Beyond Noise—Silence

In the noises of my working I find silences that still any disquiet in my soul. The mallet of wood strikes wood and something inside me seems able to find the things that resonate in a kind of private silence. The striking blows become measured pulse beats that sever away the unwanted waste that tumbles in its silence to my benchtop and my feet. Silence meets my measured noise in steady rhythmic beats. I drive the mallet and sense depths as I lift the head once more and follow through with another and another and another blow. The rhythm develops its own steady momentum; silence follows each blow as if to punctuate the noise with silence as silence sometimes can—beat-silence, beat-silence, beat-silence, beat-silence—and the pulsing continues for an hour and then another and I lose myself to the silences beyond noise and here I find myself rested in my working.

My strike with the mallet compels the chisel in a way that excludes aggressiveness. Aggression creates its own unique noise according to the tool and tools in use and the one working in aggression; the too-heavy set on a plane, the heavy saw stroke and such. Each reflects aggression in the same way shouting does in drunkenness. Aggression really has no place as my arm drives the mallet and the head seats squarely to the chisel. Too heavy a blow gives no time for the cutting edge to sever and part the waste and the wood becomes all too readily bruised by a bevel compelled forcefully. When the rhythm is broken by impatience impatience rules, silence is broken and becomes displaced. The young man in me remembers my doing such things as a boy and my regret surfaces for a moment. But men trained by good men and good practice taught me respect in everything and patiently reproved me. They never bruised me with harshness as I saw others who were treated harshly. When you bruise the wood through harshness the bruises never really disappear. They remain unhealed below the surface—in it.

Through many years of self discipline I find myself ever more contented by the peace my hand working delivers to me. Sometimes I might work on other things necessary to earn income and to reach out to others with an alternative reality in the ways of working. This is my writing and my filming and such. This strain has become my important work, but a short burst of hand working always energises me and I regain peacefulness.


The feedback a mallet blow recoil brings is inestimable. I’m not sure that many understand this but I do understand that it’s not necessary to be consciously aware but that we do micro-adjust our alignments according to the feedback we receive in nano seconds with each delivered blow we make.

Throughout my day, the sharpening of a saw by file, the slicing cuts from the same saw, speaks back to me in myriad ways. I listen for the exactness of my presentation until clarity comes in the strokes I make. The clarity comes by my aligning every element of my being in every cutting stroke. In this I tune modulation and search out resonance for a pulse beat sound and touch reach out to me and correspond back and forth, back and forth until that perfect synchrony occurs. Peace prevails in the silences of my working. The short sharp pockets of silence between strokes, swipes and strikes. For every such action there follows resonance and then silence.

Searching out the power of silence

In silence and striking is contrast. Peace rests between two pivotal points of positive and negative actions as if momentarily suspended a hammock of silence restores our perception. Shouldn’t we yield in compliance to such pockets? Peace performs its restorative power amidst agitation if we respond by understanding such rhythms are designed to pace our lives; our input and output become a pulse beat in the same way the hammer blow and the pull back both work positively to one end even though only half of the movements actually strike. Both occur for the common goal of delivery.

18 comments on “Beyond Noise—Silence

    • Yes, when the wood is dried down to under 5% prior to joinery the mortise and tenons constrain the wood and the tongue and groove too so the wood cannot absorb moisture nor expand and cannot shrink either so it remains safe and split-free.

      • Hi Paul,
        Is this on the proviso of all the exposed surfaces of the wood being sealed with a finish or that all the end grain is encapsulated, maybe both? I was hoping you could clarify a little more as it seems to conflict with other references I have come across in regards to moisture induced movement however the context may be the crux of this.Thanks

