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They Don’t Always See

When people say that machines are faster and more economical time wise, things like that, that’s because mostly they are, but that’s only true in the hands of the unskilled or inexperienced woodworkers. Many of my daily tasks, bevelling the ends of legs, planing a drawer side, making a dovetailed drawer and such, are exponentially faster than setting up machines and and making jigs as guides to use them. So the crosscut cuts square ends in a single pull, can bevel an edge 1 1/4″ wide and 1/4″ deep in little more than a heartbeat too. But if you bevel quarter-sawn oak with a hand plane and then a planer they’re not one and the same, neither in outcome or any other way. Your heartbeat is not increased, you don’t sweat, there is no exercise and the wood cannot go from a frown to a smile in half a dozen strokes. In fact you’re not likely to even see any change occur until it comes off the outfeed table.

Everything is happening away from you, against a fence and the cutterhead. You do not see much move at all whereas I see a smile form in a medullary ray in golden oak. The smile widens stroke on stroke and there’s the grin. I see such things in roundovers on endgrain from a fine rasp and a flat file, my plane stokes cause the growth rings to wrap around in continued contortions and of course the people I speak of can’t hear either. It’s not in any way a criticism or judgement. Just a reality. I hear my plane strokes stroke by stroke changing pitch. There’s timbre, pitch and intensity in the timber. I see and hear ribbons of wood spinning in swirls to the workshop floor and they shimmer in the evening sunlight as I close the door for home. These ordinary things seem always to salute me as the wood shifts in colour by shape and sound. Wait until you make your first cello. If that doesn’t amaze you then nothing will.

I just made my second of a design conjured up in my mind and my mind was encapsulated in the whole of design and making. Is it presumptuous to say I wrote its composition? I don’t think it is at all. No penguin suit in the workshop, just cool cotton denims and no men in suits. Here I included flutes and bassoons, violins, cellos and violas. There was an alto saxophone alongside a soprano sax delivering new notes where none existed before. I watched each part of the composition come together and then I saw in my mind’s eye a young woman at her bench shaving her oak for the strange looking tapered legs. She kept questioning herself but she persevered and she kept replacing frowns with smiles just as the same was happening with her oak medullary ray cells as in mine. One smile at a time her table came together and then I saw her gluing up her beautiful table with the intensity it takes to think in more than three dimensions. And from this she sees and understands, grows into her crafting, builds muscle tone and memories she never knew existed.

17 Comments

  1. John on 7 June 2019 at 12:28 pm

    Reading your reflection is like woodwork poetry, Paul. Thank you.

  2. Greg on 7 June 2019 at 3:26 pm

    Seeing whom I assume is Joseph working on that viola (I don’t think it’s big enough to be a cello?) reminded me that it would be amazing to see him show the building of an instrument on WWMC. Also I thought it would be nice to show the making of some wooden toys or simple instruments like a recorder flute or a drum for kids.

    As you think about the “house full of furniture,” perhaps think of a “house full of living” too and include some of those things? A bird house, a toy, an interesting picture frame, etc.

    The possibilities are fun and exciting!

    • Paul Sellers on 7 June 2019 at 5:01 pm

      It’s a full size cello, for one, Joseph’s actually. It’s also a complex piece to make too. Not a WWMC project either, really, too specialist for 99% of our outreach. Other ideas are possible there though.

    • David Hardy on 7 June 2019 at 5:04 pm

      Greg – It’s definitely a cello – they’re in the process of thinning the inside of the spruce top with finger planes – the outside arching of the top would be mostly complete – except the purfling. The plate is resting in a hollowed out cradle. They’ll be testing for the graduations with the long calipers you see in front (and listening for the overall pitch and tuning of the plates – by lightly tapping – every instrument is different, top and back, depending on the characteristics of the wood…). The plate is thickest at the center and much thinner at the edges. Not so easy – there are not many straight lines in string instruments!… After that’s finished it’s on to cutting the f-holes and inlaying the purfling.

      You can see the maple back behind them – it has the button at the top where it is glued to the neck – right below that will be one of the two substantial interior blocks (for reinforcement and glueing surface) for the neck… There’s a lot of tension and downward pressure when it’s strung up – 90-150 lbs depending on the type of strings used – gut or steel.

      • Bernard on 8 June 2019 at 12:56 pm

        Good eye

        • David Hardy on 10 June 2019 at 3:40 am

          Here’s a link to a nice article about my Dad, Raymond Hardy – he was a wonderful violin luthier. This was published 15 years ago in the John Hopkins University Magazine. https://pages.jh.edu/jhumag/0404web/sound.html
          Owing to my Dad – I’m a professional/amateur cellist and a very happy and totally amateur woodworker. (I’m not making cellos though!)

