the right tool

    Often times, the only way to know where the middle lies is to get some experience at either end first. Generally, exploring the extreme poles is a youthful endeavor, as with age (so we hope) comes the humility to realize that the black and white ideas/ideals that we harbor in our heads have little bearing on ‘reality,’ which will forever stubbornly (or more accurately perhaps, indifferently) refuse to fit into whatever tidy box we devise for it. In the meantime, swinging wildly from pole to pole provides the lessons necessary (presuming one is willing to learn) for developing a mature perspective, usually in the form of failures and humiliations of one sort or another.

A particularly amusing/annoying characteristic of this process is that when at one extreme or the other—and it doesn’t matter which really—the person in question often decides that he or she knows everything about the subject at hand before really knowing anything about it. To illustrate, I’ll share just one example (of many, I’m afraid) from my own idealistic youth. In this case, a woodworking example.

My first experiences of working with wood as a teenager were in housebuilding, pretty much exclusively with power tools. While the journeyman carpenters I worked with owned—and seemed to occasionally even make use of—certain hand tools (such as planes, saws, and chisels), they never really discussed them, and certainly offered me no insight as to how to use and/or maintain them. Being a rebellious youth, full of authority issues that I would readily project onto most any adult in my vicinity at the drop of a hat, I soon decided that since these guys didn’t have much use for hand tools, that they must not be using them solely due to their own ignorance (rather than due to the fact that they were building houses, not cabinets, for instance). So, obviously enough, using hand tools must in fact be the REAL way to work with wood. What did these Yankee impostors know anyway?

I was able to double the dogmatism when I moved from New England to California and discovered Japanese woodworking tools, which I immediately decided were inherently superior to traditional European hand tools in all respects (I of course being of European heritage). I proceeded to buy all kinds of very expensive tools, with laminated, hand-forged steel cutting edges that I still did not know how to set up and sharpen properly. I ended up attending some workshops on the use of Japanese woodworking tools (which was, ironically enough, taught by a similarly dogmatic-minded Caucasian transplant from the East coast), and came away mainly with further certainties about the superiority of Japanese tools, as well as with the idea that there was only one right (and very difficult) way to sharpen all of them.

So rather than working much with wood (I was still working with power tools as a carpenter by day), I went through a phase of spending endless hours trying to figure out how to adequately sharpen any of my fancy tools so that they might display their inherently superior qualities while actually in use. When I eventually began to build small furniture pieces, they were, short of the initial milling of the lumber, constructed entirely by hand. I was quite proud of them, and of course of myself, for having reached this pinnacle of woodworking prowess. Or so I thought.

Time went by, and, as often happens, utility began to win out over idealism, as I now had my own  business and thus had to stop worshipping my ideas about what woodworking was in favor of working in the most efficient ways possible. What this meant in my case was that I began to relinquish my ideas about tools, and began to actually just use them, and what this really meant is that I began for the first time to learn from them. Amazing what can happen when you simply pay attention to what’s in front of you, rather than to the endless stream of thoughts about what’s actually there.

hand planesWhat the tools taught me over time was that they were as individual as people, with unique strengths, limitations, and nuances. At this point I began to reacquaint myself with Western/ European hand tools, and even began a brief reactionary slide toward deciding that they were in fact the superior tools, before finding the middle ground where I can now choose the right tool for the job without arbitrary discrimination.

There are woodworkers out there who purport to do everything by hand. If they can make a living, and are enjoying themselves, good for them. At the other extreme are the many woodworkers who do literally everything with power tools, who are immediately at a loss without them, even in performing the simplest of tasks. In trying to break through the ‘purist’ handtool dogma that still reigns in some woodworking circles, a renowned woodworker once said that if his teeth were the best tool for the job, he would use his teeth. That’s about where I’m at these days. The tools themselves tell me which one to use.

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