Cognitive Feedback

The American Windsor chairs have more splay to their legs and are far more graceful that the English versions. Combined with the crinoline stretcher they look very elegant.

Woodworking by hand is purely sensory. I read someone who said he bought chisels in and used them as his “beaters”. Shameful! Such careless statements sadden me because though I know what people mean and where they’re coming from, it’s a highly disrespectful way of referring to what was indeed a violent act. I’m not sure where the term came from (I can guess) or why it gained acceptance. Craftsmanship defies such levels of aggression and insensitivity in work. Craftsmanship relies demands sensitivity. I’ve watched a skilled stone mason split a rock with a cold chisel and a light sledge and with skill, sensitivity and heightened awareness throughout the task, the rock split along his intended line. The same is true with an 18″ diameter oak stem eight or more feet long. Steel or wooden wedges cautiously placed and well driven at intervals and before too long a Windsor chair emerged from the sticks and stems and spokes.

The more I work with wood the more I realise that it is less to do with force than it is to sensitivity. Less to do with the over use of power and more to do with controlled effort. A bandsaw uses a thousand unnecessary revolutions and millions of unused tooth cuts to part off the waste from the wanted. Every stroke with a handsaw is effort needed and used expediently. Nothing is wasted. My thoughts today rest safely on the reality that craftsmen and women become increasingly more sensitised to their need for controlled power the more they work their material. Their awareness is heightened so that they become increasingly aware of what they are doing by sensitivity to feedback coming from resistance from their materials through the tools they use.

Our awareness grows in response to what we feel. We become aware of dullness only when we have become aware of what sharpness is. In my opening classes through the years and now decades I always start the first hour with sharpening planes and chisels followed by saws. The effort needed to use these tools is the difference between sensitive severance and brutally bruising. They place the chisel to the wood and the light goes on. Now they know the truth. They can now draw a comparison for ever. Once you know what sharpness is, when you have worked with it for a period, you become sensitive to the need to return to the sharpening stones. The number one failure in most woodworking is mostly to do with sharpness and the lack of it. I think people who ask the question, “How often do you need to sharpen?” is the same as asking, “How long is a piece of string? You can never sharpen too often and sharpness is all to do with recognising how much pressure the last cut took to part the waste from the wanted. Feedback is everything but it’s only any good if we acquire sensitivity to feedback. As a second step it’s also important to understand that we MUST be responsible by willingly turning to the sharpening stones and the file minute by minute. It is too easy to take one extra stroke with dullness in the cutting edge to ruin the work when even for that one stroke it would have been well worth the effort to remove the dullness from the iron and the dullness by our unwillingness to sharpen for a single stroke. Laziness is usually the enemy of fine workmanship and not the dull cutting edge.

So I am convinced that few people sharpen when they should. The stones are right there, the fluid, the rag, all these things there by the vise close to hand. “But I just sharpened ten minutes ago.” I said to George; I was 16 years old. “Then do it again and tell me what you feel.” Two minutes. Two minutes is all it took! The difference? Night and day! “It was that spruce knot,” George said. ‘When you hit that I knew the edge would be gone. if you’re not willing to resharpen then you should, then go find another job.” Even The new and more modern planes with supposedly high-quality steel blades need resharpening more regularly than people do. The teeth of saws can feel sharp but a single light pass through each saw gullet even after a couple of days of use results in a pristine cutting peak to every tooth, but even that is not it. It’s the sides of the teeth that give the shearing cut to the wall of the kerf that I am looking for. This sets me apart. It’s by this attention to detail that we perform good workmanship. Training your senses should always be followed up with a willingness to respond with action. This is sharpness!

41 thoughts on “Cognitive Feedback”

    1. Beater : unusual lexicon in American language. It means an every day type of tool. To refer to a vehicle as a beater usually a work truck.
      This implies there is a better one in possession that is not for everyday use. NO VIOLENCE. Apparently that fellow was embarrassed of his chisel or felt it was not up to task in your presence.
      Now my grand mother would get mad if I used he “Good Scissor” she was a seamstress and if I had seen your video on tuning and sharpening a scissor. I would have been her hero as she would have no beaters.
      Paul thanks again for the knowledge.

  1. Good stuff….I agree. I’d like to know, if there’s a way you can assimilate it, how much pressure should you be applying to the chisel or plane iron when sharpening.

    With golf, they say you should never grip a club tighter than an open tube of toothpaste without it coming out.

