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intimate with sharpness
Episode 1521st September 2023 • PowerPivot • Leela Sinha
00:00:00 00:15:30

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"If you have complicated grain, if you're complicated, you need extremely sharp tools and extremely skilled craftspeople.... You need to understand the sharpening as a part of the process, not an interruption of the process."

CN: contains some discussion of the events of September 11, 2001 in the first 65 seconds of the episode.

On the humble cabinet scraper, American identity, reaching for excellence, being deeply intimate with the sharpness of the tools we use, and directing our work towards compassion and away from fear.

Transcript and notes:

For more on Garrett Hack, furniture maker:

Recorded 11 September 2023.


We gotta... we gotta redefine what it means to be American.

On September 11, I had a sinking feeling of dread and horror, and the tiniest little thread of hope. The tiniest little thread of hope that maybe we could do this better than we have a history of doing it for always, forever... maybe we could make a different set of choices. Maybe we had come far enough, fast enough, long enough.

And then my heart sank again, because the terrorists were brown and Muslim. And that fit every stereotype of brown and Muslim that had been floating around and poisoning the air. And I knew... I saw the threads of possibility, I saw us so close. We were so damn close. Right?

Right on that wire edge, bending back and forth. With each stroke of the sharpening stone, we could have gone either way. There is nothing knifey-er than the wire burr before it gets worn off. There's nothing sharper.

I've been working with a tool called a cabinet scraper. It is one of the simplest surfacing tools. Just a square card-shaped piece of tool steel, thin enough to be flexible. The way you sharpen it is different from the way you sharpen almost every other edge tool in the woodshop. You create a burr on purpose, not as a side effect of sharpening.

The burr is that thin, thin piece of metal at the very edge of a sharpened edge. That piece that becomes so thin that if you don't deal with it, it will wear off and break very easily. Because it is so thin. You work that up on purpose. You grind the narrow edge absolutely flat. And then you smooth it so all those tiny little ridges and bumps from the file are gone. And then you take a thing called a burnisher which is basically just a really, really hard stick of metal. Really hard metal.

When you're sharpening things, you have to think about the relative hardness of metal which is not something I thought about at all before then. So you take this burnisher, which is a rod. It looks like a sharpening steel from your kitchen but with no ridges. And you run it gently over the wide surface passing over that narrow edge.

And the great thing about a card scraper is it's so simple that you actually can sharpen four edges at once, front and back top and bottom. You can actually sharpen the other edges too, if you need a really narrow one for some reason. But at least front and back top and bottom makes sense to do it all at once so that then you don't have to stop your work quite so often to sharpen.

I once saw Garrett Hack. He's an incredible handplane aficionado and expert. I once saw Garrett Hack at a tiny little woodworking festival at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire. On a rainy mid-fall day. I think it was fall it might have been spring. It was that deep green that only comes under thick clouds.

And Garret Hack is a man who has managed to step through time from some other era when speed is pretty much never apparently of the essence. And what's most important is getting it right. He was working, if I recall correctly on a Federalist table, a Federal-style table halfmoon kind of- the sort of thing you'd put just inside the doorway of a grand mansion. And it had this strip of light and dark inlay, probably maple and ebony or something- little tiny tiny rectangles all lined up together.

And he was making the inlay, and then putting the inlay in place, and then surfacing it. Making it smooth and beautiful so it could be finished. And one of the tools he had at hand was a card scraper. And as we were talking- I monopolized his attention for probably half an hour because there was no one else there. And I was astonished. Not because I knew how famous he was, because I didn't really- I sort of knew how good he was, but only sort of. But he was working on the most amazing thing in what looked like a feed shed. And there was no one else there.

So I just stood there and talked and asked questions. But mostly I learned by watching him and what I learned- What I learned is that a true master of this particular craft stops and sharpens his tools every three or four strokes. He just kept stopping and kept stopping. Maybe half the time we were talking, he was just sharpening.

He wanted his blades to be perfectly sharp, because he was dealing with this intersection of wood grain. And if you if you have complicated grain, if you're complicated, you need extremely sharp tools and extremely skilled craftspeople.

e sharpness of his tools in a:

There was this rhythm, this cadence as he moved back and forth between his workpiece and his sharpening station, which was set up right behind him. Close enough that we could keep talking with his back turned to me with the rain falling on the metal- no, I don't think it was a tin roof. But the rain was falling all around and my feet were getting wet and I didn't care. I forgot. Because I knew what it was to be complicated and to need to be worked on with sharp tools and skill. And the result of his work was this beautifully finished surface.