    • BobH on 10 June 2019 at 2:45 pm

      Who is that with Joseph? An even younger Sellers taking up working wood?

  3. Joe on 7 June 2019 at 5:31 pm

    Paul, it is refreshing to see how passionate you are about your career. Sadly, most aren’t. When I read it your wonderful posts, it is easy to think that you are still early in your career rather than in your 6th decade of woodworking. I’m glad that you were able to find your passion and make a career out of it. Thank you for passing it on to us.

  4. John Panis on 7 June 2019 at 6:09 pm

    Very nice post! On the other hand, in countries that have more dense woods available and the offer of softwoods is scarce, hand tools are difficult to use and demand so much from our body, and sometimes they just don’t work. Pine is fine and works well with handtools, but Ipe, Grapia, Angelim are not subjected to handplanes, for example. I think this is a very geographical matter.

    • Paul Sellers on 7 June 2019 at 7:35 pm

      As with many woodworkers I meet, the assumption always seems that hand tools only work on soft woods and that simply is not true at all. Some woods, Ipe as an instance, would not even be a choice for most western woodworkers these days because most of us would not use exotics anyway. So the same applies to Garapawhich by the way is similar in density and hardness to rosewood and I have never had any issue in using hand tools on rosewood, or ebony which is twice as hard, and many a dozen more. We do tend to work on our native hardwoods because of sustainability and hand tools work better on these than softwoods so there it is.

      • Bruce on 8 June 2019 at 12:55 am

        I find that it is easier to work the hardwoods than the soft. I have to be much more careful with the soft. Too hard a blow and my line moves.

        • Max™ on 8 June 2019 at 3:02 am

          Always worth remembering that hardwood and softwood has little to do with the actual mechanical properties and it is just a quirk of the naming that stuck.

          I’ve dealt with crumply flaky pine, knotted but sturdy pine, buttery and silky walnut, crabby and grumpy oak, greasy and loud smelling pecan, shimmery and impossibly hard sycamore, or overly brittle dried out cherry. I know the pieces of wood I work with, but I am not sure there is any useful information or expectation to be gained from the terms hardwood and softwood.

  5. John Panis on 7 June 2019 at 9:46 pm

    I have easy access to Ipe here. When I had the chance, may I send you a quick video (youtube link) of me trying to plane the face of an Ipe board? Just because I get puzzled by what you are saying. Best regards from Brazil.

  6. Max™ on 8 June 2019 at 2:57 am

    Yeah, watching interesting bits of grain emerge as I work is the only reason I can’t commit fully to a pattern/exact design process. I never know when a particular stroke is going to give that last little bit of curve to pull the growth rings around enough to let the light pick it up juuuuust right and balance with the rest of the sweeps and swirls in a piece.

  7. Stijn Bossuyt on 10 June 2019 at 9:43 am

    The beveled edge in the picture reminds me of a question posed on a dutch woodworking forum. Someone wanted to bevel the underside of a tabletop, but didn’t have a router bit large enough. Other forum members came up with the idea to put the tabletop on end and tilt the blade of the table saw, with the help of some jig. It all seemed so very elaborate (and dangerous too!), so I suggested to take a hand plane instead. That suggestion was quickly discarded by the topic starter, saying he had no hand planing skills.

    Imagine what would happen if the time it takes him to come up with “machine” solutions and makings jigs became available again? Wouldn’t he have been a skillful hand tool woodworker by now?

  8. Theo Foery on 10 June 2019 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you, Paul, thank you. For including the young woman working oak in a quirky design. We female woodcrafters are out here. Yes, we love the craft! It frankly hurts to see NONE of us in any and every tv show, magazine, book, ad… Thank you for being a wonderful virtual mentor, and for sharing so much. Hope the culture catches up! You are my “woodworking dad” and are the best. : )

  9. Michael Chartier on 20 June 2019 at 5:35 pm

    just out of surgery for being a butthead and reaching over the table saw before it stopped. I can attest that you do indeed stop quicker when you hit bone with a hand saw. but God is good and despite my best attempt to saw off three fingers i should escape with just one semi-jacked. just shows youre never too old to be careless. One of the things i have always been amazed of by Sam Maloof was that the way he used power tools he should have been down to stumps by my age- but he died in his 90’s with all ten fingers. just another reason why i am NOT Sam Maloof😉. Looking forward in a month or so to getting my hand back on my 4 1/2.

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