Yesterday I sat down with Raney Nelson at his shop, something I’d been itching to do ever since I read his pre-publication editorial comments on my December 2015 cover article for Popular Woodworking Magazine. It was clear from the start that I was dealing with a most unusual editor: not just a sharp reader who understands the ins and outs of conveying technical direction via the written word, but a refreshingly down to earth iconoclast with zero tolerance for bullshit, finely tuned sensibilities vis-a-vis sexism, and a delightfully dark sense of humor.*
Take his comment about my use of the radial arm saw, a mainstay in every English shop I worked in, and a tool I rely on every day:
Pg. 5, Graf 1, first line: Totally valid, of course, but whenever I see reference to ‘radial arm saw’, I expect the public safety police readers to send angry vitriol about how they’ll [radial arm saws] kill your children in their sleep and cause cancer, etc… Since the photo is a RAS, I might suggest simply changing to ‘if you do this on a power saw, note that you’ll need two stop settings…”
I’m still clueless about why the radial arm saw has such a bad rap.
Or this one about my occasional reliance on ad hoc implements in the interest of getting the job done:
Pg.5 Graf 3, lines 4-8: PERSONAL NOTE – I love the cat food can custom toolmaking, and wholeheartedly support linking to it in the extras section. I also would support adding to the end the parenthetical: “…(You can, of course, use a spindle sander if you’re a wuss.”)
This, from a maker of exquisitely crafted hand planes.
Elaborating on the previous two points, he continued:
If I had any more general comment, it would be that if anything, I actually think the piece could’ve pushed more into the non-canonical joinery and techniques where they come up. I’d have considered making them a focus in the article: “Beautiful Lebus inspired bookcase: pro shop tips simplify and speed construction without compromises” or something. Sorry – headlines and subheads are always my weak point, but you get what I mean.
The icing on the cake was his insight into common gender dynamics, complete with a self-critical remark on mansplaining:
I [understand your] concern that people will combine ‘non-traditional’ and ‘woman woodworker’ to get holier-than-thou**, but I think the explanations here were more than strong enough to override that in all but the most obnoxious trucker-hat-wearing misogynist.***
…And having just reached fever-pitch irony as the man giving you advice on dealing with sexism, I’m signing off there.
Maybe what I loved most was that coursing throughout his comments was evidence of a perspective we both share, one that comes with having your work published: an awareness of how your stuff is likely to be judged by some of those who read it–most notably those who know just enough about a subject to be dangerous. These are the readers who know the Proper Way of doing everything but aren’t ready to question whether the Proper Way is necessarily the best way (or even relevant) in a given situation.
So after waiting about a year, it was a treat to see Raney’s shop and learn more about his background, which encompasses punk rock culture and service on US Navy submarines; something like 240 college credit hours, motivated by sheer love of learning, that did not result in a formal degree; and a solid stint as a stay-at-home dad. My head is still exploding after hearing him discuss cognitive science, literary theory, and grassroots economics as we sat in a corner of the shop filled with gorgeous tools, cabinets, and workbenches built by his own hands, a new batch of elegant dividers in production just across the room.
*This is not to deny that other editors in the world of woodworking publications (many of them known to me) share these and similar virtues, just that they don’t (usually for very good reasons) tend to be so unabashed in revealing them.
**I.e., this combo tends to send a certain percentage of woodworkers (including female ones) into full-blown dismissive mode–“She obviously doesn’t know the right way to do x, y, or z,” etc.–which is a drag and can also be a drain on credibility, at least in some circles. The fact is, in most such cases I am down with the “official” way to do whatever; I’m just beyond the point where I feel obligated to recite chapter & verse when paraphrasing strikes me as making better sense.
***I would not want to diss the trucker hat as a worthy form of millinery. My own husband, a staunch feminist, has a collection of trucker hats, several emblazoned with the Dogfish Head Brewery logo, that he wears to work.