Appearance vs. Reality



The Infinite Marketability
of the human estate
insists that we all have a price.

We all have value.

Some of us are not for sale.

ARTIZENS BANK…small change matters

(a letter to a friend who works in city planning; following on an exchange about the practicality of building small affordable houses in an upscale neighborhood, an effort which the city supports in theory but apparently sabotages in practice)

Appearance vs. Reality

Last year I became interested in the Rural Studio, after taking in Andrew Freear’s presentation at the UofA. In particular, the $20k House appealed to me. As I looked further, it turned out that the initial idea was “what if we could build a house for $20,000?” allowing $10k for materials and $10k for labor. As it turned out that materials were going to cost out at $12k, they simply adjusted the labor factor down to $8,000. Wow! Brilliant, eh?
Add to that, the initial designs were in the 500-600 sq. ft. range, materials were donated, and labor was provided by the student/architect/designers. So far as I can determine, the $20k House has never been actually built in real-world conditions; i.e. materials purchased at market cost, contracted labor paid fairly, insurance overhead profit etc.
Over time, the $20k House has grown to nearer 1000 sq. ft. as the reality of housing a family was encountered. Still, Auburn insists on calling it a $20k House, and will be offering plans for sale. Appearance does not reconcile with Reality…

Cottage Housing appears to be a wonderful idea. Is it as unrealistic as the $20k House?(that’s all from their website, btw)

Last weekend, I met Jim Crow. Jim has taught classes for the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, and shared some of his experiences and perspective on the school with me. Unaccredited, mismanaged by social position taking precedence over competence, more impressed by academic credentials than practical abilities, the school is steadily sabotaging its mission and students.
There is no real standard for comparison.
I’m sitting here watching images from my carport raising, knowing (as you know as well) that there are very few people capable of executing a piece of work of that scale and complexity. You have barely skimmed the surface, and have no realistic idea how to apply what you do know. I have studied drawn modeled built numerous structures larger and more complicated than that carport. How then shall I subject my authentic imagination and skills acquired over a lifetime to a bureaucracy with merely borrowed ideas about building? The truth is that I can’t.

What I am going to do is provide an avenue for a few people to learn some of those skills; however much the City of Fayetteville chooses to acknowledge or support this effort; whether you choose to participate or obstruct; I have no real expectation of success; our society has neglected to train and reward artisans for far too long; that damage is beyond my ability to repair.
Michael Langford

“everything that has form is tool, everything that is without form is Tao” ⛩

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Do not let us talk then of restoration.  The thing is a Lie from beginning to end.  You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton, with what advantage I neither see nor care:  but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay…

But there may come a need for restoration.  Granted.  Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms.  It is a necessity for destruction.  Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place.  and look that necessity in the face before it comes and you may prevent it…Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them.  watch an old building with anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation.

…it is no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not.  We have no right whatsoever to touch them.  They are not ours.  They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.  What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left behind vested in us only.

Therefore, when we build let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time will come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, “See!  This our fathers did for us.” John Ruskin

See, Ruskin isn’t so difficult.  It took me only about thirty years to find those little gems  (and a bit of respectful editing).



A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility…  Wendell Berry is a bit easier to read, but no less demanding of our conscience.  I have been reading Wendell Berry for these thirty years as well, and no one has been more consistently inspiring.  Reading The Unsettling of America was a prime motivator in my dropping out of college, not a bad move looking back.  Not that I didn’t want to go to college, the problem was that I couldn’t learn what I needed to learn in college.  So, I enrolled in the School of Hard Knocks.

Geometry, for instance, is only practicable in reality.  Measuring the earth, laying out buildings, pulling diagonals on timber bents…count measure weigh…plumb level square.  Ironically, geometry can also be purely theoretical; inasmuch as we never actually achieve perfect geometry, but only within whatever tolerance we establish for ourselves.

When we escape from geometric absolutes, and begin working with wood in the round, other more organic forms emerge.  The shape, form, and geometry of a building carries a unique signal that either suppresses its energy or enhances it, making the structure either forbidding or inviting.  These force fields of electromagnetic energy invoke an unconscious response; certain shapes signal us to approach, while others suppress their signals so that we do not enter their realm.  Sanctuary is a primary human requirement.  Circles protect within their circumference; while crosses, squares, four-multiples, and spiral shapes extend and suppress over wide distances, creating the most favorable conditions for protection.  (Herbert Weaver, Divining the Primary Sense, 1978).