He explained to me that it's possible to finish a surface with sanding, of course. And when you finish a surface with sanding, what you end up with is these microscopic little fuzzy pieces of wood sticking up because all you've done is sort of scrubbed away the surface. And it feels smooth enough and it finishes well enough and it's not terrible. But I have always been an intensive, and that means I have always not wanted to settle for "not terrible" where "excellent" or "gorgeous" or "mind-blowing" was available.

And the difference between sanding and cleaning or sanding and scraping is the difference between scrubbing the fibers and slicing them. And of all the tools that slice the fibers, this simple little cabinet scraper thing- you can get through three for ten dollars or something. It's just a flat, flexible piece of tool steel after all. This flexible little cabinet scraper-y thing produces a surface that shines before it has been oiled. At least if your wood is hard enough. And it produces the finest curl of a shaving, when it's sharp enough.

And that's the thing about a burr. It's that sharp. If you know how to use it right, it's that sharp. And there's so much control.

I have always preferred things that are proximate, intimate. I prefer kayaks to cruise ships, because you're in the water. You're with the water. I don't get motion sick in a kayak. And I prefer hand scrapers. Because all of the control is in your fingers. How hard you bend it, how hard you press it, at what angle you hold it is highly variable and immediately adjustable.

And what happens if you use one enough is that your body learns to tweak it as you work. You're like oh, that's just bringing up dust and I want that long shaving. So I'm going to change the angle just a little bit. Oh, this isn't cutting right. Oh that section is harder. It seems to have either a knot or some glue or who knows what. So I'm going to change it. I'm going to change it. I'm going to adjust it.

I'm going to tune it.

The tuning of a cabinet scraper is in tune with your body.

When you tune a handplane, you tune it once in the setup. And then you use it with some finesse. But I always have trouble with hand planes. Because each setup is really only good, really only perfect for one or two sets of conditions. And everything else is a compromise. Whereas a cabinet scraper all of the variability is in the moment you pick it up. And in knowing your burr.

Did I just sharpen this? Am I going to have to sharpen it soon? There's no, there's no real in-between. It's a burr, it doesn't last very long. It's a tiny little wire of metal that you can barely see even if you have really good eyesight. You check to see if it's right by running your thumbnail up across that piece of steel until it hits the edge. And if it catches as it hits the edge, then you know you've got a burr. But don't do it too hard, or you'll get a little neck in your burr. And it'll leave a streak.

And just keep sharpening. Keep your sharpening stone, or your sharpening set up right there. Your file right there. Your sandpaper, if you use that, right there. Your burnisher right there.

Be intimate with the way that you make your tool sharp. Be intimate with the sharpness itself.

I think most of the people who live here in the United States don't know what it means to be intimate with sharpness. And those people who do don't want to think about it too hard. Our very existence, our national identity, is sharp and thin. And it bends back and forth as we stroke the side of compassion, the side of fear. The side of compassion and the side of fear. The side of compassion, the side of fear.

And if this were a knife, our goal would be to wear it off completely. But the problem, the problem with that is that it just leaves it somewhere. It leaves us with a completely amoral existence. But what if instead of making ourselves into a knife, we made ourselves into a cabinet scraper, an even deeper kind of intimacy with our sharpness. And what if we deliberately chose which side, which side we were going to use to cut. And what we were going to be surfacing. What we were going to be polishing, what we were going to be making into something beautiful.

Choosing to make something beautiful, choosing to bend that wire edge to the useful side, to the side of compassion. To the side of growth past our legacy.

Systems theory has handed down to us from the beginning this rebellion against authority at all costs. Even our own lives and certainly the lives of our neighbors.

But what if instead? What if instead, we bent that wire over and then held the card in our hands, felt its sharpness and its weight. Pressed forward with our thumbs and passed it across the surface of who we are. Taking curl after curl of fear, of indignity, of retribution. What if we gave ourselves that gift? Felt our thumbs grow warm from the friction, but slowly enough not to burn ourselves?

What if?




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