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 neither a dead-end course nor a race, but a hard journey along many paths all leading to a single gateway. What matters are the friends and family that journey with us, the kind deeds we do, the joy we share, the things we experience and learn along the way, and most importantly, the quality of our souls at the journey’s end, for these are all that will pass through that last gateway into eternity with us; 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.
Thoughtful woodworkers on this path learn early that dull tools are an impediment to making excellent wooden products regardless of the skill of the hand and eye that manipulates them, 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.
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, I believe such individuals are less craftsmen in wood and more machinery operators.
Those thoughtful souls who aspire to become accomplished woodworkers, and not just machine operators, need minimal sharpening skills. Untold thousands of years of human history verify the truth that all other woodworking accomplishments flow from this bedrock skill.
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 have confirmed the efficiency of this technique. It is consistent with my work-driven philosophy about sharpening which 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 place one cannot see, a place 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’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 gives a tiny glimpse into the owner’s character.
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.
Allow me to end this article with a quote from the best-selling book of fiction in human history:
End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path. One that we all must take. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
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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