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In the evening hours of Wednesday, February 3, 2016, Alice Thurleen Kennedy, 64, lost her final battle with ovarian cancer. Angels await one of their own beautiful immortal souls coming into the light. Luminous transcendent joyous affirmation of life she is gone to be with us forever.

Born October 9, 1951, in the sign of Libra, fourth child of Paul McGee Kennedy and Lola Herring Kennedy, Alice was a talented artist and an exceptional teacher. She graduated with honors from Fayetteville High School, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas, with minor in Education.
She is survived by brothers Lewis Kennedy and Paul McGee Kennedy, Jr.; sister Ann Warren; husband James Michael Langford.

Alice lived by the Golden Rule; a generous and loyal friend, a formidable adversary. Well-read, widely-traveled, she had a gift for finding humor and humanity in every situation; battling terminal cancer with a sense of her own beauty grace and dignity in the face of insurmountable odds and the vastness of medical ignorance; fighting disease with yoga laughter and organic vegetables, surrounded by friends and family.

Services will be held at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near Guy in Faulkner County, Saturday, February 6, 1:00 pm; and at Bell Gable Chapel, near Fayetteville, February 13, 1:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, please donate to a charitable organization with an holistic or humanitarian objective.
Plant flowers. Teach your children well…teach them the constellations planets phases of the moon; so that they will know when to plant when to harvest why we celebrate life and death as a cycle. We are all part of that great kaleidoscopic astral wheel. Let’s roll.

Knowing that you would return
Filled with the wildness of nature
And folding your dreams about you turn
Rising to the light
I moved quietly through the morning
Fog and deep shadows
Trying without words to tell you
I am not a hunter
I am a seeker like yourself
Knowing also our strongest bond is
The distance between us
Welcome home.



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The fourth box, with mahogany liners glued in place to provide a gluing surface for the bottom panel.  This box, and the others, represents an essay in energy conservation.  All the wood used has been laboriously salvaged from furniture pallets (to, hopefully, make better designed, more durable furniture).  The boxes are intended to receive Matt Ross’s collection of Japanese woodworking tools.  And so, energy…and intent.

Embodied energy…I first encountered the concept in the 80’s, after the first major embargo on Middle-Eastern oil by OPEC.  The context at that time was historic preservation, a backlash to the excesses of “urban renewal”.  It takes a certain amount of BTU energy to make a brick, or a board, or a piece of re-bar…and that energy is forever embedded in that piece of material.

Sort of…back in high school, we were taught the law of conservation of matter and energy:  matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changed in form.  So, now we know that the energy that fired those bricks was not really recoverable (it mostly became CO2) and that the brick is just a brick after all.  There was something fine, in a Ruskin and Morris sense, about the embodied energy argument, though.  The human element.

Now, we have LEED, a rather clever marketing scheme used by architects to convince clients that they are oh-so-savvy about energy and environment; glibly ignoring the real costs of cement processed in China without a thought to worker or environment; using concrete, welded steel and plate glass as though those materials could somehow be rendered “organic”.  The calculus of energy efficiency begins later, after the final punch list, metering the utility bills.

The energy that I’m concerned with is the concentrated intent of the blade smiths who forged those Japanese tools; to subdue and employ that energy in a most ambitious undertaking.  I have been searching for a place in which to teach and practice woodworking.  This is a beginning.  There’s an acre of ground, an ideal building site in the back yard, and the property backs on a public park.  The house, with a bit of sweat equity, will be a workshop (isn’t every house a workshop, somewhere along the way).


2650 North Old Wire Road, Fayetteville, Arkansas, US 72701.

Everything to the left of the entry door is a black hole.  Literally.  The rest of the house sustained smoke and water damage. I intend to use that source of positive energy embodied in the tools, in the boxes, to balance the negative energy in the charred and smoky mess waiting to be cleared away.   Moving excited electrons along a copper wire, or believing that money exists as a flash of light along a glass fiber, that’s all commonplace and pedestrian today.  Time to move along…there are other forms of energy.

