From Rough Framing to Trimming, A Push-hands metaphor


Way back around 1972 I worked for a contractor in the Ozarks, C. Tal Wooten, who liked to keep the same crew to do both the rough framing of houses we built for him and also do the trim work on the same million dollar homes.

For those not familiar with the difference between rough framing and trim work, I’ll explain:

Rough framing, as this link on Google shows, is the building of the skeleton that holds a house together.  Big pieces of wood. Usually 2x4, 2x6, 2x8 and so on. These pieces are held together with big nails and usually a carpenter would use a big hammer to drive these nails into the wood. Now, I know I’m dating myself. Because today, framers are using pneumatic guns to drive big nails into the wood. But back then, we just used 32-ounce framing hammer and drove the nails in two hits. If you missed the nail, no biggie. No one was going to see the hammer’s indent in the wood since it was going to eventually be covered with drywall.

Later, when the drywall was in place, we would then go back and do all the trim work. Now, as this link will show, trimming refers to all of the fine carpentry done before painting. Trim around the windows, doors, garage doors; kitchen cabinets, baseboards, closet doors and any type of carpentry that entailed small pieces of finished wood. When doing trim work, we could not swing the 32-ounce hammers. Instead we would use a 16-ounce hammer. A much lighter hammer from our big framing hammers and, you made sure to not miss hitting the nail in the head. Tal did not tolerate dents in the wood; wood putty was a four letter word, and miters had to be on the money.

Now, Tal Wooten, was really smart. He knew that it was not wise to take a crew of framing carpenters and transform them into trim carpenters overnight.  So, he would give all of us carpenters some time to tone our swing down. We would practice on his tab, hitting small trim nails for two weeks with the smaller and lighter hammers. Thus, when the time to actually begin trim work, we would have our framing energy attenuated down to a level conducive for fine carpentry. A wise man Tal was.

I have often thought about Tal’s tactics and though of ways to translate his methods into my Tai Chi’s push-hands instruction and practice. Here’s what I’ve concluded:

All of us, I’m speaking of Western students, come to Tai Chi’s push-hands as rough frame carpenters. We are rough on the edges, swing our hammer without inhibition or fear of the consequences should we miss the nail’s head, and treat every structure as a rough unfinished piece of wood.

As a push-hands practitioner and instructor, I accept and welcome from the student, the gross, raw expression of energy during early stages of push-hands practice and encourage the student to recognize and accept his/her current unrestrained muscular and mental state of being. And, as a teacher, I’m willing to lend my body as a rough unfinished piece of wood where the student can practice his or her swing without fear or inhibitions.

Now, the reader should understand that my approach is totally unorthodox. My methods are totally contrary to conventional wisdom which dictates that new students start push hands instruction by practicing drills in a slow tempo and without using any force. To me, this is counterproductive. We must meet the students on their grounds and play by their rules for a while. If a teacher is unable to adapt to a student’s uncontrolled methods, then he or she should not teach push-hands. Just teach form and Qi Gong and leave it at that.

At some point of practicing push-hands like a frame carpenter, the student wishes to go ‘indoors’ and learn to trim. At this stage, a new hammer is introduced and thinner nails with smaller heads are now the target. A craftsman in the making.  Here is the place where slow practice and patterns are now welcome and appreciated by the student and it becomes the student’s turn to lend his body to another frame carpenter.


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