    Is there a similar reference to the pressure used when sharpening?


    1. I always liked working wood, but my results were poor. Which again led me to only reach out for saw, chisel and wood if really, really necessary. Somehow I did know how to use the tools, but never the less they worked very poor for me.

      Now it’s different. I work wood whenever I can. Because Paul’s videos taught me how to sharpen my tools. And now they cut like never before. Now I can make precise cuts without adding very much force to the chisel. plane, knife or whatever I work with. The sharpness of the tools make the difference, they do exactly what my hands tell them to do. I’m still amazed…!

      Bill, I think it can’t be explained better than Paul does it: Once you try a really sharp tool, you’ll know the difference and you’ll be able to feel it ever after. And I may add: If you doubt if your tool is sharp, then most likely it isn’t. Go sharpening. And the more you sharpen, the better you’ll be in sharpening! That’s my experience – and I hope you’ll be experiencing the same 🙂

      I enjoy Pauls woodworking videos very much. And being a little careful I now can make (almost) as fine things as Paul does. Not because I’m such a fantastic woodworker, but because my tools are sharp now. I’m so thankful to Paul Sellers, my being able to sharpen properly ment I could make a giant leap forwards in achieving satisfying results working my wood. Thanks again to Paul Sellers.

  2. In hindsight, the main reason I never got involved with woodworking was my inability to sharpen the tools. I started by viewing sharpening videos (firstly, the scissors; about a year later, the plane fettling video; a little while later, saw sharpening). When my tools were usably sharp it suddenly became possible to work wood. I used, and still use, the sandpaper sharpening method (a.k.a. ‘scary sharp’). I know mr. Sellers isn’t fond of that method and prefers diamond plates as being more cost-effective. But it was with sandpaper that for the first time I managed to get tools reliably sharp and so far, it still works for me. Occasionally use bench stones and the results are now tolerable, but nothing more. Still have a lot to learn about sharpening.

    Speaking for myself, woodworking only came into view and became an option after I learned to sharpen. I figure for many it was the other way around: wanting to work wood and thus having to learn how to sharpen.

    When you have sharp tools woodworking not only becomes possible but also enjoyable. Can’t sharpen? Then woodworking simply isn’t a realistic option.

  3. For whatever reason it was a down day, then I read your post and it picked me right up. I’m clumsy and half blind, but I can still get that awesome feeling of giving and getting from the wood, tools and my plans. Awesome and thanks!

  4. Timely post. I had a misused “demolition chisel” but recently I got a power sharpener and decided to clean it up. It looks nice again and is ready for use on new adventures. Also cleaned up the jack plane iron and used it to smooth out a scarf on our wooden sailboat. Small steps. As I get older I’m not as interested in powering through a project but moreso finding the art within. Along those lines I hope to incorporate the Alexander Technique to be more mindful of work movement and energy expenditure while out in the shop. Thanks for sharing your knowledge! Cheers, Kent

  5. It would be interesting to discover the etymological origins of the term beater. My guess is that it was derived from the British use of “beaters” who drove game from the bush to the hunters’ guns by beating the bushes with sticks. Another great article!

  6. Joseph Kesselman

    The term “beater” may come from automotive slang, where it refers to the “daily driver” car that gets used for practical tasks as opposed to a fancier vehicle, eg sports car, that is mostly “left on the shelf” and brought out to be admired more than used. I agree that it’s a bit disrespectful, but it’s used affectionately to recognize the tool one actually relies on to get the job done.

    Re sharpening: I’m still learning, but one of the things that has scared me off has been trying to reconcile what grits should actually be used. There seem to be multiple measurement systems; it’s particularly hard to determine the equivalence between traditional waterstones, sandpaper, and diamond plates (which also seem to be described differently by each manufacturer). I haven’t yet viewed Paul’s videos on this topic, so if he has dealt with this, great… But fear of “getting it wrong” has definitely slowed down my learning how to get it right.

    1. Joseph Kesselman

      (“US and UK: two countries divided by their common language.” Someone I knew slightly was maintaining a US/UK dictionary to document sone of these divergences and slang usages.)

