The aesthetics of tool handle designs can be so deceiving in their beauty that they hide the fact that they are part of a sophisticated feedback loop. A tool handle may look simple, but that doesn’t mean every aspect of the tool hasn’t been carefully thought out.
The shape of a chisel or knife handle tells our body exactly how the cutting edge is oriented and what angle to position it to execute a clean cut. Scientists have been stymied for decades trying to map the electrochemical signals in the brain during complex thinking. No less mysterious is how our hand connects with the curved sweep of an axe handle such that we can throw the blade with our arms and it lands on a precise spot. A neurologist at the University of Washington proposed that throwing things accurately was one of the driving forces of human brain development. It requires massive computing power. Try talking while trying to hit a tin can 50' away with a stone. The focus on the physical connections with our tools is more profound than we realize. This connection means we can “read” the material in great detail even with our eyes closed, a great advantage in poorly lit pre-industrial shops. Much of the skill of an artisan can be traced to their feel for how a tool is interacting with the work – whether the edge is sharp or dull, and the character of the grain.
–George Walker, excerpt from “A Whisper from the Past: The Lessons Tools Teach Us,” in Issue Ten