A toolmaker I met at WIA, Tim Manney, showed me something interesting that got me thinking again about visual alignment. Tim makes a tapered reamer for chairmaking. It’s a unique tool that serves a single purpose – accurately reaming the holes for chair spindles, which is complicated due to the compound angles involved. In the picture at left, you can get a sense of how that’s done. As you’re cranking the tool you are also eyeing the bead on the tip to see how it aligns with a pencil line on the workpiece (extended up with a standing square).
I’ve been paying more attention to visual alignment lately in my own woodworking. It’s not hard at all, and the payoff is big.
One of the reasons I never paid much attention to it before is that I am cursed with what’s known in shooting as cross-dominance, which means I am right-handed but not right-eyed – my left eye has more acuity and it’s the one my brain registers on by default. At the target range this causes me to miss a lot of targets, and yet I haven’t taken the time to fully fix the problem. Like with all challenges, it can be easier to just get by than to retrain yourself.
But in woodworking, visual alignment is much easier, including for those of us with cross-dominance. Alignment is just a matter of remembering to get your head and body into a position from which you can see a cut or ruler line properly. As long as I remember to do it, my cuts are more accurate and I actually feel safer, too.
Jeff Miller’s “Foundations of Better Woodworking” is one good source that I have used on this topic. Jeff has these tips:
1. For proper body alignment, which is the basis for all accurate cuts and efficient woodworking, just choose any sport or activity you’re already good at. Put your body in that same good, athletic position and pick up the tool you’re using. Work as much as you can with your lower body, especially when handplaning, which liberates your arms to guide the tool more effectively.
2. For proper visual alignment, first figure out which of your eyes is dominant. The picture of Jeff Miller and David Thiel at left shows you one way to do that. Simply point at an object across the room, then close one eye. Are you looking directly at the object, in line with your pointer finger? If so, the open eye is your dominant eye. If not, then obviously your dominant eye is the other one.
At that point, it’s just a matter of remembering to use this knowledge in your woodworking. Sometimes we get in a hurry to complete a task. It’s more important to be accurate and enjoy what you’re doing.