    2. Shame on you, Joseph Kesselman. Not for feeling “at sea” when sharpening, but for not daring to try. You say, “I haven’t yet viewed Paul’s videos on this topic, so if he has dealt with this, great… But fear of “getting it wrong” has definitely slowed down my learning how to get it right.” Paul’s videos are freely available on You Tube, and I think on Paul’s free Woodworking Master Classes as well, so you have scant excuse for that (though it will take a bit of searching on You Tube), but by far your biggest sin as a woodworker was in chickening out. All of this stuff takes a smattering of courage. Now, I have little regard for Deepak Chopra, but the guy DID say one useful thing (so I have been clued in on by friends who do pay attention to the guy’s drivel): He said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” This applies to woodworking as well. You will NEVER build a ‘perfect piece’ until you build a good piece, and you will never achieve that until you achieve a well sharpened tool(s), which you won’t achieve until you try. On the grits to be used. You can take this from a guy (myself) who, while not having Paul’s numerous decades of experience, do have 17 years in (US, unfortunately) cabinet shops under my belt, and has fought with numerous stones/methods/etc., etc., only achieving true, surgical sharpness after Paul clued me in to using a leather strop+polishing compound as the final course. The polishing compound is cheap and available at Harbor Freight in the US. Which particular grits you use to get up to the final one does NOT really matter, just a fine, medium and course series of grits: think in your woodworking mode. As it just so happens, the (again, US) series (in woodworking) of 80 grit for course, 120 for medium and 180 for fine are standard grits, so they’ll work fine (on wood), but for steel (i.e. tools) I use (for example) 200 for coarse, 800 for medium, and 1200 for fine (using oil on all as the lubricant), and finishing up with the strop+polishing compound (I think its 20,000 grit, or whatever; its green in the tube at Harbor Freight) for the mirror finish. But don’t get carried away by the exact numbers on the grit size. Like 80+120+200 working well for wood, 200+800+1200+polishing strop will work well on hardened steel, at least for me they do.
      Pursue the good, the perfect will follow. Maybe even in something less than 40 years.

      1. Hey, I feel no Shane in admitting my past mistakes, including the mistake of letting myself get discouraged/distracted. I was going to join Procrastinators Anonymous but I never got around to it..

        I am, slowly, coming back to woodworking. It’s gonna take time, and that’s ok. It isn’t a race; I’ll get there when I get there.

  7. Since watching your videos and having sharpening de-mystified it has been a revalation. All that nonsense about micro bevels, this angle, that angle, must use this gadget, blah blah, mostly from ‘experts’ who should know better. Thanks Paul for the knowledge.

    1. Many experts became and become teachers and advisers in the absence of skilled craftsmen and women. Usually it’s cos they can’t hack it working at craft in real life. So then you make lots and lots of rules, 25-degrees here, 30-degrees there, micro this and macro that, before you know it only heavyweight planes made from cryogenic alloys work and those hundreds and hundreds of craftsmen using ordinary #4 and 4 1/2 planes over two and three centuries were idiots who knew nothing about woodworking.

  8. Could not agree more Paul. Lately, I’ve been making half-blinds. I’m becoming more sensitive to the pressure I need to apply when chiseling out the recesses and my half-blinds are getting better – smaller gaps, more symmetrical, less over shooting of the saw when sawing the recesses, no cracking of the outside wall of the recess (this one I’m most proud of).

  9. Very nice article. I take pleasure from sharpening, and as so many people say “A sharp tool is a safe tool”. I would add that a clean tool is a safer tool. I am not talking about handles, although they should be clean to avoid transfer to a work piece. I am talking about saw blades. Particularly with resinous woods the gullets can capture tar and then saw dust. When that happens the cut is not as easy or as clean. I use mineral spirits to clean the blade. I recently made a series of Christmas decorations for a church bazaar using my bandsaw to remove the waste material. I was using pine and after three decorations I would clean my blade. It took time but the results were worthwhile.

  10. Paul, I think I have read everything you have on the internet, but I feel the is the most profound of all your articles. Thank you

    1. Paul, a great article, and a great way to advise us on respect for tools and how often to sharpen. Obviously, knowing when to sharpen is a skill that must be learned with everything else, but your stories give us hints that dovetail with our own experience and help shorten the leaning-curve.

      I wonder if the term “beater” tool may come from pursuit other than fine woodworking?

      I am on a path to learn hand tool woodworking, but my past is cluttered with other experiences. I learned a lot working with a carpenter friend who in some ways is my equivalent of your George. I would call him a finish carpenter, not a fine woodworker, but he is famous for his meticulous work. He has a separate 3/4″ chisel he calls a “beater” chisel. This is typically used during demolition or refitting (to help fit doors or windows into existing headers for instance or pipes through joists) where it is likely to encounter nails (sometimes old cut nails which are very hard) and other hidden obstacles. This is mean work for a chisel, but a better tool may not be available. The chisel really takes a beating and often gets “beat up”. A finely sharpened edge could last seconds and require major resharpening every couple minutes to maintain the edge and angle that woodworkers normally strive for. Instead, he uses (oh, horrors!) a belt sander when needed.

