...but then there’s my gut!

Rarely would anyone use hearing as an excuse for planing wood out of square, but I am! Yes, too, I use my sight, even feeling the angle with my fingers. Taste and smell don’t come into it. Remember my being the first to alert you to the reality that you should actually ‘listen for the thickness of the shaving as you set your plane blade’s depth and parallelity to the sole?’ that you can hear how thick the shaving is by the sound coming from the plane and then micro-adjust the plane’s lateral adjuster to align the blade’s cutting edge to the sole and also the depth of cut accordingly, even achieving accuracies within a thousandth of an inch purely by listening to the pitch of the sound as the plane passes over the wood? Well, now I am saying that beyond sight and sound other senses have a profound affect on our ability to align a plane and orient it square to the edge of a board and as we learn to ‘balance‘ the plane on narrow edges we allow many senses to interplay with the neurons in the brain that then help us to develop our skills.

Sometimes, alternating between rip-sawing on the bandsaw and planing an adjacent face ready for the next ripcut, the noise of machinery disallows me from hearing the plane as I pass it over the edge of a board of wood to square its edge. It’s the same when the radio is playing or some other noise impacts the workplace at a constant level. For the main part, I almost always plane my edges dead square and after several successive strokes, having checked myself for square, I find it’s good. This is why I disallow ear defenders and headphones from the workspace if someone else is sharing the workspace. Woodworking is a totally immersive experience and not a place of isolating yourself from essential sensing within the zone. That’s not saying no additional sound should be part of the experience, music soothes the savage in us, but isolation through headphones or excesses of noise is unacceptable.

Gaining sensitivity to your work comes first by cross-referencing the work using an instrument to check us. The square, the sliding bevel, the ruler and the vernier caliper all serve to check what we see and feel as we work the wood and the tool. After a period, perhaps months or years, we one day realise that whatever we are checking seems always to be accurate and the check purely confirms what we felt and responded to beneath the tool’s cutting edge. The other day, whilst checking the edges of many boards, I found myself as near to dead square as humanly possible over a half dozen inch thick boards of white oak. I’m not saying that that’s always the way it is but usually, I am within a stroke or two of fine shavings to make any corrective work.

Activating chemistry

Working with your hands multidimensionally releases chemistry in the brain that activates the neurons and thereby the responses in the brain get the charge they need to progress our development. Cultivating the five senses to be ever more sensitive, feeling after what we are supposed to sense to inform our brain so that we can adjust our bodies to interact with situations surrounding our working, is everything, but then don’t discount the unobvious hidden gems inside our being; often it’s the unseen effort we might call the intuitive that we equally rely on more without our knowing than our knowing, just as much as sight and sound that is. Whereas we might rely on our key five senses, the big five, to inform us more generally, and recognise these influencers to shift our effort, there are then the inner sensors that transmit information otherwise hidden to us by something called proprioception. This then is to close our eyes and present the plane to the wood once we have closed our eyes. Proprioception is our ability to tell where our whole body is in the space we are occupying without looking. It’s used in all spheres of society including interviews, sports, handwork of all kinds. Some are more sensitive to it than others and for different reasons, different exposures throughout life, etc. This innate ability comes naturally but can be further cultivated by regular occupation as well as external stimuli. The more we are working with our hand tools the more we develop sensitivity and respond to these inner senses that go beyond and in support of the big five we acknowledge the most.

All of the parts of our body, our arms, legs, fingers, head and so on, interact within and with the space we occupy. By this, in total darkness, we continue repeatedly to place the tip of any finger to the tip of our noses or one fingertip to any other on the opposite hand using this sense of awareness yet without the ability to look. Beyond that, we have other innate abilities to sense, for instance, the differences we feel when we are standing on sand as opposed to say grass or tarmac yet with our shoes on. So many things touch our awarenesses and often we respond to the seemingly unknown as much as the known by the five big senses yet we cannot define what tipped our balance.

Whereas it is true that many of us may have weaker neuronal signals from our senses to the brain, it is also true that the more we work with our hands the more we rely on the unseen, untasted, unheard, untouched and unsmelt. As a result of weaker signals, perhaps through longterm lack of use and insensitivity, we might tend more towards clumsiness than others, find ourselves less coordinated, but hold on there, I have noticed that those suffering from poor coordination, perhaps bordering on or even having dyspraxia, become better coordinated within a few days of working with hand tools. Is something happening inside them? Is something more self-correcting taking place? I suggest that it is. In times past my chisel took several times to place against the cut line or the plane always landed awkwardly, ultimately, what we refer to as muscle memory, took over and I never failed to meet the registration goals. I might suggest that, whereas there is indeed muscle memory, there is also the development and cultivation of outer and inner sensitivities where we find ourselves responding to every sense we have, the number of which may well exceed 25.

The awakening of core sensing and including the key five we rely on in the immediacy of need is critical to developing accuracy, sensitivity, and carefulness. We rely less and less on our muscling things through and pick up information that encourages us to flex our whole inner being to effect every cut made, place the coordinated lines and respond to both the pressures but then too the emotional pressures resulting in the deeper sensations of the work.


