A Different Beat

Have you ever experienced those unique moments when sounds or movements in your immediate environment randomly fall into sync and create a rhythm? Like that iconic Volkswagen commercial from 20 years ago, your car’s windshield wipers start swiping to the beat of the song on the radio, or two friends’ strides fall into step on a long walk. Hand tools are particularly rhythmic, and workers have forever played percussion with their tools. Here’s one example that boatbuilder and author Douglas Brooks shared with us, from a traditional Japanese boatbuilder.

The other day, I noticed essentially the opposite of this synchronizing effect in the shop. Joshua and I were doing identical tasks (chopping out waste between dovetails with a chisel) at opposite ends of the same 12' bench, but our rhythms were completely dissimilar. I had to step back to assess.

Joshua’s strikes (with a mallet) were singular and firm. Boom. Boom. Mine were lighter and rapid – tap tap tap tap tap. Our postures were different, too, with me standing over the chisel and Joshua kneeling down to be nearly eye-level with his workpiece. We both completed quickly, in just about the same amount of time, and our finished tails were twins in terms of neatness. To me, these results are a great illustration of the principle that within a general framework of good technique, there is plenty of room for individual style.

Hand-tool woodworkers love to argue (good-naturedly, for the most part) about dovetails. Any two woodworkers discussing this joint will nitpick the order of operation (tails first, so you can gang-cut both sides together), sawing waste vs. chopping it all out (sawing first is always faster. Come at me, bro), magnetic dovetail guides (don’t even get me started) – you know how it goes. I like to use a Japanese pull saw for cutting pins and tails. Talk about controversial.

But part of the beauty of this craft is the freedom that each of us has to choose our own tools and techniques to reach a similar end. We should celebrate the fact that we’re not trapped in some router-jig prison where our options are as limited as our joinery is soulless. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and finding your own rhythm as you chop and saw is one of the great joys of woodworking.



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