      I know, sorry, I hope this story does not offend! Some of us would like to capture and repurpose his beater chisel to a higher purpose. But he would just purchase another mid-priced “plug horse”, put it in harness and go on with business.

  11. Several years ago I got myself a lathe. Having no real experience turnng, my wife bought me ten lessons with a very good turner we had come to know. In my first lesson I asked him how often he sharpened. His response was, “I’m always sharpenng.” Then he proceeded to show me why he did this. The message was clear.

    For those interested in more thoughtful writing on touch and feel and craftsmanship, try Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2008).

    I had always wanted to sharpen my own saws. I had picked up a nice, if worn, English backsaw at a flea market. It was in good shape, but the teeth were a mess. After I watched Paul’s saw reviving video I decided to have at it. I filed all the teeth away and set about the task. By the third iteration it was not a perfect restoration, but it was light years better than the condition in which I got it. It cuts like a dream. It can be better and I try to improve it with each touch-up.

  12. I find it telling that in the popular blog series posts in the sidebar, none deal with sharpening. Of course you’re videos related to sharpening quickly slice up anyone’s argument that sharpening is a difficult task.

    Regularly taking time to sharpen an edge is like checking one’s answers before turning in a test. No one regrets doing it, but most people want to take the short cut of avoiding it. The end work reflects a person’s willingness to apply the added effort, every time.

    Thanks for your wisdom and encouragement.

    1. I’m just glad I can do this. The internet may be condemned by many but through it we have added another string to our bow and indeed managed to turn the tables with attitudes towards real woodworking. We may be small potatoes in the big scheme of things but we can express what we really feel. We have always turned away from sponsors, advertisers and such to keep our presence on the internet ‘clean’. And when people start to trust you, well, then you have an even greater responsibility for what you put out.

  13. I heard this comment and immediately thought of yourself Paul…

    ‘It is not dying that frightens me.
    It’s living without ever having done my best.’

  14. Hi Paul, I came upon your videos on sharpening tools when trying to fix two dovetail drawers in an old chest in the shed. That has started a journey for me that I hope will never end. I bought some old and rusty tools which included two tyzack tenon saws. Then I bought a couple of bahco files. Brought the saws back to life and set up a mini vice with clamps on the desk in front of the computer, so I could watch you as I went. I now have two sharp and useable saws. I don’t have the words to tell you how exhilarated I felt at the first cut. Woodworking has come to me at a very difficult time in my life and I am so grateful for it and for you and your passion, diligence and gentle guidance. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and allowing us to share the joy.

  15. Great Article, Craftsmanship, Sensitivity, If your not willing to do it correctly, then maybe find somethin else to do.
    After making 100’s of pounds of sawdust, I just finished my first custom project. It is not nearly perfect yet, a prototype but working model. I used half open mortise tenon/bridal joints on an inner section, and closed mortise tenon on the outside piece. Looks like a standard picture frame.
    I call it a light box, it illuminates a poster print from inside the frame, entirely new way to appreciate fine art.

  16. Adriano J. M. Rosa

    The answer is:
    Attention to what you do and care what you do!
    When the hand saws and cutters fail to cut well it looks like it is slipping on ice. Neither saws nor hand planers cut.
    It takes me longer to disassemble and assemble the hand-planers than to sharpen them.
    I have never timed the time it takes to dismantle, sharpen, and assemble the planers but I think I’ll do it in two minutes or less.
    Thank you, Master Paul.

  17. I noticed when making a coat rack that my saw wasn’t sharp enough recently, sharpening it made such a world of difference and it was so much easier once it was done, effortless, I didn’t notice when I started woodworking these subtle signs but now I can tell when something isn’t quite right, especially with the plane, this is something you need to learn and feel for, it takes real life experience and lots of making, I’m always inspired when I read your blogs or your books to go into my garage and make something.

  18. My biggest problem is that teaching myself hand tool woodwork on my own. I believe that I don’t truly no what sharp is and no way of finding out.

