This life’s hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle
In previous posts in this series about the characteristics of the hammers Beloved Customer should use with C&S Tools chisels, we looked at factors such as the type of hammer to use, the sort of face a hammer should have and how much it should weigh. We even examined ways to use our chisels and hammers more effectively when cutting mortises, and how to avoid the dreaded chisel wiggle. It was a footloose post.
This time your humble servant will delve a little deeper into how to use hammers and chisels as a dance team.
The photos above and below are of gameboards, and while gameboards are not really the subject of this post, these photos illustrate an aspect of precise work with chisel and hammer intended not to create a shape to please the eye, but an artistic sound to improve concentration. Perhaps you never have thought about using a chisel to make beautiful sounds, but many of our Beloved Customers that make musical instruments professionally are focused like a laser on this very objective. I hope you will find this little article amusing.
Much hammer and chisel work is very repetitive with motions repeated thousands of times in a single day, each motion consuming time and energy, hopefully with precision and speed. Are time, energy, precision, and speed important to you? I propose that “Sure and steady wins the race,” sooner and more efficiently than a 2lb steel woodpecker on meth.
If you studied pendulums and harmonic motion in physics classes you understand that every moving object, from watch balances to buildings to mountain ranges (yes, mountains wiggle) have a natural “frequency” that defines the vibration of that object when subjected to specific forces. This reliable characteristic is why a mechanical clock can keep accurate time. Like the pendulum in a grandfather clock, within a certain range of energy input, the longer and heavier an object is, the longer it’s natural frequency is likely to be. In the case of hammer work this means that a man with a long, heavy arm and hammer combination will naturally swing a hammer cyclically slower than a man with a shorter lighter arm/hammer combination. That does not mean one is better than the other, it just means that an arm/hammer combination will work most effectively if the assembly’s natural frequency is worked with instead of fought against.
There are several ways to reliably adjust this natural frequency, for instance changing the weight of the hammer/chisel combination, or changing the length of the hammer handle. The closer the hammer weight is to the ideal for a particular arm/chisel/wood combination the easier it becomes for us to consistently adjust the assembly’s frequency and rhythm of the cutting process while controlling the impact force and thereby the depth of cut.
So let’s say we have the hammer/chisel/wood/arm combination (or saw/wood/arm combination) where we need it to be and we start cutting wood in a repetitive motion. If we keep this motion consistent, like a clock pendulum, we will develop what in music is called “rhythm,” a phenomenon deeply rooted in the human beast. Rhythm is critical to cutting speed and precision. Anything that breaks that rhythm other than the job being completed is counterproductive.
Rhythm has psychological benefits too because it helps us to maintain focus and thereby accomplish more work quicker and more consistently.
But how does one maintain rhythm when cutting mortises? Perhaps you have an internal metronome. If not, it may help to take advantage of an extremely ancient tool called the “work song,” later called the “sea shanty.” These were songs sung by men and women working in groups to coordinate their physical labor and make it more effective, whether planting rice seedlings in flooded fields, pushing wagons over mountains, dragging logs through forests, or pulling ship anchors up from the depths. If the song is in your head instead of just your ear you can easily adjust the song’s rhythm to match the natural frequency of your body and your tools.
I hum a work song when I do repetitive chisel work. I suppose two of my favorites are “What will we do with drunken sailor,” and “Roll the Old Chariot Along.” There are also lots of old plantation and work gang songs that work well. Two modern tunes I sometimes hum are “Señorita” and “Poker Face,” depending on my mood. Here is another, more unusual version by an entertaining German polka band.
Just so there’s no confusion, unlike Miss Germanotta, I don’t wear a sequin bikini and white Gestapo hat when I hum Poker Face while sawing wood or chopping scarf joints. No doubt I would look fetching in such an outfit, but I have found some of my chisels to be quite sensitive in matters of decorum. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.
The main points I wanted to make in this article can be summarized as follows:
- Whether you realize it or not, your chisel, hammer, and body have a natural frequency that you can either work with to your advantage, or fight against;
- Using the principles listed in earlier posts in this series you can develop a chisel/hammer combination that balances well with your body, adjusting your natural frequency to improve your productivity and precision;
- Develop a rhythm when doing repetitive work that compliments your natural frequency and that helps you maintain both focus and a steady wood-eating pace. Work songs really help. A sequin bikini and Ray Bans are optional.
Well that’s enough German polka music and doggie apparel for now. In the final article in this series we will examine some health matters related to hammers. Y’all come back now, y’hear.
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