Sunday, November 27, 2011

keeping things sharp...

This morning as I was moving in and out of a lucid state, I was thinking about sharpening things, the character of steel, how it can be hardened and marked so it can be used to cut itself, as in the making of files for sharpening saws and shaping steel. You can take a hardened steel tool, use it to mark soft steel, then harden that steel and use it to file on wood or metal. That process is truly the foundation of all modern human culture. We would be napping flint and wearing animal skins without that foundation. We would also live in endless forests, for it was the making of charcoal to support the making of iron, that exhausted the forests of most of the ancient world from which our western culture grew to dominate the entire planet.

I had a friend for many years who owned a lumber yard in downtown Eureka Springs. After work when the yard had closed, he would sit at a bench and sharpen saws. A straight carpenter's hand saw could be filed sharp for a dollar or two, and circular saws could be filed for a bit less depending on the number of teeth. It was something Warren did when all his employees had gone home. It made extra money and gave him meditative time to reflect on all those things that had arisen in the course of the day. No doubt, he gave some time in thought to the owners of each saw, as each was marked with the name of the craftsman who had worn its teeth cutting wood. Now we have carbide blades that require more sophisticated equipment, and saw sharpening has become more complicated than a man sitting at a bench with a sharp file. Most carpenters just buy new blades.

Years ago, when I bought my first Japanese dozuki saw, they too were saws that could be sharpened, and Japanese craftsmen were known for the ability to file the full blade flat, and then re-file and reset new teeth one by one down the full length of the blade. I tried it one time and found it to be very difficult and time consuming, a thing that would only come easy through long practice, but in the old days of craftsmanship, time was less a pressing concern. Sharpening was a time to reflect on your day and express concern toward other matters. Sharpening was a thing that you did so well that as you moved from tooth to tooth, your hands cutting each one precisely in skilled manner, your mind was freed toward a more expansive state.

Can you begin to see what we are losing here? The "ease of use" in the products designed for us, means that no skill must be earned in their operation. There can be no earned sense of awe in our developing capacity. We become expendable rather than expandable in that anyone with the same machine can take our place without investing in his or her own development; without aptitude, which now, too, has become of less importance.

In my semi-lucid state, I began to wonder what would become of us if the grid failed, or the Internet went kaboom? Where would we be with our devices? Remember when tools offered ceremonial use? Do you remember when they were used with reverence, and when they gave rise to skills within the hands and minds of those who used them?

I am just asking for a bit of remembrance and restoration. There are parallels between a sharp tool and a sharp mind that we should be thinking about.

But no, I'm not asking you to give up your iPad. Just give it to your cat who can operate it with nearly the same level of proficiency and interest as you, yourself or I.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Nice post as always Doug. Can I correct a common misconception though. Charcoal production for steel did not result in deforestation. It was all managed coppice woodland and the areas of Europe that were most heavily drawn upon to supply charcoal are still the most wooded today. In the UK this is the Weald of Kent the forest of Dean and even Sheffield is the UKs most wooded city, have a look at it on google earth. We loose woodland when it is considered less valuable than farmland not when it is producing valuable product.

  2. Robin, there is a great book on the subject named Forest Journey, The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization by John Perlin.

    It tracks the rise and fall of civilizations throughout the ancient and modern world. I think you would find it fascinating. Pottery and smelting would arise in one nation, and then die as the forests were depleted, then arise again when the forests had grown back. Imagine the whole of the Mediterranean and North Africa being heavily forested. Removal of trees for a variety of uses led to serious erosion.

    The discovery of how to use coal in place of charcoal led to the opportunity for trees to be left standing for other uses. I love to hear from you Robin, and greatly admire your work.


  3. Hmmmm is it a well referenced scientific work? Google shows he is a popular writer but does he have academic background? My detailed knowledge is admittedly from the UK and Western Europe having worked in conservation forestry before moving into craft. Prof Oliver Rackham has written excellent books on the subject and there is no question that whilst iron furnaces demand wood forests remain. Cutting temperate woodland does not kill a forest to do that you need grazing animals. The history of deforestation is not one of cutting but of grazing. In areas where the forest is not valued or where grazing is more valued or where there are common grazing rights that lead to over grazing, these are the agents of deforestation.
    Likewise, always an admirer of your writing Doug.

  4. Robin, his book has about 70 pages of references and notes, so I guess it is well researched. It fascinates me because in National Geographic this month it shows the use of charcoal as the primary fuel in much of Africa. I'm certain grazing, as you say, delivers the death blow to forests. The whole story is depressing.


  5. Anonymous6:05 PM

    I'll avoid the above discussion, lacking any expertise whatsoever on the subject, and add a comment on how sad it is that my planer's blades can't be sharpened by any of our local blade sharpening shops. They see them as disposable. To me, that is very sad.


  6. Mario, I agree with you on the disposable planer blades. It is nice that you can flip them over and use the other side. On the other hand, I was finding sharpening services to be overly aggressive on my planer knives.I got tired of watching them get ground needlessly and to such poor results, so I started sharpening them myself on a water stone sharpening system. I got them razor sharp while just taking a skoch off. I wonder whether the disposable knives could be sharpened the way I did mine. I sold my DeWalt planer before trying it out.