  19. Paul I think the answer for me is when it no longer cuts, no crisp edges and the finish is poor and the shavings are rough.
    I first started woodworking at school sixty plus years ago , our teacher always said if the finish is poor and you are having to push more it’s time to sharpen the blade.
    Still do the same today , if in doubt get the oilstone out !!

  20. Here is a little refinement you may like for sharpening saws . After sharpening a saw I lay the saw flat and brush the Japanese diamond file just a few times along the sides of the teeth running backwards from the tip towards the handle. That idea is not new but if you saw a slice of wood before and after this filing you can test the difference by holding each cut off slice next to your ear and brushing your finger across the surface. The first cut off piece will sound at a lower pitch than the second. The fibres are finer in the second cut and it proves the saw is working better .

  21. Chisels are handy for sharpening pencils which will show quickly that a chisel needs to be sharper. But what about the pencils? I bought several packets of German pencils as I was weary of poor quality pencils always breaking.Even losing the lead as they were being sharpened .B&Q sell wide carpenter`s pencils which are not a patch on the older ones my Dad used . Is there a good quality carpenter`s pencil anywhere to be found ?

    1. In furniture making and general woodworking we wouldn’t really use the American flat carpenter pencils. So I wouldn’t know a good one from a bad one nowadays. Also, chisels for sharpening pencils made from graphite are the worst thing for the cutting edges.

      1. When I initially read this comment I thought you were joking, as (pure) graphite has very low hardness (just checked – 1.5 on the Mohs scale). I rarely use and sharpen a carpenter’s pencil so have no experience with the nefarious effect on chisels myself.

        If pencils are so hard on chisels, it’s probably the other ingredients (baked clays?) in the ‘lead’?

        Back on topic: I keep all my tools in excellent condition, except for one chisel that’s reserved for opening can lids and one screwdriver. I guess they could be called ‘beaters’. All other screwdrivers are ground perfectly and are only used for driving and drawing the correct sized screws. But that one screwdriver is used for all dirty jobs, scraping dirt, prying and such. Same with that single chisel. Though it’s never abused in such a way that I can’t easily restore it to full functionality as a fine woodworking chisel if I should ever want to.

        John: there are also nice automatic carpenter’s pencils available nowadays: Striker 77629 mechanical carpenter’s pencil, for example. An internet search will turn up more. Never used an automatic carpenter’s pencil, but I only use ‘normal’ automatic pencils (Pentel P205, 0.5mm, 2B lead) – never a wooden pencil. Much prefer automatic pencils, not only because I always carry mine clipped in a shirt pocket.

        Isn’t the breaking of pencils more related to rough handling during distribution and use than to manufacturing quality of the pencil? That’s my guess, anyway. Then again, pencils are so inexpensive and last so long that I can’t see myself pinching pennies on that one, especially since lousy pencils (or tools in general) are a continual source of irritation and frustration.

        1. I didn’t say it was hard. Just that it was unsuitable. The lead part dulls cutting edges in a similar way that gypsum plaster board dulls drill bits made from steel.

  22. Hah ! I accept your sensitivity o the harsh use of chisels, I don’t like it myself but have to do ugly things sometimes, anybody in the building side of carpentry or joinery has got a couple of rough chisels (I use the marples ones with square blue handles) Occasionally you have to chop something out when you can’t see what’s there, makes you wince sometimes ! At least I can fettle them up again when I get home, I draw the line at using the angle grinder !! Delicacy of feeling about tools is misplaced, if I can’t do something because I shrink at possible tool damage I lose more than the cost of a new cheap chisel. As for Beating chisels weren’t Register chisels with their iron bands and leather shock washer meant for this ?

    1. No, the carpenters used heavier wooden mallets. Nowadays it’s all waffle head hammers with pyramid peaks on 1/8″ centres. I am glad the Irwin Marples chisels have a use at last too.

    2. Funny you should say this, I too have a Marples with blue plastic handle which gets used for the awful stuff. Other than the nails the ever present sand in my part of the world is always present in timber floors. The funniest comment I have had when I start using my decent chisels/ plane etc is “Oh , you are going to do it properly” If there is recognition of tried and true technique developed by those before why the resistance?

  23. Paul’s sharpening videos are a “National Treasure”. They have changed the way I work with wood and added much peace and satisfaction to the process for me. with a little practice (and some rather embarrassing failures) I can sharpen any chisel or plane in my shop in less than 3 minutes and any saw in less than 10.

    If Paul had never made another video, these alone would put him at the top of my woodworkers Hall of Fame.

    P.S. Please don’t stop though…

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