Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Why of Finishing

I have always been a little intimidated my the finishing process. I know I am not the only shaving slinger who faces this issue. I'm sure there are several reasons for this.

As I've said before, Norm Abrahms was my gateway into the woodworking world. Over a decade ago I would watch his show every chance, and while he spent nine tenths of the show going over the details of machining the wood and lovingly placing every biscuit. He would wrap up the finishing in less than five minutes, always telling us what he was using, but never the why.

I had similar experiences in most of the mainstream woodworking media, and even to some extent in books, even books written about finishing. There was a piece that was missing for me in those places. I couldn't put my finger on it, hell I probably still couldn't tell you exactly what that thing is. It doesn't fit well into words, not for me at least. I read about the guys I looked up to using these wonderfully complex finishes but what I couldn't get was why they chose to use them. 

What makes a woodworker decide to use a danish oil or a french polish? What's the best way to finish walnut? Pine? Bulbinga? How do you know when to choose?

I think I may be starting to figure it out, somewhat. And it's not something that came from a book, or a blog, or a group of magical elves that appear in my shop at night while I sleep. Well it's not completely any of those things anyway, it's partially those things and partially something else.

Let me try and explain it like this:

I have a friend who is a bladesmith. A blacksmith who specializes in making swords, daggers, knives, spears,  axes, and other general implements of use in dismantling a human body. I've bought several of Daniel's pieces over the years and I love his work. He has an keen eye for subtle lines and grace in historical accuracy. He's been at it for many years and I've always considered him very accomplished.

A while back I was visiting with him and he said he was excited because he had finally cracked the secret of correctly tempering steel. I admit I was a little surprised by the admission.

"Haven't you been tempering your blades for years?" I asked

"Well, yes," he said, "but not always the right way."

Confused? I still was too.

Daniel went on to explain how the man who got him started in smithing taught him to temper like it reads in the books, but he also told him that this wasn't the best way, or even the right way. He told Daniel he'd have to search for that on his own and he'd know it when he found it. After several years of experience and experimenting, he finally found it.

Now I don't agree with the concept of intentionally with-holding information, and I know on the surface it can seem like this is what happened in my friend's case. But there's something to be said for earning something important. A nugget of knowledge earned is a much more treasured thing. Daniel finally conquered an important thing through perseverance and experience, and along that path he learned tempering in a much more subtle and thorough way. He was given the groundwork and set on his own path to learn something difficult to accurately explain in words and even pictures.

Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf

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