Using your hands to make something beautiful

This weekend’s project at Meadowcreek is emerging and it looks just beautiful.  We’re fashioning a new entrance to the Resilience House from local stone.  One master stone mason and a bunch of apprentices.  We are enjoying it thoroughly.

1239216865One of the best parts is mastering new tools.  The artist in some of us came out when we mastered tuckpointing.  Tuckpointing is finishing off newly laid masonry.  You scrape out the uneven mortar between the rocks with a tuck pointing tool.  There are maybe a dozen different tuckpointing tools.  To the neophyte they all look like files with a trough down the center.  When you use them, you realize how each is designed to assist with specific problems in making masonry beautiful. Tuckpointing is especially attractive to those artistic apprentices who are not really strong enough to manhandle the big stones.

As with all life, timing is everything in tuckpointing.  The mortar needs to be dry enough that your can scrape off the excess mortar but wet enough that it hasn’t become solidified with all the mortar it touches.

Mortar is something you will become intimately familiar with in stone masonry. Mortar is the paste used to bind the stone  together.  Mortar is made from cement, water and sand. Cement is pulverized limestone that has been heated to high heat to remove carbon dioxide. Concrete is a mixture of cement, water, sand and gravel.

To make mortar you first mix sand and cement in the right proportions: nine heaping shovel fulls of sand and one half bag of cement.  This will fill a wheel barrow as full as you want it.  Then douse with water and thoroughly mix the cement/sand with water until you get the right consistency.  The only way to learn this is by working with a master mason who has learned it from other master masons.

That’s the beauty of skills like stone masonry.  You can’t learn them from a book, only from actually doing the  tasks.  One of the hardest parts for some people is adopting the right attitude.  You have to listen to and watch the person who knows how to do the task and then allow him to correct you and improve your technique.

Everyone working on the project this weekend has that humble, eager to learn attitude, but now and then we encounter someone who doesn’t know how to use a particular tool to do a particular task, but can’t adopt the right attitude.

Nothing worse than a know-it-all, unless its a know-it-all who tries to tell his teacher how to do a task.  We once had a brilliant woman with almost perfect grades from a top university come to Meadowcreek.  She went out with a surveyor to help survey some land to plan swales to direct water flow on a hillside and to learn how to use survey tools.  She insisted on telling the surveyor how to use the tools when she knew nothing about the task. She ticked him off, the job didn’t get done, and she never learned how to survey.

No matter how smart you are, you’ll never learn certain skills unless you take the right attitude.  When the skill requires tacit knowledge which can’t be completely captured in words, you have to be open, admit you don’t know how to do the task and listen carefully and respectfully to your teacher.

So many people have been taught to question all authority.  Abuses of authority in the past make this a sensible reaction many times.  But that attitude must be put aside if you want to learn stone masonry or similar skills.

If you can take the right attitude and you have a skillful teacher, you will experience the joy of using your hands to make things.  It may seem pretty stupid or pointless to make things for the sake of making things.  But that’s what humans are: tool users.  It’s part of our nature to enjoy using tools and making things.

We love to make things at Meadowcreek, especially things which will last made from local materials.  Just a bit of what resilience is all about.