Woodworking is like a Soviet Gulag? Solzhenitsyn, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

woodworking flag of the soviet union
Flag of the Soviet Union

How is woodworking like being in a gulag? Do we mean it is drudgery?  Absolutely not!  There are many parallels to woodworking, though, in Solzhenitsyn’s classic, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to have this book assigned in high school or college, this book is one of my favorites. It tells the story of one day in the life of a gulag prisoner (Ivan Denisovich Shukhov) and how he survives.  The book was laying around the house recently since the kids had to read it for high school, so I thought I would give it a read again and noticed there are many woodworking concepts sprinkled throughout the book such as craftsmanship, attention to detail, flowfrugality, and contentment.

Craftsmanship

“Shukhov looked about.  Yes, the sun was beginning to set.  It had a grayish appearance as it sank in a red haze.  And they’d got into the swing–couldn’t be better.  They’d started on the right row now (of bricks).  Ought to finish it today.  Level it off.”

Here these poor prisoners were slaving away all day out in the open with the temperature at 17 degrees below zero when the day started, but the main character is more concerned about making sure the bricks are laid properly than about leaving for the day.  Is he being paid for his work?  Will he be rewarded for a job well done?  No!  He is a true craftsman who will not leave the job site until it is done properly. What a great lesson for all of us woodworkers.

Attention to Detail

“Now if some mortar had oozed out to the side, you had to chop it off as quickly as possible with the edge of your trowel and fling it over the wall (in summer it would go under the next brick, but now that was impossible).  Next you took another look at the joint below, or there were times when the block was not completely intact but had partially crumbled.  In that event, you slapped in some extra mortar where the defect was, and you didn’t lay the block flat–you slide it from side to side, squeezing out the extra mortar between it and its neighbor.  An eye on the plumb.  An eye on the surface.  Set. Next.”

Mrs Woodworker and I had a long conversation the other night about whether I should finish the reverse side of some of the pieces I was making.  One the one hand, finishing only one side would cut the finishing time in half since I wouldn’t need to let the finish dry, then flip the piece over and finish the other side.  Since I use a process with five coats of finish (see our post on the finish process here), you can see this would be a significant time savings.  On the other hand, I’m going to know the other side is unfinished and is it exhibiting true attention to detail to leave the reverse unfinished?  The discussion continues to rage here at Traughber Design.

Flow

“And now Shukhov and the other masons felt the cold no longer.  Thanks to the urgent work, the first wave of heat had come over them–when you feel wet under your coat, under your jacket, under your shirt and your vest.  But they didn’t stop for a moment; they hurried on with the laying.  And after about an hour they had their second flush of heat, the one that dries up the sweat.  Their feet didn’t feel cold, that was the main thing.  Nothing else mattered.  Even the breeze, light but piercing, couldn’t distract them from the work.  Only Senka stamped his feet–he had enormous ones, poor slob, and they’d given him a pair of valence too tight for him.”

Back in the day, we used to call this being “in the zone,” but the current terminology is called “flow” or being in a “flow state.”  When I’ve got the radio on and am using my favorite tools, I’m often in that flow state.  Have you ever achieved this in the wood shop?  Is it often or infrequently?  If you are not often able to achieve “flow” in the shop think carefully about the times you did achieve flow and what were the conditions that contributed.  Try to recreate these conditions as much as possible.  Another technique that works well, is to leave a task unfinished at the end of one day so you can quickly pick up where you left off the next day.  This creates a quick condition for getting back into the flow when you start the next day.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov gives a great goal to strive for:  being so engrossed in our work that we even forget subzero cold.

Frugality

“But Shukhov wasn’t made that way–eight years in a camp couldn’t change his nature.  He worked about anything he could make use of, about every scrap of work he could do–nothing must be wasted without good reason.”

We discussed this to some degree in our earlier post about minimalism, but I’ll add a few thoughts here.  What should we do with those very inexpensive parts from the local big box retailer we aren’t going to use?  I had a couple of screws in a plastic package from Lowes the other day that I wasn’t going to use on a project.  Part of me said it’s not worth the effort to return them since they only cost a buck or two.  The other part of me said I was going to go to Lowes at some point anyway and why not just return them?  In addition, they were going to lay around the shop and take up space.  Not only that, someone has to produce more of that part if it is laying around my house and doesn’t go back to the store. We’re planning a move to a smaller house next year, then a tiny house, so why have any parts laying around we are not going to use?  The minimalist argument won out and now I return everything to the store I’m not going to use.

Contentment

“Shukhov went to sleep fully content.  He’d had many strokes of luck that day:  they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening he’d bought that tobacco.  And he hadn’t fallen ill.  He’d got over it.

A day without a dark cloud.  Almost a happy day.”

We can learn a lot from such a man.  Perhaps we shouldn’t agonize over what tools we don’t have in the wood shop and just be satisfied with what we have.  Along those lines, I try to be thankful every day Traughber Design has work, not matter how big or small.  We are fortunate to have this business and and small jobs lead to big jobs.

I hope you enjoyed this woodworking journey through the gulag and my rant about craftsmanshipattention to detailflowfrugality, and contentment.  If you haven’t read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, check it out at your local library.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment below.