In case you hadn’t seen this video yet, I highly recommend it (and all the others from this channel). This is a 1965 film of Albert Bock, the last wooden bench plane maker of William Marples & Son in Sheffield, England, at work at the bench. There are a number of interesting techniques and approaches shown in this brief clip. I’m especially fascinated by the brutal (but effective) shoulder paring technique. Ken Hawley, the narrator, said of Bock, “He told me that when he went on holiday, and came back, the hard patch of flesh was like a piece of raw liver for the first few days while he ‘got it back into form,’ as one might say.”
I’ve attempted this technique and it hurts, but I found that if I cushion the butt of the chisel with my opposite hand, it’s tolerable. I tried this one myself because I’m always interested in finding ways to incorporate (pun intended) full-body techniques into my woodworking. It amazes me when folks confine woodworking motions to their arms, ignoring the leverage they could gain from changing posture. Our lack of awareness of our bodies is partly a symptom of inexperience, but also it seems to be connected to the rise in “knowledge” work. It’s possible to have a string of fancy letters after your name or to be a six-figure tech titan and lack the facility to do something as basic as swing a hammer. I find most beginning woodworkers struggle with getting their whole bodies involved in the craft – they tend to stand hunched over at the bench and rely only on bicep power to make shavings.
So, I’m thankful for resources such as these old videos. Being able to watch a veteran craftsman at work is inspiring, if not a little humiliating. But let us not forget that mimicry is the path to mastery – we’ve got to be willing to feel the pain or fumble like a fool in order to develop the skills we so admire.
And sometimes it feels like pain or fumbling is most of my woodworking.
But I want to encourage you to not let these opportunities pass without trying them yourself. If you discover something that looks awkward or painful, but the craftsman is jaw-droppingly effective, try it. You may well fall flat on your face, but that’s OK. At the very least, you’ll know how you can improve, and your respect for that artisan will be deepen. In a world obsessed with devices and jigs, we would all do well to cultivate a little deeper respect for the discipline of real craftsmanship.