Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Ian Kirby's Sharpening with Waterstones

In the time I've been writing this blog, I have shied away from doing book reviews, because I want this blog to tell you what's going on in MY shop. But sometimes, what's going on in my shop is that I'm reading, to help jog my memory about a technique or construction method or tool setup that I want to use. For me, woodworking and reading about it have always been paired activities which make each other more interesting and rewarding. It's about time I shared some of my thoughts on a few books, blogs and magazines.

Some Books I Like

In 1998 and 1999, Cambium Press (later taken over by Linden Press) issued four books by Ian Kirby: The Accurate Router, The Accurate Table Saw, Sharpening with Waterstones, and The Complete Dovetail. These books are physically different from typical woodworking books, with a smaller format: 6 by 9 inches and 140 pages, compared with 9 by 12 and around 200 pages for most woodworking offerings from publishers like Taunton, Sterling, Fox Chapel, Popular Woodworking; and other titles from Cambium/Linden. So they're half the usual size, but also half the usual price, at $14.95. I like them all, and they're among the books I recommend students in my classes read.

The illustrations are all
black and white, but both photographs and drawings clearly illustrate what's being shown in the text. These books are also unusual in that despite their brevity, they cover their topics well, and do it by avoiding the typical “survey” approach, in which multiple methods are shown for each job to be done. For example, in the sharpening book, which I'm re-reading today, Kirby shows one way, and only one way, to sharpen hand tools for woodworking. He uses a bench grinder to make a low-angle main bevel, followed by waterstones to produce a higher-angle, polished, working bevel. He shows how to make and use a jig system for the bench grinder, including tool holders for plane irons, chisels, and spokeshave irons. He includes plans for freestanding and outrigger versions of a waterstone sharpening station. He shows how to sharpen knives, scissors, and carving gouges. There's nothing about drills, router bits, or other power-tool blades.

Kirby's methods aren't always typical of what other authors recommend, but his recommendations are based on his training in the British Arts and Crafts tradition, followed by decades of experience as a woodworker and teacher. So even when it's idiosyncratic, his advice is sound and will lead to good results arrived at in a safe manner. You won't learn about every possible type of sharpening stone and every honing jig that's ever been made, but if you follow this book's instructions you will consistently prepare a blade sharp enough to do fine work. If you're not curious about sharpening, you could go through your whole woodworking life and never read another book about it, and be just fine.

How Some People Read Woodworking Books

If you disagree with some aspect of Kirby's method, you might take it as an excuse to dismiss his entire book. For instance, the partially hollow-ground bevel his method produces is not a good idea for Japanese chisels and planes, which have laminated blades. Many writers seem to relish this approach to other authors' work, seeking out any deviation from their own orthodoxy and trumpeting maledictions against the blasphemers & idolaters in the public square. Cast out the abomination! This is the least enjoyable aspect of reading and writing about woodworking. Despite all the good the internet has done for woodworking, this zealotry in small things is something I'm not grateful for. Both the anonymous trolls of Redditi and some of the most prominent, respected, and gifted teachers and woodworkers are guilty of it. I still read all I can, but it's hard work when a writer who has lots of great ideas that they can express well seems unable to write about anything but the error of others' ways.

Adapting, Adopting, Copying, and Plagiarizing

Other writers (and publishers) take the opposite approach. Instead of trying to tear down what other writers have built, they show up with tape measures, notebooks, and cameras. Then what they look at appears in something they publish later. Sometimes this doesn't really matter. If Tage Frid mentioned in his book that the butyrate handles on Stanley and Record chisels are really tough, even if they are extremely ugly, it doesn't do any wrong to say the same thing in your book, blog, or article - - as long as you believe it too! It will even help you make your case stronger if you add “Tage Frid said this way back in 1980, and it's still true!”

Sometimes, this is great! There's real value in the improvement that comes by finding something excellent in a book and adapting your own methods to it, practicing it a while, making it your own, and then sharing it with the world.

On the other hand, if you are about to publish a book on bandsaws, and you take a recent, successful book about bandsaws to the photocopy machine, and publish a bandsaw book designed by someone else and traced over by you, people will notice and think less of your book. If this behavior reaches a certain level, the lawyers will be called in.

Most cases are far less clear-cut. For instance, what if you see a cool concept in a book you like,

and build something like it to include in a book that's published 6 years later?

I wonder if anyone else has ever noticed this little example. Each book is wonderful in its own way. I'm glad I own them both. I'm not calling anyone a plagiarist or a victim, but this sort of thing bugs me a little bit because of my own training. In another life, decades ago, I trained to be a literary scholar. When I see something like this, my training kicks in and I simultaneously 1) flip the page around looking for the citation and 2) say to myself “Aha! Intertextuality! I have caught a concept sneaking from one text into another, possibly using an author's brain as vector!” Since examples like this are unacknowledged in the text, the intertextual link is made by the reader. This a stellar example of that poststructural condition in which the author is dead and the author-function is assumed by the reader . . . all because an author (or editor) didn't acknowledge where an idea came from.

That's a roundabout way of suggesting that woodworking writers ought to acknowledge the sources of our ideas more often (when we know them, anyway). Why? To give us all a clearer understanding of how connected woodworkers all are, and how much we all owe to our teachers.

Why don't we? My best guess is that there are two main reasons. For one, we fear that there's a finite amount of attention available for woodworking books and blogs and magazines. That being so, admitting that a) not every single thing we write or teach is an idea that originated with us, and b) we read other writers' work, suggests to our readers that maybe their valuable time and money should go elsewhere. The other reason that occurs to me is that publishers need to produce a steady stream of fresh, new material, and so the notion of using the current book to recommend that readers look in older, pre-existing books is not revenue-effective. After all, a new book on whatever topic is coming out soon - - why make the potential audience for that smaller?

Here is the crux of the issue. Woodworking is a relatively stable, finite body of information. Wood is wood, and its properties aren't changing. The tools remain basically the same, with occasional refinements and improvements. Same goes for procedures: they're determined by the fixed nature of the material, the relatively static arsenal of tools we bring to bear on it, and also a historically stable set of results we're trying for. So there are refinements, but in order to constantly offer up fresh “content” in the form of books and magazine articles and blog posts, there has to be lots of repetition. Wouldn't the repetition be easier to take if authors and publishers took a moment to acknowledge where they learned, what they learned, and how they've changed it to adapt to their own needs? I think it would make my reading much more interesting. Also less poststructural. There's a reason I never thrived as a literary theorist!


iMind you, neither I nor my syntax suggests that everyone who uses Reddit is a troll. Much of value appears there, and in fact some of the most surprising and pleasurable praise of my own work I've ever encountered was on a woodworking subreddit.

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