I changed my method of shaving the other day. After using an electric razor for 30 years, I switched to a double-edged safety razor. Guys that I knew were horrified: “You’ll cut your face to pieces!” Actually, I have had very little trouble. Sure, I’ve had a couple of nicks, my shave could still be closer, and I’m slow as Christmas, but all in all things have gone smoothly. It’s like my hand instinctively knew what to do. “Getting chatter, reduce the cutting angle. Steep curve to the chin, got to FLOW the cut around the corner. Reversing grain here, got to change the cutting direction. Hollow under the jaw WITH reversing grain, don’t dig in – maybe I can skew the blade angle a little…” Sound familiar?
Yep, woodworking. Shaving with a double-edge isn’t that different from using a spokeshave or drawknife. All of these tools have aggressive blades with very little bearing surface, and require a “sense of edge”. By this I mean that the user has to be aware of how the cutting edge is interacting with the material, and make constant small adjustments to keep the cut optimal. Woodcarvers with their gouges and knives are another group that are intimately acquainted with this concept.
One of the most fundamental skills of the woodworker is the ability to read grain and adapt to it. Even die-hard Normites understand that running a board through the planer against the grain can result in what is technically called “a mess”. The complex curves and angles of the face remind me in many ways of the compound-curved surfaces of a spoon being carved. Grain changes are a constant fact of life, and you learn to listen to the knife and back off and re-evaluate your approach at the first sign of trouble.
This, like many things, got me to thinking: do these skills of ours cross over into other areas as well? One of the first things that came to mind was cutting corn. For you “city folks” that don’t know, this is the process of making cream-style corn by removing the kernels from the cob with a knife. No, I did NOT say with one of those “slidey things with a blade”, I said a knife. Period. My wife taught me to cut corn the way her mother taught her – by holding the cob still and slicing through the kernels with a reciprocating motion of the knife. I rapidly developed a much faster technique by holding the knife still at an angle and running the cob back and forth under it with the other hand, much like a meat (or veneer) slicer. Once again, my sense of edge allowed me to pick and maintain a blade angle that was much more efficient and consistent. Of course, I now get stuck with the job every time. That’s OK, I don’t have to shuck.
It’s not just blade skills, either. Can you level a picture frame by eye? Tell if a surface is truly flat? Know instinctively if something will fit in a given space? We all have developed perceptual abilities that allow us to view objects and their relationships in a different light. Any skill learned in one discipline invariably touches on other things, and often enhances our ability to learn other, seemingly unrelated, skills.
What about you? In what ways has woodworking (or any skill) enhanced your abilities in other areas? Leave a comment, start a thread, let us know.