You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
Life is not a race. It’s a hard journey along many paths all leading to a single gateway. What matters during this journey are the friends and family that travel with us, the kind deeds we do, the joy we share, the things we learn along the way, and most importantly, the quality of our souls at the journey’s end. These are all that will remain with us as we pass through that last gateway; Nothing else matters a hill of beans.
Woodworking can be a wonderful diversion and even a source of joy during this journey, one that can make our lives and the lives of those around us more pleasant. For many it is a way to keep body and soul connected. For those that rely on their tools to feed their families, the efficiency of that work, and the joy they find in doing it are not trivial matters.
Travelers on the path to becoming excellent woodworkers learn early that dull tools will not and cannot make excellent wooden products regardless of the skill of the hand and eye that manipulates them.
Indeed, dull tools are not simply inefficient; I believe they are an impediment to good work because, being an extension of the user’s mind and hands, a dull tool will often darken the mind and leaden the hand of even an accomplished woodworker.
Sharpening has always been the most important woodworking skill. It is no coincidence that for millennia the first thing apprentices were taught once they were permitted to handle valuable tools was how to sharpen them properly.
Anyone who aspires to become an accomplished woodworker and more than just a machine operator must obtain minimal sharpening skills. All other woodworking accomplishments flow from this bedrock skill. This truth has untold thousands of years of history behind it.
In our time the prevalence of machinery with built-in precision and blades driven by motors and sharpened by others has made it possible for those lacking even basic sharpening skills to represent themselves as craftsmen. Although they may be skilled artisans, I believe such individuals are less craftsmen and more machinery operators.
I believe, perhaps because the men I learned from and respected also believed, that free-hand sharpening is the way a skilled craftsman maintains his tools. My experience and observations over many years support the validity of this belief and the efficiency of the results. It is consistent with my work-driven philosophy about sharpening I will explain in more detail in the next post in this series.
Sharpening a blade free-hand is a zen-like activity. It requires observation. It requires muscle memory. It requires consistency. It requires composure. It requires meditative focus. And at the pinnacle, it requires one to feel and hear work being done in a hidden place that cannot be seen, where destruction creates order; where nothing becomes something.
Some will disagree with my beliefs about free-hand sharpening, especially the machinist-types, the scribblers and gurus promising instant results in a few hours for the price of a book, DVD, or class, and the purveyors of sharpening jigs disinclined to work without “training wheels.” No mystery there. So I won’t even try to please everyone, just professional woodworkers.
When professional woodworkers gather in the presence of edged tools, they often talk about sharpening techniques and rare stones, and they are always curious about the quality of other men’s tools. In Japan, it is considered rude to pick up another man’s tools and examine the edges, or even to look at them too hard, but the desire is always there nonetheless because it is human nature to compare oneself to one’s peers.
Indeed, much can be learned about a man’s quality standards and his skills from his blades. Perhaps the condition of one’s tools can give a tiny glimpse into the owner’s character. Who can say?
What do your tools say about you? Some are terrible gossips, you know. (ツ)
The journey will continue in Part 3 with wisdom from a celebrity and pictures of pretty swords.
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Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series
- Sharpening Part 1 – Introduction
- Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy
- Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener
- Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge
- Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel
- Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼
- Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金
- Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接
- Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦
- Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles
- Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines
- Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty
- Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones
- Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone
- Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust
- Sharpening Part 17 – Gear
- Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone
- Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones
- Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura
- Sharpening Part 21 – The Bulging Bevel
- Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-bevel Blues
- Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip
- Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction
- Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes
- Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew
- Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face
- Sharpening Part 28 – The Minuscule Burr
- Sharpening Part 29 – An Example
- Sharpening Part 30 – Uradashi & Uraoshi