Two Opposites

Dealing with my two natures:

So, I watched a worker of smaller and lightweight stature work a plane on wood and then another of larger stature do the same. The one used strategy, different approaches, and the wood was levelled, squared and trued to compliance. The other used weight, muscle and a combined strength to weight ratio of, well, mainly body mass. So too the one used hand-eye coordination and focussed the effort on sensitivity to gather useful and usable information, stored it in mental retrieval brain pockets and drew on it at different points of interpretive need. The other muscled through the strokes, ripped into the wood and tore the surface. The muscled weight left every trace of carelessness recorded in the wood – a caustic argument between the wood, the tool and the muscled weight. The blame was clear but never taken. Each phase of work determined the outcome of the next and shoulders to joints despite the right tools never met on both sides because of the brutish application. I turned then to the graceful lightweight and saw again the gentle placing of the plane and the feeling of the grain at the very edge of the blade, the spin, the turn end for end a full one-eighty tamed what lay beneath the sole. It was bold but well determined, strategic and unforced: Earned!

The lightweight worker sharpened more, questioned the working and thought the solution options one by one until the work was eased, the shavings lifted and the paring cuts left the surface trued, reduced and fitted fair to its opposing mate. I watched the wood yield so willingly, subsumed by the care of strokes felt. This pulled me into the sphere of the advanced hand toolist. A sphere unique to the lightweight worker in love with the tools and the wood and the workplace set aside to be. My watching never interfered as the observer in an experiment because there is no experiment but just known working practice. I anticipate the lightweight’s working patterns adopted from my own to become owned. The heavyweight must learn and shift the attitude that relies on weight and muscle and strength alone for the wood bruised and ripped rarely if ever leads to the fineness good work results in. The heavyweight is not irredeemable but it takes longer to disabuse of what’s been relied on over a two-decades default position, often many more. Habits of heavy handedness begin with lack of good supervision. Better habits should replace them to be set early. Good better habits of working that is. This is the work a master works for, who listens to the file strokes in the saw’s gullet and speaks the sensings out — ‘Lighter strokes. Be gentle and feel for it! Less pressure; counter the rebellion with exactly the right amount of pressure and no more. More even, I think!”, such like that. The strokes change in length, and weight and suddenly the method is absorbed into the worker to become owned. And so the heavyweight and the lightweight find unison and weight and strength are harnessed by the heavyweight’s willingness to learn, to change and to submit to become supple and less rigid. Less brittleness means less broken wood and tools but greater brokenness that leads to highly sensitive work and working.


  1. Bravo! I love these musings. As always, your generosity in sharing wisdom is a spacial gift to those listening.

  2. I did an introductory woodworking course as I love woodworking but was having continuous problems and unfortunately fell into the latter category. Everything I had gone there to learn continuously fell back to the same comment from the tutor. “You’re not a gorilla Thurston. Be gentle”. Even when I thought i was, unknowingly I would still have the tool in a death grip. But patience and a lot of practise has seen me move to more of a lightweight. I’m not fully there yet, but it’s becoming more a subconscious than conscious effort. It was your writings and projects that set me on this path, so for that I give thanks.

  3. A very nicely presented perspective! It greatly reminded me of a synopsis which I learned form a course over twenty years ago about the steps in a learning process. The stages were presented thus:
    1) unconscious incompetence
    2) conscious incompetence
    3) conscious competence
    4) unconscious competence.
    I have mixed feelings about the “unconscious” aspect of number 4, but I think you can see the general tone of the stages.
    Thank you and your crew for all you do to help many lives in many ways!

    1. About the “unconcious competence”: it is when you do something without thinking about it, like second nature. It is when you correct the path of your car when you meet traffic on a narrow road, or to avoid a puddle of water on the road. You do not think about it, it is instinctive. Unconcious competence.
      The brain is a marvellous contraption!

  4. let us make a poster for our workshop
    * sensitivity
    * listening to the sound feed-back
    * small bites
    * let the tool do the work
    * no sharpening procrastination
    * knife wall
    * reference face
    * grain reading
    * …

  5. Very articulate article Paul! Love it. To me it is a wonderful thing the passing of a very sharp plane over the wood as a thin beautiful shaving curls and gently falls like snow to the ground! Simply elegant and beautiful!

  6. Wow! So timely for me. Just this weekend I found myself working much more gently and sensitive to the grain and force I applied. I was amazed at how much more quickly and accurately the task was accomplished! I still have a way to go, but I feel like I turned a very important corner in my wood working skills. I’ve said it before, but will repeat, the money I have spent on your Master classes is the best money I have ever spent on woodworking, bar none. Thanks!

  7. This raises the biggest problem I have with learning from your videos. The “lack of good supervision”. Sure, i can learn and coly what i see in the videos, but it would be nice to have someone watching over me and seeing all the idiosyncrasies etc and correcting them before its too late. Maybe you will open your school up once again!

  8. Sensitivity is a good word for my latest effort in making my Stanley 4 1/2 behave well .The rocking blade when fitting was caused by the tiny rivet in the lateral adjuster pressing up on the cap iron . ( I nearly said Back Iron –That`s a golf club ) .The plane worked well ,but the lateral lever was stiff. Placing a piece of thin cardboard between blade and cap iron just back from the joining screw sorted that out. I made sure to get the cardboard oily as cardboard makes steel go rusty .Well thought out and a perfect plane . Now I have a chance .

  9. Paul, I am 6’6″ and a gorilla. I’ve been a power tool user and abuser for forty years and now, with wise people like yourself, am looking at things differently. Thank you for your viewpoint. I really love the perspective.

  10. On the other hand, there are a fair number of large framed, muscled folks who do a fair job of woodworking in spite of their stature…

  11. The point I got is that the person of slight stature learned(was taught) to use their strength, ability to think, sense of touch and the ability to find what works for them to produce a fine product. The person with a larger stature and strength plowed through with a product of “bad” work. It’s better to learn and think your way through the correct processes and produce lifetime or longer pieces of beauty. If something isn’t producing the desired result stop look and engage the brain.

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, reveling in its relevances to my own condition. Stricken young by the malady of applying strength and force to my every pursuit, I often failed at the finer efforts. Impact sports came easily to my understanding but mastery of the finesse games like tennis and golf eluded me…and they elude me still. My early efforts at working wood show, still, the signs of my wizardry of force and the corresponding dearth of finesse! However, I’m happy to confirm that with awareness comes learning and it shows in my latest offerings. Surely, this post is a welcome reminder to me of the true strength of the finer approach.

    1. There is a quiet strength in the word meek and then too the reality when you encounter a person in his or her humility. These two virtues have lost their rightful place in the character evaluation of people who are often put down when they should receive a level of admiration from us. I find the work of the master makers who came before me and mostly from the pre machine age, the ones I met and still meet only through their work, to be truly humbling, even to the point of feeling ashamed. When you come up against the exceptionally rare quality of a humble person it can indeed take you aback because it is so rare.

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