Repetition, Variations, Muscle Memory and Nuances
Prior to Michelangelo’s The David, paintings and sculptures based on the
story of David and Goliath had David either in the act of hurling a
stone at Goliath, or holding up the severed head of the vanquished
Goliath. Unlike what had gone before, Michelangelo shows David, not as
he slays Goliath, or after he’s slain Goliath, but at the moments when
he, David, knew he COULD and would slay Goliath. Selecting the rock,
pouching it, the wind up, the release and the head severing was just
For some woodworkers, it’s like that; the finished piece is known, in
every detail, before the first tool makes contact with the wood. Within
this group, there are those who see the whole finished piece and how it
will be done totally in their minds - without a single line being
drawn. Others work out everything “on paper” (including computer
representations of the piece and ALL the details of how it will be put
together - at full scale) and the actual making of the parts and their
assembly is just grunt work. Gary/Garry Knox Bennett won a prize in a
turning competition by submitting a cube of wood with an inscribed
circle, with center, on each of the six faces of the cube. No lathe
tool, nor even a lathe was necessary to convey the finished piece - the
rest was just grunt work.
I’m guessing that most of us don’t go at woodworking that way, but
rather sketch and/or draw an idea, probably refine the idea enough to
work out the obvious details and then start on the wood, not knowing
exactly how or what the final piece will look like, feeling our way
I’m also betting that most of us don’t often do the same piece twice or
do a few variations of a prior piece, even if a variation would be a far
better piece than the one just completed. The time and materials
required to make the variation is just too great. And besides, there
are so many other pieces to make, so many more joints to learn, so many
other woods to try . . .
But what if . . . there was a way to do four or five variations of an
idea, albeit a relatively simple idea, in say an hour? In drawing
classes one often is required to do 5 and 10 second sketches of
something - no details, just enough to imply the rest. The path of a
dancer’s hand, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, the thrust of a
fencer’s foil, the curve of part of a pear’s outline - a few lines, a
brush stroke or two, which captures enough of the thing to imply and
evoke the rest.
There is such a thing in woodworking. It’s called spindle turning.
With a small, relatively inexpensive lathe, a few turning tools and,
compared to what is required for even a simple piece of furniture,
almost no wood, interesting “sketches” of shapes and forms can appear
almost as if by magic. Unlike other methods of removing wood
selectively, it involves ever changing presentations of the cutting edge
or point of the tool to the spinning wood, much like patting your head
while rubbing your stomach - and whistling - as you jump up and down on
one foot. And unlike many manually driven tools that remove wood, a
single turning tool can be used to create a variety of surfaces,
concave, convex, flat tapers, beads, grooves, mushrooms - a Swiss Army
Pocket Knife type thing. In addition, if you do it right, the surface
of the wood is burnished smooth - little or no sanding required.
I’m making three “behind the door, screwed to studs in the wall, coat /
school backpack on pegs” - “things” (wall mounted coat racks).
Using simple dowels for the pegs just didn’t seem right. Had some maple
scraps, squared them up, found the center on one end and set the other
end in a four jaw chuck. With just a half inch skew chisel and a 1/8”
diamond parting tool, I could cut a round tenon with square shoulder,
then - a flat surface, a groove, a bead, a long, thinner cylinder, a
conical section, another V groove and ending in a 5/8th sphere (think of
a chess pawn sitting on a short dowel and turned horizontal).
The first shape took maybe 20 minutes because it involved warming up
with the two cutting tools and deciding on where to cut in the basic
control points of the profile using the long point of the skew. The
remaining two “pegs” I could get out of the first blank each took
perhaps 15 minutes, with a little time spent working out the transitions
along the profile and the method of obtaining them.
The second blank took maybe a half an hour to convert into three more
“pegs”, each successive peg a variation of the original idea,
lengthening a section here, changing the taper there, a bead rather than
a pair of V grooves, a cylindrical area now a long shallow cove. Half
way through this second blank there was no lag between idea of what to
do next and the cut to make it because muscle memory had started to kick
in - think it and the hands immediately do what’s necessary to have the
cutting tool make the cut(s).
By the third blank, with muscle memory working the tool, nuances began -
subtle cuts, hard edges rather than slightly beveled, refined
transitions from concave to convex, flat to round, little things that
make the 7th and 8th versions noticeably more visually pleasing than the
The fourth blank was turned, literally, into four more pegs in less than
half an hour - in a series of Zen Moments - the hands, the tools and the
wood working together without conscious thought or effort - the shapes
In less than two hours I had thirteen turned maple “pegs” that looked
similar enough to all appear to be the same, part of a set. But if you
looked a little closer, no two were identical and there were subtle
changes piece to piece.
The 13th piece, the last turned, will be saved - maybe the “seed” for
when the next turned “pegs” are needed. If that’s soon enough, perhaps
the muscle memory will still be around and the warm up period will be
significantly shorter, the Zen Moments longer.
If your primary interest in woodworking involves a lot of thinking,
multiple machine operations, and/or a fair amount of fairly precise
chisel and hand plane work, with weeks or months of elapsed time to the
finished piece - consider getting a small lathe and some lathe tools.
Turning makes a nice break period - and who knows, some nice turned
handles, drawer pulls or merely decorative elements might add a nice
touch to your next project.
But beware, turning can be addictive.
Oh, by the way, the “muscle memory thing” works with a dovetail saw too.
Practice, practice, practice - is BORING - UNLESS you end up with
something you can use instead of a bunhc of scraps.