Sunday, February 5, 2012

Producers and Consumers and Esoterica

One of the reasons I really have a hard time learning anything about woodworking via the internet is that esoterica abounds. And some of the discussions just don't die.

Sharpening is probably one of the worst rabbit holes to fall into. Sharpening media alone is a real head-bender: Oil stones, water stones, man made, natural, diamond paste and lapping plates, ceramic water-stones, or just sandpaper on glass... what to use? Then there are methods: free-hand or jig? Camber or not to camber? Back bevel? Secondary bevel? And just how sharp is sharp enough, really?

Then there's the question of how the blade is then being used. Bevel up? Bevel down? What angle was the tool sharpened to? What pitch is the plane bedded at? How wide is the throat on the plane? Maybe it's not really any of that, maybe you're just using a notoriously tough wood, so you need to look into a different kind of steel, high speed or tool steel or maybe something in a Japanese style... Well, that takes us into the realm of both sharpening angles and edge-retention properties of different kinds of steels, typically measured exhaustively with microscopes and charts and things. And that last part there is when it finally becomes clear to me that very little of this is going to help me be productive at all.

Whenever charts and statistical analysis come into the picture, I tune out. If people are so obsessed with how the steel performs, and they don't work for a tool manufacturer, then chances are very good that their hobby really isn't about working with wood. For some folks, they've found a hobby that they enjoy: they're searching for Excalibur. They're looking for that one perfect tool that will cut anything that it comes across, that they'll never, ever have to sharpen again.

[Tangential Rant]

The Excalibur phenomenon isn't uncommon, and it's by no means restricted to woodworking. People these days want things that work incredibly well, that they don't have to maintain, and they want it for less.

This seems a little stuck-up until you realize that so much of our country is populated with people who don't know how to maintain things anymore, don't make much money, and they're tired of the marginally functional crap that they've been able to afford to use so far. But that's why so many of us get into woodworking... to make something better for ourselves!

The irony is that I've seen some astounding work made by people who don't care about the latest and greatest, because they sharpen their tools often enough that they've become very, very good at it, without using a jig.

[/Tangential Rant]

In the context of a conversation about woodworking, esoteric stuff ceases to be relevant when it becomes a hindrance to progress.

In the end, one thing matters: can you do good work with your tools?

If you can't, the question then becomes, is it possible to figure out how to do good work with your tools if you're second guessing everything; from your methods to your stones to the actual steel in your tools? Without a baseline from which to experiment, the answer is no.

If the internet is to be useful as a source of information, a new woodworker (or an aspiring artisan in any other craft, for that matter) really needs to exercise restraint when taking in new information form outside sources. 99% of the most useful information you'll receive as a new woodworker will come from your own two hands. Your hands and your results in the shop will tell you more about how the process is going than anything else. Practice really does make perfect. (Or at least, better.)

Even though I can talk trash about the internet until I'm blue in the face, the fact remains that there's all of this weird information out there. And it's really tempting to get mixed up in, because, well... everyone seems to have an argument about all of it. So what gives? If being a new guy means ignoring all of these seemingly important arguments, and if my theory is right  that most of it really isn't useful anyway, then why do the arguments continue to go on?

The answer is surprisingly simple. The arguments self-perpetuate because it's entertaining. It's perfect fodder for consumerism. People keep coming back to the argument because it's still going on. And eventually they'll try whatever it is, or buy whatever's being talked about to see for themselves. And then they have a rightful seat in the conversation.... how exciting! And even if it didn't work the way they thought, that will get bounced around, too: Maybe it's not the stones, maybe it's technique or something else... it becomes a social club for people who have bought all of this stuff. It becomes a trap for people who don't know better, and a marvelous co-dependent for people who just want to buy more shiny new stuff that they feel good about owning.

Addressing some of the comments I got on the last post, this is part of my problem with bandwagons: sometimes it seems like some people are jumping on, just so they can be on the bandwagon. I worry that they're more interested in being on the bandwagon than they are in where it's going. That's the essence of consumer culture, and how apropos that I'm writing this an hour before the Superbowl: Do I really care about the game? Not really. But I know that people are going to be talking about those stupid commercials, so I know I need to watch them if I'm going to be part of the conversations this week.

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