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 in 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 the quality of our souls at the journey’s end. Nothing else is worth a hill of beans. It’s no coincidence that these are all that will remain with us after we pass through the gateway.
Woodworking is both something we learn and a source of joy during this journey. For many it is a way to keep body and soul connected.
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.
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. It has always been the first and most important woodworking skill.
Anyone who aspires to become an accomplished woodworker and more than an artisan or machinist must obtain minimal sharpening skills. All other woodworking accomplishments flow from this bedrock skill. This attitude has 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 requries composure. It requires meditative focus. And at the pinnacle, it requires one to feel with hands and hear with ears a place that cannot be seen, a place where destruction creates order. A place where nothing becomes something.
Some will disagree with my beliefs about free-hand sharpening, especially the machinist-types, those disinclined to remove their “training wheels,” 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, of course. No mystery there.
When accomplished woodworkers gather in the presence of edged tools, they will always be 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 skill from his blades. Perhaps the condition of his tools can give a tiny glimpse into his character. Who can say?
What do your tools say about you? They are terrible gossips, you know. (ツ)
The journey will continue in Part 3 with wisdom from a celebrity and pictures of pretty swords.
Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series
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