How long did it take you to make that?

One of the questions I always get is “how long did it take you to make that?”.  I usually give some evasive answer and change the subject.  “Oh, it’s hard to say, but those are really nice shoes….”. I hate this question.  The person asking is genuinely interested. ...but they’re looking for me to say five hours or ten or thirty.  Some tidy number they can give an appreciative whistle to.  But the truth is, I have no idea.  I could tell you how long it took to sand this part or cut that.  I could even add that all up to get a number.  In fact I used to do just that, but there’s more to it.  To illustrate the problem, let me walk you through the back story on just one piece.  This is just the most recent piece I added to my website.  Nearly every piece I make has a similarly complicated history.  Actually, as far as my stuff goes, this one is pretty uncomplicated.  

15 years ago, sudden oak death killed 20 mature oak trees in the thin veneer of woods next to our house.  8 years ago the owner had them cut down and left them where they fell.  7 years ago I cut one of them into 3” thick planks.  The first and last pieces off the log...the ones that are flat on one side and rounded on the other, I used to make a little fort in the woods for my kids. 2 years ago, after years of being ignored, I took it down and cut one of those pieces up.  Eventually a little of that became the oak slats in the background.  

10 years ago, when we bought this house I tore out one of the kitchen base cabinets to put in a dishwasher.  The face frame and drawer faces were made from nice sugar maple which I saved.  Eventually a small piece became the sugar maple slats in the background.  

8 years ago on a trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula, me and my family spent an afternoon gathering rounded rocks from a secluded Lake Superior shoreline.  Eventually one of those would become the cut stone in the foreground of this piece.  

3 years ago I was selling 7”x7” scrabble tiles to spell things on your wall with.  Family names and that sort of thing.  I probably made 3,000 of them.  I used 1x8’s.  That meant every board had to have a ¼” trimmed off the width.  Those scraps have been tremendously useful.  Eventually one of them became the pine slat in the background.

3 years ago my in-laws tart cherry tree, that had been dying for a decade, finally died all the way.  I went over and cut it down and hauled a trailer load of it home to dry.  Eventually, a small piece became the cherry slat on the background of this piece.

2 years ago a friend that has a tree service dumped an 8’ long, 24” diameter log in my driveway.  I spent 9 hours cutting it into 2” and 3” thick planks, then stuffed them into the shop, where they spent the next 18 months drying.  Eventually, a small piece of that log would become the frame and one of the slats in the background.

2 years ago a friend had an oak die of sudden oak death.  He let me come over and load up my trailer.  I cut the firewood pieces into rounds, but a bunch of them warped like pringles potato chips.  In a moment of serendipity, I whacked one and it split into pieces.  One of the wedge shaped pieces looked like a pine tree.  Eventually 3 of those pieces would become the pine trees in the background.  

1.5 years ago a friend had several trees cut down by a power line crew.  I brought home several logs.  One was a white spruce log.  Eventually a small piece of that log would become the hill in the background.

1.5 years ago my wife got ahold of the hedge trimmers and in what was a very satisfying moment, effectively cut down a hated spirea bush that had never been pretty.  The kids and I dragged the bushy ends off into the woods where all of the neighbors put their yard waste.  In that same area neighbors had left sugar maple branches, pieces of a yew they had cut down and the white mulberry saplings that are forever trying to grow in their fence.  Last winter I spent a day cutting all of those up.  Eventually a handful of those pieces ended up being used to make the pine tree

2 months ago I was running errands, and again drove by the only Chestnut tree I know of in the county.  It’s a Chinese Chestnut, not the American species that is all but extinct.  Just the same it’s a rarity and I’ve always been curious about them.  On a whim I pulled in and rang their doorbell.  After an awkward conversation, the old woman that owns the house agreed that it would be ok for me to collect some of the nuts wrapped in their porcupine like hulls.  While collecting I remembered that a year before the tree had lost a large branch.  After a few months they had dragged it to the edge of the property line.  I went and collected a few branches and stuffed them into my van.  Eventually a few of those would become part of the pine tree.

So how long did that take?  I guess you could figure it out.  Measure and time everything, then divide it out.  You would probably even get good at it.  But I’d rather spend the time making something.  And in the end, it doesn’t matter.  I will always, ALWAYS underestimate how long it takes.  I forget the time it took to move it half a dozen times while different stages were drying; the time to set up each tool; to change bits; to clean the work area, to stir the finish; the 4 times I didn’t like the lay out and swept it all off with a swipe of my arm.  And knowing how long doesn’t change anything.  No matter how long it took, I’m always trying to do it faster.  No matter how long it took, the market will only bear so much on the price tag.  No matter how long it took, it’s the quality and aesthetics that make it valuable.  

And perhaps most importantly, for me, doing art while fixated on how long it’s all taking, is about like reading with someone reading over your shoulder.  You can kind of do it...but not really.