Last week I worked on a how-to booklet written and unpublished from a decade and a half ago. Reworking the work took me back to those days when I began to use my first digital camera two decades back now. Digitals irreversibly changed the dimension of photography, but in the beginning, a camera now costing around £100 for a handful of megapixels cost almost £1,000 and I recall paying $1,200 for a 1 GB SanDisk microdisk card. I have no regrets. It got me started photographing to further enhance my writing articles for magazines and then too my own curriculum.
The booklet I finished off is making and inlaying two-dimensional and three-dimensional stars as geometrical shapes for inlaid decoration. I personally love creating stars this way and especially from two beautiful and complementary wood types. It took me an hour to make the two-dimensional version shown at top and inlay it. Only because every cut came straight from the gent’s saw and the plane and the intersecting point where the angles culminate in the centre totaled the exact 360° I precisely needed. I suppose some might say that this is when the stars align for you as you work towards an ultimate goal (pun intended). In reality, it’s all about working with precision and handling the tools with sympathy as they glide into, through and over the wood. Synchrony at this level is pure joy. How such things happen remains something of a mystery when it comes to hand tool woodworking. Somehow hand tools pull multi-directionally, multi-dimensionally in ways we could never even try to describe to another. When it happens, it happens. Arms, legs, shoulders, neck, hands, fingers, you name it, everything lined up and the whole body flexed to absorb any mistaken feeling you had and couldn’t change by any estimable shift you knowingly made. This hidden dimension happens every day. We flex a single muscle in our foot unknowingly and our whole body tilted by a fraction of a degree to compensate for the eye’s unwillingness to alter its trajectory, we made that single pass with the saw and the wood severed, fit the gap perfectly as if it grew there. It’s one of those things that seemed to just happen that you knew you could never do, never take credit for, never boast about.
Through the years I have always encouraged those new to woodworking to allow greater body flex to take place rather than force compliance with that iron-fisted determination we have all had, which is often the way when a woodworker thinks that woodworking is a forceful issue rather than a developed sensitivity. I sharpened up my saws and chisels and planes before I began because, well, that’s what we hand tool woodworkers must do if we are intent on working wood by hand. I like that the saw slice-cuts tight to the knifewall even in dense and hard-grained hardwood
It’s funny how we tend to use the term ‘flexing your muscle’ when people with muscle seem insecure and want people to approve them by admiring what is called flexing your muscle and then too when someone wants to assert their intent to get something passed by others or otherwise assert their authority. This type of rigidity causes the muscle to more obviously bulge, yet in my world, we use that same word to say use less force, let the hand find a level of balance, and follow through with an evenhandedness that flows intuitively as each saw stroke passes into and through the kerf it’s creating. Learning to flex comes with experience and we rely on flexibility in using the plane, the saw, the spokeshave and many if not all of our other hand tools too. This is true in much of life. I have learned that a clenched fist always leads to trouble for someone or something. On the other hand, it is also true that what I am talking about is not to ‘chill’, ‘lighten up’, ‘relax’ either. The essence of what I speak here is that a firm but highly sensitive grip that disallows a kind of idle meandering but always allows for the directness of passage we strive to give rhythm to our working.
Flexing is the absolute need we rely on constantly throughout woodworking with hand tools, yet knowing what it is seems elusive because there is no level of flex that can actually be defined as such. Being undefined, places flex beyond description because by its very name and nature we find ourselves stabbing in the dark to understand the undetermined exactness of flexibility. In my world, the brilliance of Newton’s law where every action has an equal and opposite reaction becomes an understandable reality in flex. Newton’s third law of motion declares that whenever two objects interact as opposing forces on each other, the amount of energy expended by the one causes an opposing force equal to the first. In our woodworking, instead of simply thrusting according to our body strength, weight, muscle, etc we feel for the amount of energy alongside the direction of thrust. Sit on the cushioned couch and the softer material compresses until it counters our weight and suspends us by the amount of energy engaged and necessary and no more. Sit on a hard bench and the bench will take a hundred times our weight. The one is rigid and stiff, the other absorbing yet resilient. We often fail to realise that the soft fabrics, comprising the cushion we sat on, deliver the exact return measure to the weight of our bodies and not a fraction of an ounce more. So it is with the experienced craftsman when he pushes the saw through the kerf and removes a section of wood with smoothness and peace. “Let the saw do the work!”, he said, that George. The saw relies on two things for progress. The weight of the saw and the weight of the hand. The body determines the course, the force, the alignment and the outcome. Sensitivity and accuracy become synonymous to us. We dispense our energy in the exactness of pressure and the alignment of our linkage between the saw or the plane in our hand and through to the shoulder and our upper body, down through our chest, torso, to the legs. Take away the big toe and we lose our accuracy, our power and our direction. Life is about linkage and linkage gives articulation via the cartilage flexing to absorb mistaken paths and passages.
The importance of being flexible in our woodworking is not unrelated to life itself. When we are overly rigid, something often snaps under the pressure. Yet again, as in life, being super tolerant is a luxury we cannot afford and yet we should indeed listen and feel for what is happening as we work. The important thing for us in our work and working the tools is that we be prepared to bend but do not compromise what we feel is important to us. Sometimes the saw itself bends vertically under our exerted pressure and we feel that we are indeed directing the saw to a positive course when in reality we are bending the plate vertically so that the bend in the plate becomes the very curve we do not want, but are unconscious of, as this curvature takes us in the opposite direction to the one we need to go. Before we know it, we are going way off course because of our dogged approach, fear, doubt in our abilities, feeling wrongly and so on.
Even with machines, flexing will produce better results than doggedly forcing wood into a machine and against a fence, but in hand tool work it is more critical than many may realise. Being apt to flex comes more by experience than reading about it, but my writing here for you might help the preparedness to realise the significance of feel so as to adjust our attitudes more readily. If we indeed know that the saw will follow a significantly better course by our loosening the linkages of hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder, we will better engage the senses to shift course as needed. This is the same for the lesser muscled or those of lighter stature where I often see more excessive force intended to substitute for any lack wherever that may be. Their expectation of resistance is perhaps perceived rather than real. Perhaps a past experience met high levels of actual resistance more because they were handed a dull saw and never experienced the difference of using a sharp one.
In my teaching others, being able to meticulously follow them in their work over days, weeks, months and then, some, over years, I have learned a great deal about personalities as much as anything. What’s all the more interesting is that I have learned as much from hearing them but as much or more from watching their facial changes alongside their body language. Learning is often experienced from subtle distances – the arching of the back, a raised shoulder, stepping away for a second and so on. This is where I discover the diverse personalities of different woodworkers. Some are negotiators and others are obvious aggressors of one kind of opposition or another. Whereas some would listen intently others ignored everything and everyone. In many cases they were insensitive but in most cases, after a week of instruction, they became highly sensitive and sensitised to the tools and the wood which somehow transitioned from wood and tool to become transmitters and amplifiers of coordination – the receptors once dulled by a world they lived in and came from became evident neurotransmitters. This energised synergy, tool and man, carried the work forward exponentially, and that is when all the points of the stars lined up in the outcome of perfected workmanship.