The art in all crafts is more about our ability to flex in the moment and the motion of working according to sensitivities we were born with or that were developed through rote persistence to master our work and working. Rigidity rules doesn’t work too well for us, we must relax into most tasks and cuts and strokes.

Rigid rules and rigidness in the use of tools of all the tools and materials we work with rarely if ever cut it as it should if you see what I mean. Just as new drivers often overcorrect or understeer or oversteer, new woodworkers (and many a seasoned one too) often think that muscling the tools in a locked body like a weightlifter under the weights is the answer. It’s not!. Just when we think holding firm and forcefully will expedite the exact action we want, we artisans, through years and decades of practice, know that we must relax to a level of firmness only we can measure and feel from within the core of our being. Using saws and planes, marking gauges, knives and chisels, demands that we work sensitively to apprehend the feedback coming through the tools from the very cutting edges and points on the wood to the senses that govern (or should be) what we do.

Minute shifts, often the most very minute ones, enable us to engage in our work with levels of accuracy even we ourselves cannot quite understand. I learned this early on in my worklife and found confirmation through those I was trying to help to learn my craft. I have studied all types of craftwork throughout my life. Work alongside a truly gifted blacksmith for any length of time and you might just glimpse and understanding of what I mean. So too the weaver and spinner, the leatherworker and basket maker, potter, seamstress and a thousand more. I have written on these subjects at different times, worked to develop curriculum to capture patterns of work and such with those who found writing awkward, difficult and impossible. They too, like me, learned the importance of flexing to work accurately, learned to release stress and tension by breathing in and out at just the right time before making the next move. If you know how to shoot, be that with a camera or a firearm, you know exactly the right flex you need.

Take a man new to a cross pein hammer and unused to hammering and he’ll strike with hammer blows so rigid he’ll be worn out in half an hour. Furthermore, the hammer marks (hammer ash) surrounding the intended target signifies the intensity of someone who’s more fearful of losing something and rarely exemplifying success. Hammer ash is the unintended marking of the material where, like darts surrounding the bullseye, rigidity resulted in misstrikes all around the target. It’s true of new carpenters hand driving nails for the first time and watch how often their rigidity negates the hammer from actually hitting the nail anyway. Look around the nail to the wood and the hammer marks are scattered like confetti. A weaver feels for the pressure on the beater bar to get the rows evenly spaced and to a consistent tension that leaves the weaving at ease within the interwoven threads twixt weft and warp. Without flex, the leatherworker finds gathers she cannot get rid of after the stitching along a row is done and so must go back in to loosen her rigidity until she has absorbed some of the intensity in the early stitches. The shoulder part of a cowhide is different than the rump and the belly hide. A skilled leatherworker understands this and micro adjusts as the leather stretches on one part to interrelate to another.

Locking-on in woodworking is often a disaster and an accident waiting to happen. How often did I see woodworkers new to my craft lock the plane and the saw into their hands in fear of losing the line they aim to reach. Relaxing into cuts, and especially successive strokes like in planing and sawing, is critical to the passage of cuts into and onto the work. Being a crafting artisan is all about flex. Did I say that yet?

With flexibility in the hand, arm and all other linkage we use less muscle and indeed energy and the saw binds less and the plane stops skudding across the surface, simple! I loosen my wrist and move my fingers to cradle the handle often. The saw starts more to glide as I do this. Sliding into the cut with such grace and smoothness. I feel in synchrony now and my spirit lightens.

30 Comments

  1. James Murray on 9 September 2020 at 9:51 am

    Interesting take. A canoe/kayak paddler learns to relax all muscles except those needed for a particular phase of the stroke. A body learns to adjust a without thought, coping with affects of wind and currents on the boat. A good paddler looks loose and relaxed even at sprint speed. Similarly a trained cross country skier seems to move effortlessly, constantly adjusting technique to keep speed up as efficiently as possible.
    So l am learning lately that a similar mindset helps to refine techniques for chisel, plane and saw, making for better workmanship.

  2. Stijn Bossuyt on 9 September 2020 at 10:34 am

    Interesting that you mention kayaking. I recently learned that your non-paddling arm should help pushing while the other arm is pulling. It was such an aha-moment for me because it makes a world of difference! Instead of just bulldogging my way through the water, I can now kayak for hours without tiring. Such is the case with woodworking too.

