My Ritual


“…my blood moves, I feel alright, my ritual followed us to paradise…”
– “My Ritual“, The Folk Implosion

The following is something that has been nagging away at my hind brain for a while, and sometimes the only way to relieve an itch is to scratch it. This may be an unusual jumping off point to discuss woodwork, but stick with the history and theology, and hopefully all will become clear.

In what feels like a lifetime ago, but was really only twelve years, I was immersed in studying history, coming to the end of a Masters course and preparing a research proposal for a PhD (this was before the pragmatism of the law won out, but that is another story altogether). My focus was on the 16th century, specifically radical evangelical movements in England, north Germany and Holland – those theological experiences that took the work of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli as a starting point rather than a destination, and really ran with it to some rather unusual conclusions. What is interesting (to me, at least) about early radical evangelism is how distinct social movements were formed and justified through radical theology, enabled by Martin Luther’s conceptualisation of a “priesthood of all believers” which had far wider implications than he ever intended. Because if Holy Mother Church is removed as a mediator between the laity and the almighty, then the common folk become empowered to develop their own theology, and to ritualise their existence in ways other than the “social miracle” of Mass. Suddenly theology, and the formulation of ritual, is not the preserve of the clergy and university theologians. Instead shepherds, soap makers (that’s you, Sebastian Frank!), and other lowly folk can get in on the act. This leads to some interesting high theological frameworks, but more crucially, unique ritualisation of the life experiences of ordinary people.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – mankind have been creating ritual to understand and explain their existence since time immemorial. But it is nonetheless fascinating. But what, if anything, does this have to do with woodwork (and if you’re still reading, congratulations on persevering)? Well y’see, recently I have been reminded of my history studies as I’ve been thinking a lot about how I approach the workshop and prepare myself to work. I do my best work when my mind is entirely clear of distractions, instead of being harried by time pressures, my next article deadline, whether I paid my credit card bill, or the myriad other passing concerns of modern life. Simply put, my best work is done when the only thing on my mind is the woodwork operation I am doing at that precise moment. I’m sure the same is true of many woodworkers.

So what is the solution? Three hours spent in zen meditation before I step foot in the workshop would probably do it, but doesn’t sound particularly practical. And to be honest if I had three hours spare I’d rather spent them at my bench making wood shavings. Instead, there are simple rituals which signify the start of “workshop time“, and which (on the whole) switch off the white noise of everyday life.

The very first thing I do, as soon as I step foot in the workshop, is to open my Anarchist’s Tool Chest – an act which exposes the tools of my craft (stop sniggering at the back) in readiness for work. I put on my ‘shop apron, into the pockets of which go my Starrett tape measure, Sterling Tool Works Double Square, and Blue Spruce Toolworks Sloyd knife. These tools are invaluable and constantly in use, so having them in my apron pocket makes for a far more efficient workflow as the number of trips to the tool chest at the end of my bench are greatly reduced. But it is more than that –  with these tools slipped into my pocket I can carry out any number of basic measuring, layout and marking tasks, which are really the fundamentals of any woodwork operation. The essential tools are now physically with me. So, with my apron round my neck I am ready to start work.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in having some small workshop rituals. At least, I hope I’m not (otherwise that would make me crazy, right?) And if you really want crazy then we could talk about the rituals I use for getting myself mentally prepared for martial arts tournaments, gradings, and significant training sessions. But we probably shouldn’t.  So what are your rituals, dear readers, how do you switch to “workshop mode”? Are there specific tools you put in your apron pockets, warm-up exercises at your bench for sawing straight, or albums you play as soon as you reach your shop?

13 thoughts on “My Ritual

  1. Fascinating post Kieran.

    On the issue of religious ritual, I’d be remiss not to mention that Roman Catholics have — both historically and today — practiced a wide range of un-orthodox, “folk” rituals. Among U.S. religious historians we call this “lived religion” (regardless of the faith/denomination). RC Lived religion is my specialty, so I’ll refrain here from going on and on about it! 🙂

    As to shop rituals, I’d never thought of it that way before. I’m slowly developing my own, but I’m not as consistent as you are right now. To the extent that I’ve developed daily constants, they actually involve music. When I go into my shop, the very first thing I do is to setup the radio to some good music. Coltraine, acoustic rock covers, and classical mixes are my default.

    If I’m doing solely handwork for the day, I might choose an audiobook instead. (Currently I’m listinging to Juno Diaz.)

    If its a more chaotic day but I’m not in the mood for music, then I’ll tune into some podcasts. (Maker Cast, Bullseye with Jesse James, Selected Shorts, and Car Talk are among my favorites.)

    I find I do my best woodworking when my mind is on something else. That’s a major difference, it seems, between the premise of your rituals and of mine. If I’m only thinking about the dovetails I’m cutting, I’m likely to rush — and, at least at my current level — rushing produces sloppiness, mistakes, and (how could I forget?) decapitated fingers! When I’m immersed in the woodwork but letting my body guide itself as my mind engages in a parallel world, that’s when I achieve the highest level craftsmanship I’m capable of.

    – Brian

    • Thanks for your comments, Brian. I confess that when I wrote the post I did have you and James in mind.

      Your comments on Lived Faith for both sides of the confessional divide are bang on the money, and a good reminder not to fall into the trap of viewing the Reformation as a binary “Catholic hegemony vs the bewildering variety of evangelical theology”. Keith Thomas’ enduring work “Religion and the Decline of Magic” was as much about pre-reformation lived faith practices as it was witchcraft, and “Monteillou” by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie is a wonderful study in thirteenth century Catholic lived faith. This is definitely something that we should talk about at greater length some time, as I’d love to know more about your research.

