The I Ching of the Goldsmith

Hexagram Qian: "Force", also: "The Creative Heaven", from the I Ching.  From top: mandrel, hand forged setting tool, dapping punch, square needle file, hand forged setting tool, hand forged repoussé tool

Hexagram Qian: “Force”, also: “The Creative Heaven”, from the I Ching.
From top: mandrel, hand forged setting tool, dapping punch, square needle file, hand forged setting tool, hand forged repoussé tool

The holidays at last! Time to unwind and have fun. My idea of a good time is reading a book, and for this, I chose Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, by Ross A. Laird, a book I had read and enjoyed over a decade ago. Guaranteed gratification? Yes, and why not? It is the holidays after all.

In “Grain of Truth”, the author takes us through the process of designing and making a series of woodworking projects. This is not, however, a technical manual or a how-to book (although it is kind of, but in a poetic sense). Organized in eight chapters named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching (Earth, Water, Fire, etc.), and each dedicated to a different project, it flows elegantly and seemingly without effort from chapter to chapter. We follow the maker as he experiences joy and satisfaction or doubt and frustration. And although it deals with woodworking projects, it is quite universal and will resonate with any craftsperson, whatever their craft may be.

Trigrams of the I Ching

Trigrams of the I Ching

The book celebrates the importance of craftsmanship, the beauty of an object made by hand, but not in a sentimental way because, the “truth” is, this practice demands deep awareness and strict discipline. The process of creating and making something by hand, like meditation, requires us to pause and ponder often. “Working with hand tools”, says Laird, “teaches, in a pragmatic way, the art of stillness” (p. 28). When working with wood, or any other medium for that matter, one needs to be receptive, to watch and to listen. Observe the file as it glides on the edge of the sheet of metal. Hear the hammer as it hits the metal. When under pressure or facing deadlines, how many times have I felt the impulse to dominate the tools, to force them to perform a specific task? It is not, Laird adds, about will power, which will only bring disappointment and frustration. Instead, it “requires a purposeful surrender, a willingness to be taught by tools (…)” (p. 29).

This book, so full of wisdom, shows us that patience and humility, backed by concentration and deep knowledge of materials and techniques, will be rewarded with a sense of wonder. In the spirit of the Tao, Laird always starts afresh with each project, open to the possibilities and with “faith in the process and a willingness to be taken” (p. 50).

Happy holidays and best wishes to all for a creative New Year.

Ross A. Laird, Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto, 2001. ISBN 1-55199-065-2






2 thoughts on “The I Ching of the Goldsmith

  1. artdoesmatter

    Dominique, What a fantastic post. Having very little knowledge of the I Ching and the interpretive hexagrams, I just did a small Google research just now. Your photograph of the various handmade steel tools into the “Force” hexagram is gorgeous!! Are these tools in your collection (if I’m following correctly?) That Hand-forged repousse tool is really something, w/ its twisted-pattern shank. This photo is a digital work of art in itself. I had not known about Laird’s book either; I’m hoping it is available somewhere here in the states. I agree w/ soo many points you’ve stated above, but especially react to that moment when one may have a tendency to “overwork” w/ one’s tool. How true in that one needs to “surrender” and not dominate the tool itself. Too much food for thought here!!! Thanks for sharing w/ us – sounds like your holidays are being especially fruitful and thought-productive!

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Hi Patricia, happy New Year!
      The hand-made tools were school projects. The real “beauty” of the twisted shank is that it’s not only decorative, but also functional. The ridges create a perfect anti-slip surface and allow a great grip on the tool – my fingers tend to get sweaty when I set a stone! 🙂
      As for the point about the need to “surrender”, it struck me as well (Laird explains it so clearly and so beautifully). Making that leap of faith (in the tools/work/oneself) is of course difficult to achieve, but I do believe it is the key to learning and to finding joy in our work.
      At the start of this new year, I’ve been reflecting and pondering a lot (no resolutions, good or bad, yet!). One thing I am certain about is how wonderful this blog has been is making my world bigger and richer. It’s been amazing “meeting” you, Patricia, exchanging ideas, getting to know your work, and learning from you. Thank you so much!


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