What I’ve Learned About Woodworking From A Dead Sword Fighter

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Sometimes I head down a new creative direction for arbitrary reasons. Maybe it’s some sort of attention deficit thing. Maybe a little ADD is essential for keeping things fresh and diverse. The other day I was sitting at my workbench, knee deep in my unreasonably slow and deliberate attack on my table project, when I looked at a pretty trashed white oak scrap I was using to help secure a workpiece under a clamp. I don’t really remember why, but I grabbed my pencil and quickly traced out a spoon shape using the entire length of the scrap, curving the handle as gracefully as I could around a deep gouge in the wood.

“Okay, so what now?”

I figured I could easily cut out the rough shape with my Olson coping saw, and so I did. I have minimal experience with this type of saw so this was great experience. With the basic shape roughed out, I decided to figure out how the heck I was going to cut out the spoon shape with what hand tools I had on hand. I really had nothing ideal for the task, so on Saturday I rode my bike over to Highland Woodworking and after some amount of consultation with one of the guys over there, I selected a Hirsch spoon gouge. It’s a beautiful tool and the edge was decently work-ready.

I chiseled out the bowl of the spoon fairly quickly and easily, then used my spokeshave to shape and smooth the handle. Finally I finished with 100 grit and 220 grit sandpaper and a few coats of food-safe mineral oil. Took me about two hours total. I figure with a little practice I could crank one of these out in much less time. A bandsaw and more diverse set of carving chisels would help. I’d also choose a much more fine-grained wood than white oak. Sounds like a great excuse to troll some of the bigger lumber yards in the area for some decent cutoff scraps. Cherry or maple sounds like a good plan.

I suppose the main excitement over this fairly entry-level little diversion is the fact that I never figured I’d dabble in any sort of carving, or at least not for a long time. Having a little foray into that territory makes more advanced work seem very doable.

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And that’s a great lesson to be gained from this craft overall and part of why I dove into it in the first place. Simply trying out an aspect of a new experience makes it immediately less formidable and simply another skill to be mastered. Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Five Rings and the greatest swordsman who ever lived, said famously (and I’m paraphrasing) that if you learn the way broadly, you can then master all things. So the first step is to learn the bare essential pattern underlying the learning process and how you personally relate to it, and you can apply that process to quickly attain knowledge of other things. You begin to see the edge of how everything relates. Learn enough about enough things and pretty soon you start to see overlap, reducing your time as a novice and dabbler and propelling you toward easier mastery. This seems like a lot to plunge into after working on a lowly wooden spoon, but I tell you, the minute I put that curved chisel to wood to cut out that simple little hollow, I felt connected with all the fantastic carvers of all the insanely ornate furniture I’ve seen across my world travels. One cut leads to another to another until you have something special, and everything is always rooted in fundamental craft.

In my eyes, Musashi downplayed the experience of and importance of failure as part of the learning process. Of course, failure when cutting or gluing a board is ostensibly much different than when dueling to the death with a razor sharp katana, however, assuming both are survivable events, you can think critically after defeat to move forward and modify your approach for next time. I plan to fail a lot while learning woodworking, and especially with something new and expansive like woodcarving. My upcoming dovetail joinery class this Saturday looms large as a potential backdrop for some spectacular mistakes (though I’ll certainly do my best).

An exciting thing to understand is that at the end of the learning path, there is only and always more path. The master is only a master when he has learned the acme of skill as defined by the parameters of the craft while retaining the curiosity of a novice to learn and develop even more. Proficiency is a continuum, not an endpoint, putting the beginner immediately in the same arena as the expert. In a craft like modern woodworking, where it’s both simple and insanely difficult at once, where some of the best work is being made in modest garages and backyard sheds by people with little to no formal training, this continuum is very visible and strong.

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