      It’s always fascinating to lear about other people’s personal rituals, so thank you for sharing yours. It sounds like you respond well to what the Japanese call “mushin”, (transleted roughly as “mind of no mind”) – the idea that the body responds without the need for active thought and analysis. That is always my aspriation (which I’ve experienced a couple of times with martial arts, as well as good woodworking days), but at this stage in my development as a woodworker I find keeping focused to provide better results (see my post “On the endless layers of simplicity, or why the dovetail sword is mightier than the sword” from July 2015 for more thoughts about working towards mushin, and the place of mindfulness in the workshop).

      I suppose I also have some looser rituals around music. When I was building my first Telecaster type guitar I started off each day in the workshop with “Regard the End” by Willard Grant Conspiracy, normally followed up with the second disc of the “Strangers Almanac” reissue by Whiskeytown – playing both albums helped create a consistent environment in which to focus. At the moment my workshop listening choices are more varied, which I suppose shows that rituals can evolve, or fall by the wayside as we progress.


  2. Reflecting on my woodworking “rituals” it is safe to say that they are reactionary rather than intentional. I usually start by cleaning up my work area because I didn’t put things away at the end of my previous session. Then I take a look at the clock and record the time on the project sheet. I review my notes and set goals for the day, then it is off to work.

    What I’m discovering after reflecting on the practice of “rituals” is that they allow you to absorb the moment—to enjoy the tools, the wood, the sights and sounds of a craft that borders on the spiritual. In my case, I want to be intentional about what I am doing and why. I need to create “rituals” that allow me to enjoy the process of creating. Bad habits are hard to break, but so are good ones.

    Thanks for a thought provoking article!

    • Thanks for your comment Eric, glad you enjoyed the post. What you say about the creation of good habits chimes I think with many people’s experiences of workshop rituals, and certainly my own.

      As you say, being able to clear your mind in order to be receptive to, and enjoy, the full woodworking experience, can a key function of workshop ritual. I suppose what we are talking about here is a way in order to enter (or induce) a state of mindfulness in the workshop.

  3. Admittedly this has little to do with the workshop, but this Sunday I’ll be baptizing three, confirming eight and celebrating the Eucharist. For me, ritual has less to do with putting me in a certain frame of mind (mindfulness or mindlessness as the case may be) and more to do with developing certain habits. John Wesley emphasized the nature of the sacraments as “means of grace”by which he meant they are the ways God works invisibly in disciples, hastening, strengthening and confirming faith so that God’s grace pervades in and through disciples.

    To live well requires both effort and habit, and no amount of effort in the moment of action makes up for effort neglected in the time of formation. (Aristotle, virtue and all that) For me, ritual creates the liminal, “thin places” where slowly formed habits make reflection possible.

    Your rituals seem to come at the beginning; mine at the end. I’ve started to get really serious about wiping my tools down each night after use and even sharpening edges if needed so that they’re ready to do their best work the next time I pick them up. I use the time to actively reflect on the work completed and the work left to do, so that while I’m not at my bench those questions are at work in my mind answering themselves before the next time I have the opportunity to put an edge to wood.

    It’s funny. As much as I love music I have never gotten along with it in my shop. I generally listen to the sounds of nature drifting in my window. I only wish I had a nice stream running by.

    • James

      As always, thanks for a thought provoking reply which challenges me to think more about what I’ve just written. It sounds like you’ve got quite a full Sunday coming up!

      What you say is interesting, because while I am rigorous about wiping down all of my tools (and disassembling planes to remove stray shavings) at the end of every day in the workshop, I’ve never viewed this as a ritualised activity. It is the very last thing I do before I hang up my apron and lock up, but for some reason I’ve always viewed this as good tool maintenance rather than an opportunity to reflect and learn. There is of course no reason why it can’t be both. And while I’m not looking for ritual for the sake of ritual, the idea of using tool cleaning as an opportunity to mentally “cool down” after time at my bench, or to reflect on lessons learned, does appeal. Now that you’ve planted the seeds of an idea, I shall see if taking tool cleaning as a time for reflection naturally fits with my workshop routine going forwards.

      My relationship with music in the workshop has changed over time. Soon after I’d finished my lutherie training I worked for a time out of my grandfather’s shed, which was at the end of his garden, sheltered away from the world. The gentle creak of the shed, and the sound of birdsong, was all I wanted to hear in that workspace so I didn’t have any music playing. Now that I have a more urban workshop I definitely find that having a good playlist helps. But if I had a stream to listen to I’d almost certainly turn off the iPod!

  4. My ritual is simple, but consistent. I put on some music through a bluetooth speaker on my bench, then sweep and vacuum to clean the area before I do anything. If I don’t clean first, I find I get nothing done. Great piece, Kieran.

    • Hi Daniel thanks for taking the time to comment. What I’ve found interesting about this conversation on rituals is how some folk have very complex rituals, while some have very simple. And I’m starting to wonder whether it doesn’t matter so much what the ritualised activity itself is, so much as the the carrying out of a ritual in order to enter the right mindset.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!


  5. Interesting… I wish I had a ritual of cleaning sharpening and putting things away when I’m done… As it is: I’m always in a rush to get started, and work up until the last instant when I have to drop everything and go do something else (get the kidlet from school, make dinner, etc). Maybe I can start one with putting things away at the beginning?
    K (yup, another K)

  6. Great post Kieran, I wasn’t sure where you were heading for a moment there!

    For me it’s quick tidy up, a few quiet moments thinking through what needs to be done and a good close look at the timber that I will be working with today. Once tool touches wood everything changes, it’s just me, the wood, and this cut that’s happening right now.

  7. Pingback: For heritage quality workshop aprons, look to Texas | Over the Wireless

  8. Pingback: My Ritual… part 2 | Over the Wireless

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