  3. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe on 9 September 2020 at 11:39 am

    Hammer ash is best prevented by giving the rookie a frying pan. 😀

  4. shane on 9 September 2020 at 12:16 pm

    Hammer rash, we used to call them half crowns a long time ago.
    My big moment in Kayaking was when the coach said look were you want to go,
    as you turn your head to look at the eddy your shoulder drops towards it the other shoulder lifts, the weight shifts slightly and the kayak goes onto its edge and carves towards the eddy with less paddle strokes required.

    • Paul Sellers on 11 September 2020 at 4:50 am

      I’ll remember this next time I am on white water! Thanks, Shane!

  5. John Kelly on 9 September 2020 at 12:49 pm

    Brilliant Paul, you are so right. I found when I was in the army doing my National service that when I was on the rifle range, if I I relaxed and let my body be more natural the shots went automatically to the target and I always dud well. With regards to woodwork I found that if I relaxed the tools, such as the saw, chisels and the plane did much better work for me. I tried to teach my son that he could saw better if he relaxed and let the saw do the work for him. I am now 86 yrs old and have always found that if I was becoming depressed, if I went into my shed/workshop and did some woodwork, ( it didn’t matter what I was making, or if I finished the object), my depression lifted and I would soon be feeling good again. I called it the “Ostrich Bit” i.e. I was burying my head in the sand. It has always worked for me. Thanks Paul for your wonderful videos and your terrific knowledge and experience and many thanks for sharing it with us. John Kelly.

  6. George E Perentesis on 9 September 2020 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks Mr. Sellers, good talk…..

  7. Brian on 9 September 2020 at 3:11 pm

    Hand sawing is about timing. Regardless of saw and timber a good handsaw, properly sharpened and set will make music as it cuts through the material. But without the right action it becomes harder and laboured and the inexperienced sawyer works harder to achieve the same result. There is a reason that an expert can cut thru a 10 x 2 hip blade in a roof on any angle and whistle as they do it. Timing means it can be done all day.

  8. Brian Anders on 9 September 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Hence the phrase ” Enlighten Up” becomes wisdom🤔

  9. John Allsop on 9 September 2020 at 3:59 pm

    I want a relaxing saw experience by making a bow saw and using it.
    But can you advise where to buy a blade for it.
    Thanks for that.

    • Paul Sellers on 11 September 2020 at 4:45 am

      You might try Dieter Schmidt Fine Tools or I have used metal cutting bandsaw blades with good success by bend-snapping to length and drilling holes through the ends to suit the lugs.

  10. Paul Boegel on 9 September 2020 at 4:18 pm

    When you are in the zone this is what happens. Perhaps a Zen state or such but when I finally get a handle on a skill it seems to feel that way and yes, the flex is right there with it. FYI I am a recreational shooter as well and when I was still working the buildup of stress from my job was easily drained off by a day at the range. Gone in less than an hour. Then again there is the lasting smile from a job done well regardless of what that is.

  11. Marty on 9 September 2020 at 8:15 pm

    I’ve been self employed nearly my entire adult life. I just turned 62 and just realized yesterday that I had never once stayed at any “job” long enough to earn vacation time and I must admit I’ve avoided more than my share of paying taxes as a result.
    If I let myself get all worked up over things I’d probably have starved long ago. I relax, do my work and when things aren’t going my way I’m more likely to just sit and think about another solution than jumping in hoping things just magically fix themselves through brute force. Heck, I’m much too old for brute force anyway these days. I drank my brute force up years ago as a wee lad.

    • Joe on 9 September 2020 at 10:48 pm

      In the 1930s, one the first jobs my grandfather had in America was removing tires from steel wheel. I’ve done this with my dad on occasion. It was kind of fun but not what I would call easy. It’s not the easiest task. When my grandfather learned who told my dad who then told me (long after I passed), was this was a job that required a rhythm to it and not brute force. If you flowed rather than muscling your way through them, you were able to get much more of them done. Not sure brute force helps for most things we do in life anyway.

    • John Besharian on 14 September 2020 at 11:37 pm

      Well, “Marty”, as a musician, I have to uproariously agree with you on that one. Yes, working “Under the table” does have its drawbacks. It also has certain benefits unavailable to 9 to 5 drones. Especially the ones chained to cubicles. After getting fed up with, as I say, “People with needles in their arms and me depending on them for work” for over twodecades, I walked away and took up trucking. Then I bought my very own “Hole in the road I poured money into”. When I bought it, everyone told me to “Go for broke”. Unfortunately, I made it. Every day’s a challenge, but a life well lived, especially with people well remembered, is priceless.

