Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.


January 9, 2010

One of my very favorite blogs is an astounding achievement by my friend Dave.  It is brilliant for many reasons, but most of all because it is– and I love this, wherever I find it– an embodiment of the thing it describes.  Which is to say that Dave writes as a high-tech person about the benefits of slowing down, and he does so slowly. When I see a fresh post in my RSS reader, I (first) exalt, and (then) check the clock and the level of my beverage.  Because a fresh post on (low) tech writer means a substantial investment of time.

So I curtail my hard-won ability at skimming and settle into another post that doesn’t seem like it is going anywhere, but which eventually takes me to a place of considerable discovery.  Discovery that will last for hours, if not days.  During which time the metaphors and implications that the author so carefully buried in the ideas will come to the surface.  It’s beautiful.

Of course, I also have a hard-won lust for new stuff, so posts like his on pencils and knives will lead me to rampant Googling to try to obtain this new and simple product, but I’m getting better.  (low) tech writer is a patient teacher, and I am an eager student.

… and an imitator.  The following thoughts have been rolling around in my head for several weeks.  My tribute to Dave.

Among tools, there is little that is as intimate and intuitive as a 6-inch drywall taping knife.  Even the name seems a mystery, since it is never dry when in use, and since it does not perform the task that is normally associated with a knife.

No, this tool is utter simplicity.  A handle, and a blade.  It is designed to spread a thick batter-like substance known as drywall compound on the joints between pieces of gypsum wallboard.  Once a layer of compound (‘mud’ in the parlance) is spread across the joint, a piece of paper or fiberglass mesh tape is bedded into the goo and another layer is smoothed over the top.  The result is a joint between two pieces of material that is spanned by a thin layer of tape and compound over a width of about 6 inches.  When that layer dries, another layer is spread with a 10-inch, and then a 12-inch knife.  All of which makes the joint effectively disappear.  A little bit of sanding, some primer and paint, and the average guest at the housewarming party has no idea of where one panel ends and another begins.  It is, as one of my many mentors put it, an illusion of perfection.

So it’s a simple process, done with very simple tools.  But make no mistake:  an experienced taper will make this look much, much easier than it actually is.  And he or she will treasure their tools, since the feel and the heft and the dimensions of them are– quite literally– an extension of their hands.

Which is why I was so distraught several months ago when I realized that my carefully-selected and long-prized 6-inch knife was gone, gone, gone.  Indeed, it had disappeared long before, but so dramatic was the trauma of this loss that I had in fact dissociated the whole event, and so had to go through the painful process of experiencing the loss all over again as I repeatedly and fruitlessly searched my collection of tools.  What to do?  I visited several home centers, but none seemed to have anything resembling my precious.

But finally, I found it.  After tediously sorting through an entire box of knives at a faraway home center, I found one with a blade that was perfectly straight and that had the optimal amount of flex to it– enough that it would gently bed the tape into the mud, but not so much that it would fail to remove the excess mud on the final pass.  Plus, this model was made of stainless steel, so it would not rust like my old 15-year old knife.  A huge improvement, and a more permanent addition to my quiver.  This thing will last forever, I said with assurance.

Or so I thought.  Eager to get to work, I filled my rectangular metal tray with some fresh compound, and scooped up a dollop.  Schwopp! It hit the floor.  Deciding my skills must be rusty, I was much more careful as I continued, but I kept making embarrassing deposits of material onto the floor.  And I just couldn’t get the knife to remove excess compound from the wall.  Or to leave a smooth surface.  Something wasn’t right.

A little sleuthing on the internet revealed my mistake.  While most manufacturers indeed make stainless steel models, I also noticed that most sold high-carbon steel models as well.  And then it hit me:  rust.  Rust is what gives the blade that tiny bit of purchase.  Rust is what keeps the compound in place betwixt tray and wall.  Rust is what allows the user to lift the material high onto the wall.  Rust is what pulls the perfect amount of mud off the wall to leave the surface nice and smooth.  I found a good old-fashioned drywall supply company nearby and bought my knife where the professionals shop.  Then I gave it a good scrubbing and left it wet overnight.  The next day, I suddenly possessed the same skills I had previously enjoyed.  And without all of those embarrassing dollops on the floor.  I thought my skills had been rusty, but it was my knife that benefited from a little bit of rust.

Encased in our carbon shells, we fear decay.  And so we accumulate that which seem permanent, and free of stains:  teflon, stone, plastic, and resin. But in so doing, we ignore the realities of ourselves:  we are forgetful (and so lose things), fickle (and so change our minds about that timeless stone), clumsy (ever try to get a stain or scratch out of stainless steel?), and failing (and so break our beloved stuff).  In other words, we are imperfect, and getting worse.  We can ignore that, or we can enjoin the decline.  And we’ll create more beauty if we celebrate our imperfections as we go.

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4 Responses to “Impermanence”

  1. Moff says:

    "Encased in our carbon shells, we fear decay. And so we accumulate that which seems permanent, and free of stains…" Beautiful, dude.

  2. How do you get through your day when you are constantly musing upon the core essence of ordinary objects? Your stuff here truly inspires me to slow down and smell the roses.

  3. Chris Haw says:

    I had always liked when I spread some rust throughout the mud application, for irrational aesthetic reasons, but this is interesting, and makes sense. (I still drop lots of mud even with some solid rust.) A quick look at some knives online, and everybody’s pushing “stainless,” as if you never graced the world with this post. What gives? So, what model? And, for the record, I’m growing unhappy with my Hyde (your shown model) because the handle is now loosening a bit from the knife body. No me gusta.

  4. My current 6-incher is– I think– a Sheetrock brand. Nice rubberized handle and a really solid connection. I also picked up a sweet rubber device with magnets inside that attaches to the metal mud tray to become a handy handle/grip. Pretty sweet.

    I was working at my parents’ house recently, though, and borrowing my brother’s tools. His 6-inch knife is so perfect that I almost stole it. Not that he would have minded, or noticed: he’s a danged framer.

    …and I still drop lots of dollops on the floor. Just not as many as I did with the slicky-boy knife.

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