The Intelligent Hand
By David Binnington Savage
“The Intelligent Hand” is a peek into a woodworking life that’s at a level that most of us can barely imagine. The customers are wealthy and eccentric. The designs have to leap off the page. And the craftsmanship has to be utterly, utterly flawless.
How does one get to this point? And how do you stay there?
One answer to these questions is in this book. Yes, the furniture can be technically difficult to make. But a lot of the hard labor involves some unexpected skills. Listening. Seeing. Drawing. And looking into the mirror and practicing the expression: “And that will cost 20,000 pounds.”
As you will see, it’s a personal struggle – like the production of this book. On the day David began work on his manuscript, he received a cancer diagnosis with a grim prognosis. He wasn’t sure what the book was going to be about or if he could finish it. But David attacked the work with the fervor of a younger, healthier man.
So what is it about? On the one hand, “The Intelligent Hand” is the story of a boy with a stammer who became one of the leading furniture designers in the U.K., working for clients all over the world, including Saudi Arabia and China. It’s a story of extreme failure – bankruptcy – and how he built a new life using the debris from the broken one.
It’s a practical and iconoclastic guide to getting started in woodwork. David has always had pointed opinions about the tools and methods his students should use to get good results. And he shares – in great detail – his recommendations for tools, sharpening, cutting dovetails and building a proper workbench.
It’s a primer on design. If you have ever wanted to train yourself to create pieces that break out of the typical or expected (to defy what David calls the “Mark I Eyeball”), this book is an excellent start. David’s advice is both general (how to keep a mental record of your ideas) to specific (smudge the ink in your drawings with spit to create shadows) and it will make you want to take up pen, pencil and watercolors before you design your next piece.
But most of all, “The Intelligent Hand” is a window into David's workshop in Devon. To show how the shop functions, David spins a thread that ties together all the book’s disparate parts by designing a desk and chair for his wife, Carol.
Like many furniture makers, David and Carol’s house is filled with prototypes or factory-made items. All the good stuff went to clients. For this book, David shares the process for how these two personal projects were developed and built.
In the end, this book is an interesting read on many levels. Beginners will see clearly how to get started in the craft and how far one can go. Intermediate woodworkers will devour the sections on design. And the professional will find advice on how to run a good business – and sometimes how not to (plus some practical workshop hints).
The book is funny, sometimes tragic and helpful. And it’s filled with beautiful photos and drawings of David’s pieces from his long career.
Like all Lost Art Press books, “The Intelligent Hand” is produced and printed entirely in the United States. It is 304 pages, 8-1/2” x 11” and printed on #80 matte coated paper. The pages are sewn together for long life. The hard covers are covered in a cotton cloth and then wrapped in a #100 beefy dustjacket. The book is printed in full color.
About the Author
“The story of my life is a whole series of failures in lots of ways,” says David Savage, an artist, designer, maker and founder of Rowden Atelier, a furniture design school and workshop in North Devon, England. “You don’t look at how you fall over, but it’s kind of how you get up again, the whole process.”
And David did get up, again and again. Some may call that a solid work ethic, perseverance, moxie. Or, when a young family is in the picture, survival. Perhaps, though, the getting up again is simply the root of being a maker.
David says it took a visit from Christopher Schwarz in 2015 to define the culture of Rowden. It was then that Chris noted a strong line of identity coming from the Arts and Crafts Movement to Rowden students.
That, says David, is what Rowden is. “It’s not the celebration of the flowery wallpaper of Arts and Crafts, but the celebration of who a craftsperson is — the treatment of a maker not just as a pair of hands to manufacture stuff but as a genuine contributing human being making something that’s worth having. The celebration of that is what we do here at Rowden.”
Every time David faced a challenge or failed in some way, the act of starting over came from an acknowledgement of worth. Sometimes it took an outsider. Sometimes the realization came from within. But it was the title of maker, with all its history and meaning, and the innate desire to make something worth having, that pushed David to get up and create, not just a piece of furniture, but a life, and one he deemed worth living.
Read more about David Savage is this full profile.