  12. Joe on 9 September 2020 at 10:44 pm

    Thanks Paul. This weekend I was cutting dovetails for a small sized tool chest (I finished a medium sized tool chest a few months ago and wanted smaller and more compact). My dovetails are starting to look decent. I did notice that for each one that I needed to remind myself to relax when cutting the corresponding second half in which I truly match the outlines from the first ones. It took me a while to realize that tense muscles cause saws to veer off coarse.

  13. Chris Crawford on 10 September 2020 at 10:50 am

    Hi Paul
    I’m making your desktop box but the hinge I’ve used has left a big gap so could tell me where you got your hinges from thanks.

  14. Yohann M on 11 September 2020 at 9:57 pm

    I shave with straight razors, and you have to learn something similar to get a good straight razor shave.

    The ideal straight razor has a razor sharp (ha, ha!) edge that should do all the cutting with your hand just directing it around the skin. It took me a bit to learn that the way to hold the straight razor is with flex in the wrist and fingers. The razor should be held such that it’s not going to twist or fall, but loosely enough that it can glide over the curves of your face. If you hold the razor too firmly (as most newbies do), then the edge cuts whatever it bumps into, with predictable (and uncomfortable) results. Even worse is trying to push the razor through a cut – that can be catastrophic!

    My technique while using a plane has improved immensely over the last year or so, and my sawing has also improved in leaps and bounds. I have a way to go still, but I enjoy the learning. 🙂

  15. cpaynter on 12 September 2020 at 1:36 am

    Not one comment about this from anyone around the globe. Weird.

  16. cpaynter on 12 September 2020 at 1:47 am

    Oops. Comments just showed up. Be never mind.

  17. Mike Z. on 12 September 2020 at 5:38 am

    Indeed, this is all true! I struggled like most learning how to cut straight and true with a hand saw – until I got my hands on one that was straight and sharpened/set properly did I realize how much I tried to muscle through it all. I see most people I hand a hand saw now doing the exact same thing, even though the tool is set up near perfectly. Learning how to sharpen and then understanding how to finesse a well setup tool takes more than a while to learn. That always brings a smile to my face when I am working with hand tools, and one of our cats is curled up less than 8 feet away snoozing like mad. ‘Tis an amazing feeling. Thank you and please keep up the good work.

  18. Harry Dubetz on 14 September 2020 at 3:04 pm

    Very interesting post. Reading it, the word graceful came to mind. You don’t have to be a dancer to be graceful. Woodworkers can be graceful too. I think any time someone makes it look easy, be it a dancer, a carver, a carpenter, a woodworker, a blacksmith, we are seeing graceful and confident movement.

    Thanks for the post.

  19. John Besharian on 14 September 2020 at 11:12 pm

    Mr. Sellers,
    As a guitarist who has been blessed to play with may fine musicians and vocalists over the decades, and as a musical instrument repairman who has also been blessed to work with some brilliant luthiers, I could not agree with you more. The “Art” of your Craft, if you will, starts not in your thinking forebrain, but in your subconscious, then through your arms and down your fingers to your instrument – be it musical or woodworking. In a way, it becomes your “Voice” as your creative means of expressing your innermost feelings – “In the Moment”, so to speak.

  20. Tudor on 15 September 2020 at 8:12 am

    This “flex” can be applied to many aspects and levels of life. Be it educating a child, having an argument with the loved one or striving to achieve your goals. I often times found out that just going straight to the target, although it is something we are often taught is the right way, is not the best way to do something and you always have to be ready to flex, micro-adjust and just listen to your surroundings before acting.

  21. Ray Powell on 15 September 2020 at 9:53 am

    Paul, I find watching the rhythmical sway of a shop window cleaner steering down his soap without interruption to very last corner completely mesmerising. And then the wiping of his blade to be smoothly slid back into its holster without a glance. The silk like shavings gliding out of your and other professional‘s planes have a similar effect on me and can Easily distract me from what I am being told.

  22. Ray Powell on 15 September 2020 at 9:58 am

    Apologies for seeming to hog up the space. I thought my first comment didn’t get posted!

    • Paul Sellers on 15 September 2020 at 10:41 am

      I will take the second version down as it is almost identical if that’s okay, Ray

  23. Ray Powell the Impatient on 15 September 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Thanks Paul

  24. Jeff D on 15 September 2020 at 8:01 pm

    Beekeeping and shaving with a straight razor both good pastimes to be patient in. I bought 3 pounds of honeybees and convinced my wife they were friendly just throw a towel over the box…they can’t escape. They escaped into our car while driving over bumpy country roads. I saw a little worker bee shoot up like a firecracker and several of her workmates follow. My wife was hopping mad! Hehe good memory! I bought a straight razor once…it was sent back after one shave…

Leave a Comment