Repetition, Variations, Muscle Memory and Nuances


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 grunt work.
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 along.
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 / jacket / 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 previous pieces.
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 just happening.
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.
charlie b
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On Wed, 05 Apr 2006 08:41:59 -0700, charlie b opined:

I'm building a "Triangular Loom" for SWMBO. It has 309 3d box nails around the triangular frame. Bulk box nails are stamped. They have irregular heads. The heads are much larger than those on the heritage loom I'm copying. So I'm chucking the nails in the DP, running a file, then a stone, over the heads, rinse, repeat. The muscle memory got its post-graduate degree on nail #6. I'll end up with something I will use, and the product will be well worth the effort expended. It will, however, be boring.
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