Friday, June 27, 2014

Cut Wood Slowly


I needed a bedframe for our hounds’ little mattress.  Well, needed might not describe what was going on.  I felt it would be better with a frame since the mattress wouldn’t skitter across the new linoleum floor, a fact the hounds took advantage of to play bed surfing.  They’d charge around the room and jump on the bed so that it would ride the vinyl flooring.  Inventive little creatures. 

I started with some planks of pine, 5.5 inches in width and about ten feet long.  Not the wood of my choice but what our contractor friend offered off the back of his truck when I inquired about lumber options.  I envisioned something heavier, that might resist my canine friends’ efforts to ride the floor on their bed mattress, but in the end I was glad I started with the lighter wood given the way I decided to construct it.

I used simple butt joints to attach the four sides, cut with a simple hand held ripsaw.  When we moved to Staunton, VA, our retirement cabin, after 30 years of work in northern Virginia, I hauled my heavy woodworking machinery with me – my floor model bandsaw, full sized table saw, floor mounted drill press, planer, and joiner.  But when it became clear we would not be in a position to build a new workshop or electrify the old wood shed on the property, I sold the machinery off so they wouldn’t rust in the simple shed that conveyed with the cabin. 

I thought long and continuously about replacing the shop, and at the same time resolved to do what I needed to do with hand tools until we were able to duplicate the wood working shed I had in our Arlington VA home. 

Simple hand sawing was the biggest challenge.  The physical challenge of cutting wood, the resistance of hard grain, and the question of time spent -- the knowledge that the hand saw doubles or triples one’s time cutting while a machine saw would rip through the lumber without breaking a sweat – contributes to an impatience with the activity of hand cutting wood, and a focus on the end product rather than attentiveness to each saw stroke and to posture and attitude in guiding each saw tooth through the wood at hand. 

I had to overcome that.  I had to re-learn what I needed to do with my entire body to cut this stuff right.  I had to learn to clamp the boards solidly, and to brace myself with my left hand, to position my feet so that my right hand bearing the saw would keep a straight line.  I had to figure out what amount of swivel I needed in my hips, my shoulders, to keep that saw straight, and to gauge the work my shoulder had to do, and where it should be positioned to glide through the wood without shifting the trajectory of the saw and bending the blade under the influence of impatience. 

I came to this point when I realized that using a band saw required me to focus to the extent that each moment of pushing the wood against the moving blade.  Each time a single tooth on that blade penetrated the piece of project wood was a single, complete, integral act requiring utmost attention, correct technique, focus on safety, and appreciation for the fact that each tooth, each millisecond of exposure to the fast moving blade, was itself a contribution to the art I sought to build. 

It took me a long time to translate that realization to a practical application on machine tools, and even longer when I shed those tools in favor of hand powered instruments. 

I vacillated between acquiring a whole new slew of electric power tools and focusing intently on re-learning another skill set. 

This time, I’m intent on figuring out the secret of my chisels.  I have used them for decades and known how to sharpen them, and how to deploy them for specific tasks.  But I think I need to take a second look at sharpening practices, and I think I need to figure out how to put them to work in a fashion that focuses on the way I hold them, the grip I bring to bear, the angles that I use.  I need to re-learn the ballet of these chisels the same way I fixed my attention on how to combine myself with the saw to produce a better cut.

So chisels are next.  And then the hand plane, another tool I’ve used for decades without really thinking about the posture, the grip, and the physics necessary to find the best way to combine that tool with wood to produce a symphony of motion and progress through a project.

What does this have to do with banjos?  Well, perhaps not much except that it has prompted to unearth many half finished wood necks I started on but never progressed through entirely for one reason or another.  And it has nudged me to look at the wood stock I keep here with a new eye -- which pieces of lumber lend themselves to cutting into necks without the benefit of power tools.  And it has prodded me to think of building and repair work on necks and pots as a long, slow, incremental process requiring a different set of strategies and tactical calculations made necessary in the absence of a blade pushed by power.  I’m finding that the absence of a drill press, the lack of a band saw, and the need to make the first cuts with hand held saws gives me a lot more time to think about what I’m doing.  And I find that pleasant and restful. 

Play hard, but cut wood slowly,

Lew

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