had to earn money for our family, now what were we going to do? Timber framing was my answer, and I resolved that Heartwood would be my first step into the field.

"Let's go, Kona," Will said to his dog, and we all piled into his car for a ride over to the schoolhouse ("It's right around the corner"). We would take a walk around and look at where I might stay as one of the four resident students. The schoolhouse was small, with a shop and kitchen on the lower floor and a classroom on the upper. There was also a library. "You'd share meals together. Is that okay?" "Yes, sir, I'm not bad in the kitchen." Will then showed me one of the rooms where students stay. Modest, I thought, and quite enough. Hmmm, what a treat to be a single guy again out on an adventure. No responsibilities but basic needs and learning carpentry. We only realize how complex our lives have become when we look at simpler alternatives. This would be a fresh change of pace.

As the conversation continued, my mind stirred with excitement. This program represented the very situation I was looking for: to navigate a career change with as little pain as possible, achieving maximum learning with minimum academic fluff. Thirteen weeks hands-on, 2600 bucks, sharp tools and, bingo, I've got a great foundation and a start in a new direction. But then it hit me. This guy doesn't want me. I'm 34, a pain in the ass, with lots of ambition and grand ideas. He wants a 25-year-old with energy who keeps quiet and does what he's told. "Well, thanks for coming," Will said. "I'll be in touch with our decision before April 1st."

The ride home was much longer than the ride up. I'll bet that guy is a hell of a poker player, I thought. I could usually tell the story with people, whether or not I stood a chance. This time I was clueless. Perhaps the vision of carpentry was in my mind the whole time and I failed to exercise those killer sales instincts. Like a tape loop, the conversations, ideas and dreams played over and over in my head all the way home.

"Would you like to come to Heartwood for the summer?" Will asked over the phone one Sunday night a few impatient weeks later. "Absolutely!" I replied with great joy.

The first weekend of my summer in the Berkshires my wife and I spent together, still preparing for the changes. My pursuit of carpentry would now become formal. I met up with the other students— Tim, Carlos and Daniel—at the schoolhouse, now our home, for the beginning of new friendships. We exchanged stories of how each of us had arrived at this point in our lives, all of us anxious to get started on learning timber framing.

Class began with the rains of spring pouring down while we explored the concepts of building design. I had thought design was the process of thinking about what you want, then drawing it on paper. It's more than that, I learned. It's more than drawing this idea and envisioning that space, more than figuring out how all of the features of a house work together. It's about bringing more "life to life through space," as Michael Gerber says: making it sing! Until recently I was unaware how meaningful was the time we spent working with Andrea Warchaizer. She planted fundamental design seeds in our minds—how to envision what you would like built, then how it lives and interacts with the surroundings and the people who come inside. By the end of the week, scale models of our ideas had emerged, and brief comments from each of us had revealed the different ways we see ourselves in our shelters.

Grigg Mullen exposed the world of mathematics to me in a way I had not appreciated. To me, math is a language. To me, we don't have three pegs; we have pegs, and our collective evolved intelligence has decided that so many shall be called three. When I look at a wooden building, my intuition tells me this one is solid and sturdy, perhaps that one is not so sturdy. When we apply math to the material and the building, we gain the ability to predict behavior with measurement, a language, before we put things together. Grigg showed us how, by describing them in mathematical language, wood and buildings can communicate back to us.

But is this carpentry? I wondered. How advanced it all seemed. How complex things were. Then I began to realize, as Confucius observes, that one must know the whole play in order to act his part. This was a part of carpentry, a part we must be made aware of because the success of the timber framing is dependent upon it. Our teachers were excited by their work and seemed to be in search of ever more ways to envision buildings and ways to build. Further, it seemed that the answer to every question was, "It depends."

Then came the part we had all so eagerly awaited. Timber framing. So what exactly is timber framing? What makes it a cult? Isn't it just joining wood together to make a structure? What any sharp carpenter would do? But perhaps that would be like saying a Stradivarius is just a woodshop project. It's just wood—someone cut out the parts, then put them together (pretty well, of course). But perhaps the result is not just the violin. It could be the change inside oneself after walking the critical path that leads to the finished violin. Of course, I didn't know this at the time. I only suspected it. And I see it now only after a year of pursuit.

Veterans like Dave Carlon and Jack Sobon led us down the learning path, and with tools, skills and photos, they helped us build our first building, a sugarhouse, simple and straightforward outside, but with endless thought inside. Through the whole process of envisioning what it would look like in the end, to selecting the timber for each piece, they showed us not just the mechanics of how to put it together, but how each step is an opportunity to choose. Choose elements that will form the final outcome. Choose to learn how to do it better or differently or not. Inside me the changes were happening. The steps were as fascinating as the completed project, each step affording the opportunity to discuss at length the "best way" and the "fast way" and of course the "wrong way" to do something. By showing us a little and allowing us to explore layout and cutting, our teachers helped us begin our journey without our having to go back to the very beginning. We could "start where they have arrived and continue with them."

Before we knew it, we were onto the next project and the summer began to pass by faster than we wished. What took an eternity to arrive was now almost over. The days were still filled with excitement. Some things were new each day, some things more familiar—make the coffee, greet the new group of students in other courses who came each week. They too had come to learn carpentry, though in a smaller way, I think. I began to wonder where my journey would take me. The daily focus and excitement of learning, exploring the whys and hows in my mind, would be over. I would soon have to apply effort on someone else's behalf—you know, work. But not while giving up the learning, just slowing it, spreading it out. The journey so far was twofold. Did I gain the skills and fundamental knowledge necessary for gainful employment? I think so. And did the experiences I had touch my soul? Did they touch it in such a way as to create the everlasting desire for more? Yes, they did.

Jack Witherington ( now owns his own timber framing company, Methods&Materials, in Gilbertsville, Pa.

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