Some years ago at a Williamsburg woodworking conference, the inestimable Mack Headley stood on stage, checked the setting of his plane, addressed the workpiece and together they created the near-mystical, crisp “S-S-S-G-G-G-R-R-R-I-I-I-K-K-K” aria so familiar to experienced woodworkers. An audible baritone “Oooohhhh” swept the hall on appreciation of a finely sharpened tool in the hands of a master. It was perhaps the most identifiable moment of a tool speaking that I can recall. And to be sure, the audience of mostly middle-aged men in plaid flannel shirts was listening.
But the phenomenon of tools talking, and us listening, is much more fundamental, an almost visceral component in learning skilled craft. The relationship we have with our tools is among other things, audible and linguistic. Tools speak to us constantly, telling us how we are doing with them.
Last Friday saw the completion of an intense course for aspiring curators called “Historical Technology of Furniture Making” I taught with renowned furniture historian Oscar Fitzgerald (“Four Centuries of American Furniture”). Every day for two weeks Oscar would start us off with a brief overview lecture on a topic, I would follow with a demonstration of the relevant technique or process, and then supervise the students practicing it at the bench. It was a memorable opportunity for them to engage in multiple-sensory learning that they will retain throughout their careers. We started out with a chunk of the oak tree that became the replica Gragg Chair and ended the second week with the laying of gold leaf – with splitting, shaving, sawing, planing, joining, shaping, metal casting, steam bending, veneering and japanning in between.
As you can imagine, since most of the students had near-zero woodworking experience, frustration abounded. As it should. Skilled woodworking is not accomplished on the first try.
One of the phrases I kept repeating through the course was, ”Let the tool do its work.” A tool will tell you what it wants to do, and even more important it will tell you what it does NOT want to do. If the sound is organized and crisp, you are asking the tool to do what it is supposed to do. That’s what Mack Headley’s plane was saying to him and to us in the audience.
Conversely, in the hands of unskilled or unfamiliar practitioners a tool can moan, screech, growl and chatter. My students and interns can confirm that when we are working in the same space, I can hear faulty work from across the room even if my back is turned and my attention directed elsewhere. At first they cannot believe I can hear the tool talking, but over time they become believers, especially when someone newer and less experienced joins us. Then they recognize the mellow tones of their own work versus the often cringe-inducing caterwauling of the newcomers’.
About halfway through the second week of this course I knew we were making headway. I watched from some distance as a student was using a sharp little spokeshave on the mahogany cabriole leg we had made together as a class and she encountered the spokeshave telling her it really, really did not want to do what she was instructing it to do. Without even thinking, in a moment she changed her posture and direction of work, the sound became mellifluous and beautiful shavings spewed forth leaving a glistening, faceted surface. Alone, she sighed and smiled gently, rightfully pleased with the result. That dulcet moment and the little silent smile to herself was as great a reward any as teacher can experience. She had learned the lesson of the talking tool and incorporated it into her work without even thinking about it.
When tools speak, listen.
— Don Williams