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Touchy Feely Woodworking

I find myself getting a lot of new woodworker questions lately. It is really exciting and a direct testament to the growth of this thing we all love so much. While I am certainly no grizzled veteran, I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that as a woodworker into his second decade of experience that this makes me a veteran to many. Hell, I think with today’s information glut, a couple years of experience makes you pretty well informed and able to answer newbie questions…maybe even more so since the memory of being new is fresher in the mind. One thing I remember being frustrated about when I was new was ambiguous answers to questions I had about joinery or tools or whatever. I distinctly remember a lot of touchy feely answers to my specific “how do I…” questions.

Here’s the rub. I just looked back over the last 10 emails I sent answering questions and what do you think was in them? A lot of touchy feely advice!

“run your hand over the board and feel for the rise and fall of it, then plane away those bits.”

“listen closely to the sound the file makes as you run it across the teeth, if it growls adjust your stroke til it whispers.”

“feel the horn of the handle pressing into your palm. If you don’t feel this angle your wrist until you do.”

“watch the shape of the shaving as it exits the plane, lean to the left or right until it is a consistent hard edged shaving.”

“turn off the lights and look closely at the board, ignoring the reflected highlights and seeing the grain beneath”

“sit cross legged in the middle of the floor and chant “be the wood” forward and backward until inspiration strikes.”

Okay maybe I made that last one up, but the others are excerpts from emails I send this morning. Have I become that veteran that doles out advice that only serves to frustrate? I’d like to think not, because this sensory advice I think is incredibly useful. I can’t remember when this happened but I know that today I am intensely aware of the sensory aspects of woodworking and I make adjustments based on those inexact and instinctual cues. As I have spent more time working wood I have stopped trying to find tricks to solve a problem and just felt my way through it. It is less about “this is the way to do it” and more about “what do I hear or feel when it goes wrong or goes right”.

Chips n tips grain directionI’m sure this can get frustrating to people who ask me questions now but I urge you to consider all 5 senses while you are working. You will find great advice online to get you started but it is guaranteed to fall apart when you actually put edge to the wood and then you are left to rely upon the sensory feedback in the moment. If you let it, you will be truly amazed what you can learn about body mechanics and wood structure and precision.

I think this is another way of saying “go work wood” to figure out how to plane or saw or whatever, but what I hope is this touchy feely advice can be more how to than one might think at first. Put another way, the sensory feedback is your guide when the step by step instructions don’t work. If nothing else this undefined advice tells you whether something is going right or going wrong.

When I look at this kind of advice closer, I’m excited to discover that regardless of its touchy feely nature it can actually answer those questions where the only exact answer someone can give is “it depends”.

For example, “how do I know when to sharpen my saw?” When it starts to growl or makes your knuckles turn white when trying to start the cut.

What the hell does “growl” mean? My knuckles are white just holding the saw how do I know what white is normal or not? See what I mean by frustrating, touchy feely advice? Now go out to your shop and cut a tenon with a hand saw. How loud is your saw? Does it produce a consistent pitch throughout the cut or is it more variegated? Pull the saw toward you (assuming a western saw here) and listen to the sound then compare it to the cutting stroke. Does the saw vibrate noticeably during the cut? Do you have trouble getting the saw to follow a line? The answers to all of these are very subjective but when you start cataloging these sights and sounds suddenly it will be very obvious what is causing a problem just by sound or feel alone.

As another example I have several very nice straight edges that collect a lot of dust in favor of me running my hands over a board like a blind man reading Braille. I don’t know whether my boards are dead flat or not, but I don’t really care either as my planes tell me by the shavings they create and the sounds they make. When I do reach for a straight edge I usually have my eyes close while I run it over the board feeling for the points where it drags or skips over the board.

I don’t think this is relegated only to the hand tool world either. I’m positive the same kind of sensory woodworking goes on with routers and table saws too. I’m a little too far removed from it at this point to comment on it, but I bet if you think about it you can find examples where the digital read out or laser sight just get ignored in favor of your finger tips or ear.

I think a lot of these sensory revelations spring out of me trying to figure out ways to help others understand a process or to address a problem they are facing. But that reflection has been incredibly useful for my own work and actually adds to my enjoyment.

So if you get a touchy feely email from me, take it as a call to action that maybe your solution is right in front of you and perhaps you just need to listen harder to what your tools are telling you while you work. I think the key to that statement is “while you work”. It is real hard to learn such a sensory craft without putting edge to wood.

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