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A Small Tool


The tools that I use at my workbench are mostly things that I have made to suit my own purposes, such as this scraper.  The stock is a piece of Mexican rosewood culled by a xylophone maker years ago, the blade was cut from an old handsaw.  I have a personal affinity for slotted oval-head screws…So, five easy pieces…and I only paid money for the screws.


The inspiration for this was a chair maker’s devil that I bought at an antique tool show, a lovely piece of lignum vitae with a brass wear plate, shaped to scrap a chair rung round after the spokeshave had done its work.  This one has a flat (or nearly flat…there may be a bit of brass or boxwood there in the future) sole, with a slight crown in the blade.  My sharpening methods vary with the tool and my mood and whatever comes to hand, this one usually gets a quick touch with a file and a burnishing over a hard Arkansas stone.  All it needs is a fine burr.


I despise using sandpaper, and will go to great lengths to avoid it.  When I have managed to more-or-less flatten a surface with hand planes, but there are still a few nagging rough spots around the knots, this little fellow puts the final polish on.

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(This post is part of a conversation with Henrik Lutzen; about why we pursue craft skills.  If you happen to read this, please comment.)


I believe there’s way too much focus on tools and technique, with less attention to design, ethics, and finding a common ground. For starters, I believe one of the easiest ways to establish that we share the same basic information is by sharing the books that we have found useful. (We could begin by writing brief reviews of what we consider to be essential or important books, for instance) By now, most artisans working in ‘shall we call it’ residential scale building trades should be familiar with A Pattern Language. Furniture-makers will likely have read James Krenov’s books; those interested in Japanese woodworking will have read Toshio Odate.

My reading list goes back to when I dropped out of college in the mid-80’s, and includes The Wheelwright’s Shop, John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic, David Pye, and the English Arts & Crafts Movement.
Next came timber framing: English Historic Carpentry by Cecil Hewett, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay by Abbot Lowell Cummings, Silent Spaces by Malcolm Kirk. Boatbuilding by Howard Chapelle, also Skin Boats and Bark Canoes, and Lance Lee’s incomparable Barns, Beams and Boats.
Obviously, this is a short list, but the point I’m trying to make is that shared literacy is meta-cognitive. We may have widely different impressions of the same book, but should still be able to acknowledge a coherent work that stands alone, in much the same way as a painting or building or piece of furniture. Artisans tend to be eclectic and self-educated, at least more than most. (“…consider the man of average intelligence…” Twain)

I won’t pretend to know precisely what compels someone to hand-cut through-tenons, or through dovetails, but I believe it’s at least in part because we want to see and experience a sort of honesty in our made environment, in a way that sheetrock or 3-D printers may not be able to satisfy. So, what (and who) has influenced and shaped your sense of design, ethics, philosophy, etc.? Books, tools, boats, buildings, furniture… I believe that each of us will ultimately realize a curriculum vitae and a bibliography, in making the effort to reach out and to explain ourselves over these great distances. That, I think, is why I started the blog and continue to pursue it.

People who can actually perform high-value-added work are rather rare (perhaps always have been) and seriously undervalued in today’s world. I would like to see how this tracks from my generation to yours, for example, and how (in terms of influences, education, etc.) that has come about (by direct master-apprentice relationship, or alternatively through reading, videos, workshops…).

The first book I had was an old 1920’s copy of Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide, and later Feirer and Hutchings Cabinetmaking and Millwork. Both were instructive only in the mechanical aspects of work, never leading toward any sort of design skills. Not until Fine Woodworking came out in the late 70’s; and then Krenov’s books, which were just unbelievable. The best you could get before that were Bonanza and Sunset books, or Popular Mechanics. The better quality publications that had been available during the Arts & Crafts movement were long out of circulation by then.

Cultural Literacy (that’s what I’m calling it, for now): a sort of intellectual shorthand. There isn’t a lot of room to argue with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for instance, and it pretty much transcends language barriers. Thoreau (in Walden) illustrates his point with a story of two boys: one boy (with his father’s help) makes his own knife, while the other boy’s father buys him a knife. “Which would be more likely to cut his finger?” he asks. How much more profound; if we are able to understand the social and architectural implications of the Parthenon, or Ise, or Great Coxwell (all superb examples of their kind) summed up in a phrase?

Craft has that sort of power; if we insist that our language be as unrelentingly precise as our joinery.

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