Discipline and Remembrance

To a woodworker, the workbench is an altar. Here, we give our blessing to wood, pay debts, offer libations, make sacrifices, focus intent and energy. The pieces we make mostly move on out of our hands, into other people’s lives. The bench, with all its vices and imperfections, remains.

On Sunday afternoons, after all the household chores have been put aside, I give myself some time at the workbench with the Japanese planes. A piece of steel stuck into a block of wood, a Japanese plane is deceptively simple, and awesomely sophisticated. To the uninitiated (anyone who doesn’t know how to sharpen an edge tool, or why) a wooden plane is totally unimpressive. There are so many technologically advanced ways to refine and polish a piece of wood. Why bother with this archaic tool?

The obvious answer is that nothing has been invented yet that improves on perfection. Sort of like a Stradivarius violin, or fresh bread… you can’t improve on an archetype, it’s a part of culture. We can lose that culture, if we fail to nurture it. Discipline. Find something that matters, and do that thing… play the piece until you get it right, even if nobody ever hears.

The other reason is that Matthew’s last request to me was to “…take care of my Japanese planes.” Matthew Ross believed fervently that there were only two classes of humans… those who could sharpen and use edge tools stood above the rest. I would add that anyone who can put a piece of steel into a fire, hammer on it a bit, and produce a blade that holds an edge, is an alchemist. This is not something to be learned on Dungeons and Dragons. It requires discipline, hard work, a knowledge of metallurgy and physics that approaches the metaphysical. I have a few tools that Matthew forged. He was a master.

With a few light taps from an impossibly tiny hammer, I begin taking shavings off a choice piece of wood. Not making anything in particular, just making shavings, checking that the piece is becoming straight and square, occasionally measuring the thickness of a shaving (.0015" is my best so far). When I’m not getting results, I take the blade out and sharpen on the water stones, concentrating on lapping the back as flat as possible, using finer and finer grits to polish. Sharpening is a meditation on approaching perfection.

Finally, I remove the blade, clean and oil it, and put the plane back in its box, a little better prepared for the next session. Then, I sweep up the shavings, put them in the wood stove, and kindle a fire.

“He [the blind man] said that most men in their lives were like the carpenter whose work went so slowly for the dullness of his tools that he hadn’t time to sharpen them.”

Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (book two of The Border Trilogy)




Carpenter: woodcarver with a bent for typography, music, poetry, good design & living well in peace and harmony. Un-apologetically Southern; literate…

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michael langford

michael langford

Carpenter: woodcarver with a bent for typography, music, poetry, good design & living well in peace and harmony. Un-apologetically Southern; literate…

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