  1. Matt on 5 February 2020 at 9:24 am

    “This is why I disallow ear defenders “…
    Not when the bandsaw is being used I hope!


    • Paul Sellers on 5 February 2020 at 3:51 pm

      Actually, no, but the bandsaw I use does not get high enough decibel levels for ear damage; way less than 75dB and never 85dB, nor for protracted periods either. Now a vacuum system could be loud enough.

  2. Steve P on 5 February 2020 at 12:31 pm

    I agree that the CNS takes all the input and with practice and repetition learns to coordinate all these inputs to improve whatever it is we are doing. However in my situation, whereas due to a medical issue have less hearing in my right ear, would this affect being able to plane a square edge? Reason I ask is I always struggle with this on say longer than a foot board, and saw an old Stanley 95 edge plane that should help me square edges on thinner than 1” stock. Do you recommend this? Or just practice without for months, years?

    • Paul Sellers on 5 February 2020 at 3:53 pm

      If you did get assistance from a guide I think there is nothing wrong with that as you will build muscle memory.

      • steve on 5 February 2020 at 4:12 pm

        It’s rather like those electronic guitar tuners you can buy now. They were scoffed at by purists when they came out but resulted in beginners getting their instruments at exact concert pitch from day one and knowing when they were out of whack very quickly. Eventually you didn’t rely on them as you developed the ‘ear’.

  3. Herbert on 5 February 2020 at 2:19 pm

    You’re hitting the nail on the head here Paul, punch intended. Interesting books on this topic would also be “A NEW SCIENCE OF LIFE” by Rupert Sheldrake and “MASTERY” by George Leonard..

  4. Sylvain on 5 February 2020 at 3:46 pm

    found today on “MSN actualité”:
    “Une étude publiée en 1994 et portant sur des enfants de trois à six ans soulignait que le quotient intellectuel des enfants étudiés est moindre lorsque ceux-ci […] ne bénéficient pas d’une éducation non formelle.”
    “Non-formal education”, part of it is playing and making real things.

    The blog “wisdom of the hands” advocates woodworking as a way to improve learning and education.

  5. Mark D. Baker on 5 February 2020 at 4:03 pm

    Deaf as I’m becoming, I hear you ,Paul.

  6. Jay on 5 February 2020 at 7:47 pm

    Less a comment than a question. I have terrible eye sight, not just focus, but in how the images from the eyes are combined to make a whole. It’s really hard to “sight” down a board to judge squareness. What I’m finding is that the more I work the more I’m becoming dependent on other ways of measuring squareness.

    For example – when pieces are square with one another the fit together almost like one is attracting the other. Square pieces just fit together naturally. Pieces put down on the table require little effort to balance. Sometimes I stand 2 pieces on end pushed against each other on the long axis and they stay together neither leaning away from the other.

    My question – Am I going to miss something or hit a limit using “feel” to determine squareness?

    • Paul Sellers on 6 February 2020 at 8:03 am

      Not at all. My experience tells me some things only get better. Of course, I have not yet reached my full ‘old age‘ yet (at 70 now), and I am aware that our bodies do deteriorate as we grow into our closing years, so we must be aware that we must accept failing components.

  7. G White on 6 February 2020 at 3:33 am

    I too have failing eyesight, but I’ve noticed that my sense of feel and touch helps make up for it. This is especially true when sanding or finishing pieces, my fingers can detect rough spots my eyes can’t. Don’t discount feel as a means of aesthetic assessment.

  8. Jim Gierach on 7 February 2020 at 7:32 am

    Hey Paul — Now I don’t feel so bad swallowing your (April Fool’s post was it a few years ago) about tuning a plane by using a tuning fork. Turns out the sound does has something to do we it — the thickness of the shaving. 🙂

  • William Swinyer on A Few Years AgoHi Paul, I agree with the person above with the idea of doing this as a WWMC project. It would be a great project. Sincerely, William Swinyer
  • Clarence Zimmerman on A Few Years AgoThank you! My son, 34 years of age passed away 2 years ago this month. As a boy, he spent time with me in the shop as I built his bedroom furniture, etc.. aspiring to leave him mem…
  • Mike Z. on A Future PastGreat stories and pictures to boot! I think part of why your teaching methods work so well is the time you spent on both sides of the Atlantic ocean - not an easy chasm to straddle…
  • Alain Briot on A Few Years AgoWho is Joseph? Your son? Thank you for the nice story.
  • Dave R on A Few Years AgoI also would love to see this toolchest as a project on WWMC.
  • Nick Jones on A Few Years AgoWhat a lovely story. Time with our kids is the most precious, rewarding and important time of our lives. Wonderful.
  • Noel Rodrigue on My Latest Giveaway is now OPEN!Now on to 500,000 subscribers! Anybody taking bets on how long it'll take to get there? Three months? Anyone else?