Marshall McLuhan was a 20th century Canadian philosopher who was heavily involved in media, advertising, and television. He’s responsible for several theories and catchphrases that would be familiar to most adults today, but I think his most interesting quote is listed up above. I came across this quote a while back in a photography context, but it’s applicability to woodworking immediately struck me.
We truly do become what we behold. As a woodworker, I’m the product of countless books, magazine articles, TV shows, online videos, audio podcasts, and real-life experiences. Every piece of woodworking information I’ve ever encountered has influenced me, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. And this process never ends; these experiences will continue to influence me throughout the course of my life. What changes as time goes on is the relative weight of their influence. Early on, woodworking media had a huge impact in my work habits. These days, my personal experience carries more weight, but outside input is still a factor.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between the environment, the tools, and the maker. My environment is a basement shop because that is the space available to me. In this environment, certain tools, such as very large machinery, are impractical due to the difficulty of getting them in and out. The way I design my projects is affected, as well, because I need to consider how I will move completed projects up the narrow shop staircase and out the door. Even my workbench was influenced by my environment; I designed it using knockdown joinery so I can get it out of the basement if I ever decide to move.
During the build phase of a project, my tools dictate my workflow. I always look for ways to accomplish my goals using the tools that I already have, and I’m usually successful. If I get blocked, modifying an existing tool is my next step, followed by biting-the-bullet and purchasing something new.
It’s fascinating to think about how our shops and our tools influence our decision-making process. Once you’re aware of this influence, you can use it to understand why you do things the way you do. Can your process be improved to get better or faster results? Will a technique or process change be a success or failure? Either way, don’t sweat it. Once you accept that you are what you behold and that your environment and tooling heavily influence all of your decisions, the pressure’s off. The universe is calling the shots, so just head into the shop and have some fun.