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Whenever I attempt to teach a bit of woodworking I say things that don’t come out quite right. Things like: “Sharpening is perhaps the most fundamental of hand skills.” Or: “Handsawing is the most fundamental of joinery skills.” Also: “Design is the most blah, blah skill.” And finally: “I think it’s time for a group hug.”

When I say these things, what I’m really trying to say is that there’s a basic skill beneath all the other high-level skills. But it’s not sharpening, sawing, planing or design.

It’s seeing.

This past weekend I was at the Sterling Heights, Mich., Woodcraft store to teach two one-day classes. One class on planing and the other on sawing. So inevitably I made some grandiose sweeping statements like the ones above. But as I got into the down-and-dirty part of teaching these skills, I kept running into the problem of myopia.

Sharpening isn’t about rubbing tools on abrasive as much as it is knowing when to stop rubbing the tool on the abrasive. And the way you know when to stop is by observing the cutting edge.

Planing isn’t about making shavings, it’s about seeing the resulting surface you are leaving. Is it flat, true and free of tear-out? And sawing is about muscle memory, but it’s also about seeing a line and following it with your saw using subtle hand pressure.

The good news is that teaching one-on-one is the absolute best place to give the gift of sight. I don’t know how many frustrating and circular phone conversations I’ve had with woodworkers who are trying to teach themselves to sharpen, plane or saw. They struggle longer than necessary because they don’t know when they have a sharp saw, a flat board or a correctly cut tenon.

But when you can get that in-person feedback and observe what a really sharp edge, flat board and perfect sawcut looks like, your skills advance in great strides. I was amazed at how quickly all of the students caught on once the scales fell from their eyes and they could see the scratches, gaps of light and miscuts.

What I didn’t really have the heart to say is that seeing is a blessing as well as a curse. Once you can see the scratches, you will work like heck to remove them. You won’t settle for bowed stock. And you will correct miscuts. And learning to do those things quickly takes time and effort.

And there’s one more curse. It’s even worse, and it deals with design. Once you can truly see good design, you will never be able to walk into a furniture store or neighbor’s house without the occasional wince.

– Christopher Schwarz

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  • Mike Wenzloff

    Excellent observation as regards "seeing," Chris.

    I hadn’t really thought of it in simple terms. I’m going to borrow that for my next hand tools class–at a Woodcraft…

    Take care, Mike

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