Silence in the Movement of a Saw

"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything."

-Excerpt from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
recorded sayings of Master Yamamoto Tsunetomo
Translated by William Scott Wilson

This quote has followed me for years. It is actually the quote that made me search out and buy a copy of The Hagakure. I have taken these words to heart over time and I try and remember them often. There is deep truth in the last words, understanding the difference between running and walking to the same destination with the same results extends to life and everything in it.

I suffer from a persistent interior monologue that consists of many, varied voices. The majority of them are pretty critical of everything I do. Age and experience has taught me to give the worst of them none of my  attention, but they are still there. I relish the moments in life when I can live without those voices, especially the ones that plan every moment in the future and dissect every second from the past. Those quiet times come when I can focus on something that requires I'm "there" and completely in the moment.

For me, to a varying degree, I collect many of these moments when I am standing at my workbench. Different operations yield different silences, the most profound is when I am sawing. It does not matter if I am sawing joinery or breaking down basic stock. The time with the saw in my hand is golden. I've done all my thinking and planing leading up to the moment I get ready to apply steel to wood. The layout lines are marked, the worrying and thinking about this cut has past. Now is the time to still my mind, and draw the teeth into the fibers.

Starting the cut is a leap of faith. I'm human after all, I could have made a miscalculation and wasted a beautiful piece of stock that I already invested significant time and effort into selecting and preparing for this moment, but once the saw begins to plow it's divide there is no point in concerning myself with those thoughts any longer. There is just the concentration on the rhythm of the cut, focus on following the line I've struck, and the wonderful quiet in my head.

I have spent a good amount of time trying decipher why I gravitated away from my beginnings as a dedicated Normite and morphed into a mostly Neanderthal hand tool user. (Why is it Normite vs. Neanderthal, I think it should be Normite vs. Roy-ite or maybe Underhill-ite don't you think?) I have tried to consider the question of what would an 18th century woodworker gravitate towards if they were suddenly dropped into this modern age. Would he hold tight to his hollows and rounds or would he find merit in a router table. Would he take to a 36" wide drum sander like a fish to water?

I don't believe that any of our sawdust making ancestors were any smarter, stronger, or weaker than we are today. A person is a person, simple and complex at the same time, whether that person was born a thousand years ago or yesterday. The difference is the time you live in defines the circumstances and technologies you rely on. There were no diesel powered cranes to help build the pyramids, but there were also no hard hat or safety harness laws. Different technologies, different circumstances.

In the end, I think our time traveling woodwright would be true to what he is. A craftsman. His priorities would be first: to get the best results possible and second: to get those results as efficiently as possible. One truth I know is that while power tools are good, reliable and fast, they are not always the best results, and sometimes they aren't the most efficient either. I also believe there is more soul in a project built by hand tools than one pulled of the production line up that power tools can be.

When I worked with mostly power tools I was hemmed in with a factory, production mentality. Saying things like "I've got to cut all these stiles and rails at the same time so the table saw fence is set exactly the same for all of them. For me the power tool process wasn't creation as much as it was advanced model building. I did not find that same "in the moment" silence around the loud grind of electron driven steel.

The results I ended up with were not as satisfactory either. The work was technically correct, but it lacked something that is difficult to describe. When I attend a craft show there is inevitably a woodworker who has thrown up his shingle and is showing the fruits of his labor. Of course I'm interested in looking at his work, but there is usually something disappointing in what I find. I admire them for putting themselves out there and trying to scratch out a dollar or two from the sand, but for the sake of that dollar the results are often closer to soulless Walmart chip board then they are to items I would like to have around me. Routed profiles and dovetails pushed through on a template are just not items I want surrounding me in my life. I believe that, given the choice, even the average person could tell the difference between the things built by hand and things primarily built by power, and I believe, were cost no issue, they would be pulled to the item that carried feeling with it.

Then again I could just be morphing into a snob.

Coming back to the original quote, I believe there is a difference between calmly striding through the "rain" in my shop and perplexing my efforts trying to run. Both paths undoubtedly result in a work of some merit, but the moments of silence I receive create a piece that carries something more than the stock that makes up the parts, something more than the proportions and the design, something more than the abilities invested in the act of creation. The work carries with it a soul, and that is the ultimate in intangibles.

Ratione et Passionis


  1. Derek, Good post, you made me think about many things that don't get thought about enough. Keep it up.

  2. Derek, great post. As a matter of fact, just this morning I sold my JET 6" jointer, soon to be replaced with a very nice 30" wood jointer, the table saw is next. I will however hold onto my Delta 14" bandsaw, I am all into the " traditional" way of working wood, but I'm pretty sure I won't be ripping 8' boards by hand :) thanks again for the post.

  3. I haven't actually been able to bring my self to release anything from my old life back into the wild, but I am close, very close. my bandsaw will stay with me more for the benefit of resawing than anything else.

  4. I've often wondered if Normite was derived from "Norm Abram" or from "Normal" - as in these are the normal/current tools available to us.

    In that sense, Neaderthal makes a far more apt opposite.

  5. Great post and well said. At a recent woodworking show in Iowa it occurred to me that most woodworkers have the goal of making wood look like plastic. Then they cover it with lacquer, which is essentially plastic as well. They take all that was living out of it. And the result is completely boring to the human eye. Please keep up this conversation!

  6. Steven, I guess when I first read the terms used on forums I assumed the Norm in Normite related directly to something New Yankee. No one ever said that directly, my interpretation.

    But, If as a neanderthal I'm the opposite of normal... well that might just be a little more belittling than the other way.

    I actually hate the polarizing take on it all together. It can get in the way of conversation.


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