Thursday, August 1, 2013

Rule Number 8 for Asking Questions

Yesterday, Chris Schwarz sent a few hundred readers my way. Thanks, Chris.

Last night, Chris put up a video, and gave a narration on The Art of Asking Questions, as quoted from The Manufacturer and Builder, circa 1870. There were 12 rules, but he skipped over rules 6-8. If he hadn't done so, my curiosity would not have been aroused with regard to the missing parts. Having found them, I felt the need to expound on rule number 8.

(I found the source material on google books, and bound paperback copies elsewhere online... leave it to Chris to find new things for me to spend money on.)

Rule number 8:

"The Way to remember the answer to any question is to associate it in the mind with other answers connected with the same subject. It is well, therefore, to follow one subject, if possible, until sufficient has been learned about it to be easily remembered; for the more one knows, the more one can remember, while isolated facts soon get lost. As my father said, "Wholesale stores are the easiest to keep in order."

In other words, take the time to gather up a knowledge base before you ask more questions on the topic, so that the answers will make enough sense (in the context of what you understand) as to be useful. 

I think this is one of the best explanations I have ever found for why I think it's so important for would-be woodworkers to get off of the internet, and get back to the bench. In context, the usefulness of some of what can be found online will be incredibly evident. And, the lack of usefulness of some of it will be evident.

When you spend enough time at the bench, things will begin to call out to you in a different way. There's a part of the brain stem called the reticular formation, that's responsible for your ability to sift through piles of ongoing stimulus. When someone says to focus on everything red in the room, the reticular formation is the part of the brain that highlights the objects that you're filtering for. When you're regularly engaged in woodwork, it's also the part of your brain that will find things in daily life that will help solve whatever problems you're trying to figure out, whether it's a book, a tool, or a new way to organize your shop. Whatever the problem is that's been distracting you, it's the reticular formation that is always on the hunt for the solution. (Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell.)

The useful stuff will call out to you, if you have the contextual knowledge base to put it to use. Better solutions to problems you've already solved will scream out to you. But it's all only useful in context, and if you've spent too much time reading message boards and blogs, and not enough time at the bench, you'll have a lot of information in your head that will be hard to put to use in a way that makes sense... and you run the risk of combining things that don't make sense.

For instance, I recently saw a sketch-up plan online for a 'Split-Top Roubo MFT' workbench.

Anyone who has used an MFT (festool work table) knows that it's a pretty inspired piece of equipment. It's portable, lightweight (for what it is) modular, holds the work, guides the power tools, and it's a great platform for building up new methods of working with Festool. It also derives a lot of functionality from the ability to hook the L-shaped bar of their F-clamps through the surface, to hold the work down, and the surface is meant to be replaceable, because it's constantly getting chewed up by the track saw. Currently, Festool is on the 3rd version of the MFT, and it's clearly evolved to reflect what has been learned in use.

If you've dug far enough into the Roubo paradigm, you appreciate that it's a monolithic work surface that is big and solid and provides a lot of convenient ways to hold the work, and it's a surface that will settle out over time, and stay pretty flat, which is important for hand tools.

Drilling a lot of holes through the top to emulate an MFT isn't really a great idea, given that the clamps wouldn't be able to hook through. And habitually chewing up a reference surface with a track saw seems like a goofy thing to do.  And, it's not portable, or something you can put away in a garage shop.

In short, the OP spent a lot of time, and tried too hard to bring two of his online worlds together. But the sum of the two is ultimately less than either of the parts.

Because this is the internet, I'll probably get bashed for dumping on someone's dream bench*. The point I'm trying to make here is that it's important to use reality and in-person experience as a filter to sift through the things you find online, and not to use the internet to define the work that you do. I'm sure that he'll find a way to use his bench efficiently in time, but for now, it seems like a shining example of someone whose designs were influenced too much by what he read, and not enough by what he's done. He hasn't done enough work to distinguish the virtues of either paradigm, so he can't see the incompatibilities yet. And, he won't, until after he's spent a lot of time and money. And that's a shame. If he'd gathered enough experience to know what he needed, and what would be useful, the end product would likely be very different, and a lot easier to put together and work with.

The moral of that story: Take the time to understand the context of your questions, so that you understand the import of the answers.


In the context of inspiration, the germinating seed for last night's LAP blog entry, creating a body of work that will give you the context to ask bigger questions can only help you to be inspired by other bodies of work. For myself, one of the thrilling aspects of looking at old work, and old methods of work, is seeing how someone else solved a difficult or complex problem.

One of the elements of a really good epic story is the sense that the reader is given that the roots of the story go so deep as to be lost in the mists of time, barely perceptible, but still there. In creating middle earth, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote volumes of back stories for every race and creature, going back ages, and it contributed to the texture and depth of his work. The context and the details add so much more to the motives of each character and culture in the book... and so it is for woodworking. The best work that modern woodworkers strive to recreate was done in an age that predated electric lights or a lot of modern machinery. Some of the approaches and methods used then are still useful, and in some cases pretty sophisticated, despite the crudeness that modern observers might ascribe to the tools. And those old methods still have a lot to teach to anyone who's paying attention. (See my review of By Hand and Eye) 

For all of our CNC magic, and 3-D printing, we still don't have many people who are producing work on the level of the Seymours, Roentgens, Townsends, or others. (To be fair, there weren't that many back then, either, which is why they remain distinguished.) And much as I love Stickley, The Hall brothers, Nakashima, Esherick, and Maloof... they just weren't operating on that level. I don't know enough (yet) about marquetry and hidden mechanisms to ask questions of Roentgen furniture. I'd like to, but I do understand that I need a higher level of understanding and context for the questions to be meaningful. That's the difference, really, between a worthy question, and a 'lazy, impertinent, or conceited' question. (See rule 4) And there are a lot of lazy, impertinent, and conceited questions that get asked sometimes on the internet.

So, stop reading this. And get back to work.


*With luck, the OP of that thread on the Festool Owner's Group will never see this blog entry. I'm sure he put a lot of thought into the bench, and it's not my intent to publicly humiliate anyone. So, if he does find his way here, for what it's worth, I'm sorry. That said, his bench provides a very good illustration for my point, and will hopefully help provide a learning opportunity for others.

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