        • It is the context. The size width is one thing but then the three M&Ts in close proximity, the tongued mitre and then the tongue and groove. Also, you should never let ‘RULES’ stop you from doing something out of the ordinary. A lecturer from a local furniture college asked me about transverse grain on the recent laptop desk ‘being an issue’ with hardwood on pine. It made me realise he had not studied furniture making much. Thousands upon millions of furniture pieces all over Britain have survived with this method for centuries. You see, he, and the students he teaches now, actually believe it can only be done with the ver magical performance of, yes, you guessed it, MDF. The tables I have made using the method shown are still wonderful. Remember it is mostly shrinkage that causes the problem with contrary components and not expansion. Wood dried down to 5% will, generally, unless exposed to very extreme conditions, only expand. If it is constrained properly, as in my case, there will never be an issue.
          Remember though, if I was say in an exam doing what I did they would indeed fail me as will those who have qualified in college exams and become ‘professional’ woodworkers. So if you enter an exam and rely on the outcome with a certificate better conform, you know “Alternate ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ and don’t end up as a clown!”for table tops, that sort of thing.
          Oh, and the very lovely table I copied was 200 years old and it was impeccably made with not a blemish in the tabletop or anywhere for that matter. Mine followed the model to the minutest detail.

          • Thanks very much for the clarification. This is one of the many reasons why I continually read your blog.

  1. I now only allow the noise of one power tool in my shop: my ancient Delta bandsaw. It’s the only one I can’t be without.

  2. Better than the artificial silence of the man-made shell that I work in are the sounds of the rain falling, the wind, birds chirping, etc coming through an open door or window that I would be obliged to shut before turning on power tools.

  3. In most commercial workshops you’ll find a radio on full-blast churning out pap-level pop music and the moronic witterings of an ego-tripping DJ. I think I’d rather have the power tools actually.

  4. Zen and the art of woodworking? Patience is one of the “P’s” of woodworking I have the most difficulty practicing. Currently most of my woodwork is carpentry/maintenance and the list I must complete.

    The other one is taking a deep breath.

  5. Paul. Are you aware of an unanticipated problem that has occurred in the building industry – at least on the west coast? Most of the skilled craftsmen are retiring or retired. These is a shortage of craftsmen replacing those leaving the industry.

    The Portland Oregonian has an extensive article on this issue in their Sunday edition. I live in a rural area of Southern Oregon and am experiencing the same problem. It is almost impossible to get contractors here to take on any more work because of the lose of so many craftsmen. FYI

    • It’s a huge problem. I read that in Minnesota alone, 40% of all electricians in the state are going to retire in the next decade. There aren’t enough young people taking up the trades to fill the spots of retiring boomers.

    • I work for a major Fortune 500 national contractor. We employ more then 20k people nation wide and I can tell you the craft shortages are real and impacting the construction industry in very negative ways. Labor costs are skyrocketing as a result and quality work is deteriorating, I believe strongly if this culture of negatively looking down on a man or woman craft person as a lesser person because they didn’t go to college doesn’t change it will soon be too expensive to fix our roads, build our homes and places of business and maintain our essential facilities such as water treatment, power plants, fuel refineries, grain and food storage silos etc. I may sound like a apocalyptic but job but it is impossible to meet apprentice to journeymen ratios required by the unions and it gets worse every year. Just as an idea we have increased salaries for skilled carpenters up to 50$ an hour and apprentices to 30$/hour to try and attract talent but even that is only working so well

  6. In the first photo, in the top right corner you have on top of big saws, one small saw. Could you describe it, explain when you use it, why it’s so small?

  7. One of the things that impressed me with Paul’s videos is how he uses all his senses to guide his work.

  8. You have really outdone yourself with the elegance of your writing and prose in this post of noise and silence. Thank you Paul for what you do and how you single handedly elevate the quality of content available on the web. My friend and fellow woodworker and I often refer to you as “Pope Paul” with no disrespect to the head of the Christian faith. Thanks again for helping all of us struggling hand tool woodworkers.

  9. Thank you for writing this. I can’t explain how much I loved reading it. I’m both touched and inspired. And awed.

    I just discovered that I was being literal. I tried to explain and I really can’t. Thank you Paul.

    • Thanks for your encouragement, Mary. Sometimes I write things purely because I think things need saying by someone somewhere. It seems funny to make a noise about silence but then there in the midst f noise we discover silences we never realised existed.

      If you get chance read Jon McGregor’s book ‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things’

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