There’s a ritual that all experienced woodworkers practice at the end of each day, just before turning out the shop lights. A real craftsman wouldn’t forget to do this any more than you’d forget to grab your phone every time you left the house. It’s one of those naggy, unconscious things:
Sticker up the parts.
It’s probably not what you’re thinking. It’s got nothing to do with stickers in the Billy-was-brave-for-the-doctor sense. A sticker in a wood shop is just a stick. Someone in history must have added the “-er” to make it seem more verbish and active. We’ll take excitement wherever we can get it.
But stickers are just wooden sticks. Usually thin scraps from a project long forgotten, saved in a cardboard box underneath the table saw. We pull them out every day at 4:55, walk around and pick up each part we’ve been making and place two stickers underneath it. If it’s a stack of parts, maybe drawer sides, we’ll put stickers between each one all the way up. Like the picture at the top of my blog. Stickered up.
As with all holy rites, we do this to gain a sense of constancy against an unpredictable future. For though we walk through the valley of drastic overnight changes in humidity, we shall fear no warp-age. For thy parts art stickered.
Because if you leave a flat piece of wood sitting on a surface overnight, the chances are very good that when you return the next morning it will be warped. As the humidity in the air changes, and it usually does, the top (exposed) surface will either swell or shrink as the wood gains or loses (so sorry to have to use this word) moisture. The bottom (unexposed) surface doesn’t change that much, because it’s trapped against your workbench and not touching the air. And when one side of a board shrinks or swells like a sponge and the other side doesn’t, you’ve entered potato chip land.
The stickers are put there, then, to elevate each piece so that air can move all around it. When the wood moves it moves evenly on all sides, and it stays flat.
Confession time. My shop is about a four minute walk from my tiny house, all uphill. Sometimes I’m three and a half minutes back down the slope after a long day when I realize I’ve forgotten to sticker up. Usually I turn around. Sometimes…I don’t.
I lie to myself that the humidity probably won’t change that much tonight. It’ll probably be okay. Dinner is ready, and I’m hungry, and Alyssa is a very good cook.
Which makes it her fault that about a month ago I completely ruined an already-dovetailed drawer side by leaving it un-stickered overnight. By the morning, of course, the part had become utterly Pringle-esque.
The do-over took a fiscally-painful 1 1/2 hours and left me wondering why, after 23 years as a craftsman, I still haven’t learned the lessons I’ve already learned. After all, my most important tool for preventing part warp-age isn’t really a little stick. It’s my own willingness to submit, every day, to the truth that the atmosphere is always changing.
But sometimes I don’t want it to change. Sometimes, dammit, just sometimes I want to forget and walk away and eat my dinner and not worry about it.
And while I’m at it, sometimes I don’t want to know that the kids are about to grow up and move away. Or that I’m getting older and my body parts will soon start failing and falling. Or that the house we just built will need repainting. The garden we just planted, replanting. That the people closest to me will change, or get sick, or maybe even die. Or that I will.
Sometimes I just want things to stop changing.
As I type I can see the new garden. All colors and shapes of flower. Vegetables green and thriving, pulsing and wet with springtime. I’ve paused to visit it four times since I first sat down to write, just to be there. It’s all so green and so young and so alive.
And yet come winter it won’t be. It will be brown, and it will be old, and much of it will be dead. I know this. I know change is coming.
And I think it’s this knowing that makes it okay. I won’t count it a tragedy when fall comes, an unjust absurdity when the tomatoes and peppers and basil all wilt away. I’ll know this is part of having a garden.
It’s my willingness to submit, every day, to knowing that change is always coming that keeps me from warping into something unrecognizable and useless. It’s this knowing that keeps me stickered-up and lets change flow freely all around me whenever it decides to appear. It’s this knowing that keeps me straight.
We’ve all known people who lie flat as a maple board on a workbench, praying that changes won’t come. Sometimes I’m that guy, and the results are usually ugly.
But we also know a few who long ago submitted to the inevitability of change, who have let go, who have learned to float among their changes like hawks riding thermal updrafts, occasionally feeling loss and sadness for a time, but never resisting or denying. Never losing their shape. I want to be one of them.
Change is coming.