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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Knock On Wood…

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Does it sometimes seem that things just aren't going quite "right?" Do you have days when even the best plans get spoiled? Days when things seem to conspire to thwart all of your good intentions? Do you ever have a run of "bad luck?"

We all do. But then we have days when every dovetail fits perfectly, our planes just seem to glide, and our eye for design and balance seems perfectly tuned. What makes a not-so-good day happen? What makes a great day happen?

For some it is attitude, for some it is "just the way it goes." As Jennifer Nettles (Sugarland) sings "It Happens." For many of us, we believe that a little "luck" (good or bad) was involved.

There has been, during football season, a series of advertisements poking fun at the odd things fans do, thinking somehow their actions will affect the outcome of a game. There is one ad featuring a guy whose team scores every time he goes to the basement, so he stays in the basement. The ads wrap-up with the tag line, "It's only weird if it doesn't work."

Scientists think that our superstitions are an outgrowth of some memory trigger device coupled with our intense instinct for survival. If we touched a certain rock on our way to hunt in the jungle and we feasted on tiger steaks that night, we think that if we touch that same rock everyday, we will always kill the tiger. Conversely, and here is the part scientists think gave rise to superstitions, if we walked under a ladder or a black cat crossed our path and the tiger ate us for dinner, we surmise that walking under a ladder or crossing a cat's path portends danger.

This could have been born of real-life conditions. Caveman "you" is taking a leisurely walk through the field, and suddenly a flock of crows is startled and flies away. Turns out, a lion is stalking you, and the crows were startled by the lion. So now every time you see a flock of crows fly away, you may think that a lion is sneaking up on you. It is a conditioned self-preservation response based on experience and instinct for survival.

Figure 5 - Oh no! Bad day coming... 
Figure 6 - That's better...let me at those dovetails! 

Whether superstitions are conditioned responses, pure hokey-pokey, or some genetic malfeasance, we are, as humans, a generally superstitious lot. Superstition is so pervasive, that I posit that the person who declares "I don't have a superstitious bone in my body!" is really exhibiting their own form of superstition, essentially declaring to the world, "If I don't say I am not superstitious, then something (inexplicably) bad will happen to me."

Superstition has no basis in logic, yet we cling to our superstitions religiously. And speaking of religion, which one would assume would obviate the need for superstitions, some of the most devoutly religious people I know are also the most devoutly superstitious.

I am only mildly superstitious but will occasionally submit to the illogical. "Knock on wood," is not just an expression, I sometimes do. I also have this strange belief that if I turn on the lights in my shop with my right hand, my day will somehow not be quite as good as if I turn them on with my left hand. I know, that's weird. But more than once I have juggled a first-of-the-morning cup of coffee and a croissant from left hand to right, just so I could turn on the lights in my "usual" and preferred fashion. I console myself with the fact that I do very few other weird things. And remember, it's only weird if it doesn't work!

There are, of course, exceptionally superstitious folks. Jack Nicholson portrayed a neurotic superstitious malcontent with OCD in "As Good As It Gets," and there are real people that flip light switches on and off 5 times, or those that look like inebriated break dancers as they try to avoid every crack on the sidewalk. But most of us, I think, hang on to our superstitions as what I call "low cost insurance." It costs little, in money or self-esteem or effort, to carry a rabbit's foot keychain or a desiccated four-leaf clover in your wallet. The "barn star" for many is purely decorative, but its origins are as a good luck symbol.

Figure 7 - These Barn Stars are so prolific on houses in
my area. At first I thought it was a club or a cult. 

Colonel Potter claimed that superstitions were "hogwash" but he still let Radar nail up a horseshoe in his M*A*S*H office. I know my light switches are inanimate objects incapable of affecting my day, but what the heck? I haven't spilled my coffee or dropped a croissant yet! Low cost insurance… knock on wood!

Do you have any "shop" superstitions? I set about to find out exactly where on the weirdness scale my little superstitions were compared to other woodworkers. Millicent, or Millie as we all call her, admits to no weaknesses either physical, emotional, or psychological, and when I asked her if she had any shop superstitions, she laughed with derision and denied vehemently, "that would be ridiculous." I went to see Millie first, you see, because it is a fact that females are more superstitious than males. Sorry… I try not to tread where errant (and wholly unintended) sexist statements could land me in hot water, but there is proof. There is a horoscope in every "women's" magazine. Not a single horoscope in a "man's" magazine.

Figure 8 - I didn't have the heart to tell Millie that a
rabbit's foot works best when carried in the left pocket...
or so I have been told. 

Well, Millie and I had a nice chat, and I was pretty convinced she was completely un-superstitious. On my way back to my truck, I noticed a rabbit's foot hanging from her car's rearview mirror. Me thinks she doth protest too much!

Reggie is my over-caffeinated whirlwind woodworker friend. Sometimes I get tired just watching him work, sometimes I get re-energized. Either way, this great woodworker entertained me by readily admitting to a host of woodworking superstitions, mostly due to his good fortune of having never been hurt badly in a shop accident. That fact alone is hard to believe after you watch him work for a while.

As many times as I have visited his shop, I had never noticed Reggie's routine of holding his push stick to his heart right before turning on his table saw. Reggie pointed to an old walking stick hanging on the wall. "My Dad carried that, and his father before him. Both of them lived into their 90s. If I keep it, I'll live to 90, too." Reggie says he has a lucky coffee mug, a lucky penny on the windowsill (I checked, it was really there), and a one dollar bill folded into a recess in his wallet that he says is his "lucky dollar."

Figure 9 - Lucky
bamboo...tie a red
ribbon or use a red
vase...not that I really
believe in this stuff! 

Ben has only been working with wood for a year or so, and unlike Reggie, his working style is methodical and steady. Ben has already surpassed my woodworking skills in many ways. He is building a Windsor chair now, something I am loath to attempt, but Ben has no fear. He seems to enjoy the occasional mistake, chalking it up as a learning experience and, as he says, "a mistake I will never need to make again." Ben was the last person I would suspect having any superstitions, but the Native American Dream Catcher is not just art, it is a powerful good luck talisman. And while I try not to be too nosey, above his workbench, in a tiny frame, is a four-leaf clover. When asked about it, he answered, "Why take chances?"

Jim, the pseudonym for my woodworking Vishnu, makes no bones about his superstitions. Jim attacks his work, and when he makes the inevitable and frequent mistake, he curses and spits three times like he is dismissing a curse or an evil spirit, then crosses himself, mutters a prayer, and goes back to work. An enigma wrapped in overexertion, if you ask me.

I had a woodworking friend in Cleveland years ago that consulted numerous Feng Shui books before laying out his shop, but I'm not sure Feng Shui should be considered "superstition." But, just in case, I have three shoots of bamboo growing vigorously… they are supposed to bring happiness, wealth, and longevity. I figure even two out of three would not be bad! Cheap insurance… and they look nice!

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