Physical feedback

Saturday was neck carving day – I planned on spending some quality time at a workbench with a sturdy vice and sharp chisels, carving the heel of my guitar neck (that part where the back of the neck joins the body). I’ve actually got two necks built in parallel, but one has quite a bit of tear-out from some sloppy router work on the headstock, so that’s become my “practice” neck. Free-carving the curve of the heel will take some practice.

It was a bit frustrating at first. One book I’ve been following as a guide suggests using a very wide chisel for the broad shaping. Good idea in practice, but force = pressure x area. I have to use twice as much force on a 1″ chisel as I would on a 1/2″ chisel, and that means I’m more likely to slip (there’s a clean slice on the side of my index finger from both pushing too hard with the right hand and not remembering to keep the left hand out of the path of the tool). It’s also just bad form to “force” a tool – I just don’t have as much control. My chisels are reasonably sharp (although I could probably improve in the sharpening department, too), so I was surprised at how difficult this was.

I ended up eventually shifting to a narrower chisel, and life got a lot easier. There was still a lot of trial and error – the main shaping strokes are across the grain, which is an odd direction to pare wood. I eventually broke out my cabinet maker’s rasps (and boy, can I tell the difference between a high quality rasp and a cheap Big Box store tool) and learned how they work in this particular application. I got to the point of a rough shape with the practice neck, and then stopped to take a break.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Rough carving the side profile of the neck heel.

Reading about the carving operation ahead of time was helpful – I knew roughly the order of operations I wanted to execute. But there was a lot I had to experience first hand – literally. The curve of the heel is concave looking from the headstock to the body, but convex looking up from the back of the instrument. Carving each of these with flat chisels took some thinking and experimenting. The wood also behaves very differently when carving across vs with the grain. In one of my first (too heavy) cuts I tore a good chunk out of the top of the fingerboard – had that been my “real” neck it would have been difficult to glue back into place without a cosmetic blemish.

I know this is glaringly obvious, but this sort of knowledge and skill can only be acquired through practice. Reading is helpful to a point, but what I found surprising is that after trying this for a few hours, I could re-read the texts and better understand the logic of certain operations. The book was quite clear, for example, about never carving along the curve all the way through to the end of the workpiece – that guarantees some tearing out (which I proved). Now I see why that advice was given, and through making the gut-clenching error myself the lesson has stuck.

This week looks to be a bit busy, but I’m going to try to carve out (no pun intended) one evening to return to the wood shop this week.

Meanwhile, the 30 day challenge continues along. I’m managing to average about 6 days out of 7 of solid guitar practice, and I’ll call that a win. I’m finding it’s a lot easier to keep up when I have a basic expectation of daily practice, and allow myself an occasional “miss.”  If I’d set a goal of every other day, on the other hand, I think it would have been a lot harder to keep up as a habit.  In an ideal world I’d probably adopt the same “every day unless there’s a good reason” approach to exercise, too. Maybe that will be Feb’s challenge…

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If at first I don’t succeed…

After fixing the guitar body lining that I messed up in my last post, I went back to the shop today (fueled up on delicious Thanksgiving leftovers) determined to slow down, get in the zone, and cut the notches in the lining they way they should be. In the end I decided to try notching the braces into the lining for structural reasons, not acoustic reasons. The acoustics, as I mentioned in that post, are a matter of debate – how tightly coupled the back and sides are to the top is a matter of taste and tuning. But I’d read stories of braces coming loose over time and vibrating – supporting the brace ends by tucking them into the lining seems to help, and that explanation made sense to me.

A few careful saw cuts and chisel strokes later,

Cutting slots (in addition to the full slots already in the lining to provide flexibility) for the sides of the pocket.

Cutting slots (in addition to the full slots already in the lining to provide flexibility) for the sides of the pocket.

Chiseling out the waste of the pocket to the depth of the brace. The end of a top brace will tuck into this pocket.

Chiseling out the waste of the pocket to the depth of the brace. The end of a top brace will tuck into this pocket.

I had six pockets routed out on both the top and back sides of the lining. A preliminary fit of top and back showed I was in the ballpark – I may have to trim a smidgeon here and there before gluing, but that’s better than removing too much all at once. There will be a little but of ugliness in terms of the visual presentation (in some cases it was easier and safer to just remove two whole segments of the lining to the correct depth, rather than try to saw and leave a very thin and weak segment), but most of this work is not visible to casual inspection. Again, “just build the damn thing.”

No particularly deep lesson today, just a reminder that failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. While I lament the fact that there is no easy “undo” in woodworking, it does slow me down and focus my concentration in a particular way, and gives me real “failures” to recover from.

Oops I did it again

Every so often I find myself writing a variation on the same post – the idea that working with wood entails largely non-reversible operations. Essentially, woodworking has no “undo” command. I’ve written about that back in October here, in Feb 2011 here, Aug 2009 here… oh, there’s a post from June 2007 and one from June 2006, too. Eight years and counting of noting the same problem – rushing forward without stopping to think one or two steps ahead. The consequences of “just try it” are often irreversible.

A friend at work had a Spanish cedar platter that had once been her grandmothers. She packed it in a suitcase for a long flight and it cracked in transit. Fortunately it was a clean split and hadn’t completely separated into two pieces, so after looking at it I offered to glue it up. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would use for clamping pressure, but felt confident I could use a band clamp, a bunch of rubber bands, or if I had to, cut out clamping cauls on a bandsaw and use bar clamps. As it turns out, rubber bands did the trick. I flooded the joint with glue (in hindsight, I should have tried to be more economical and use a syringe that I’d forgotten I had) and clamped it up.

Yellow wood glue is a great adhesive. In a tight joint and with proper pressure, the adhesion will be strong than the wood itself. That is, if you try to re-break the platter, it will split somewhere other than on the glue line. It also cleans up with water, doesn’t smell, and isn’t carcinogenic. One problem, though, is that if you just try to smear it off the wood while still wet, it can leave an invisible coating on the wood that will show up as a blotch when you apply a finish. So the general rule is to let it cure for about 10 minutes and then carefully scrape it off as it gets “gummy.”  I’d flooded quite a bit on the joint (my first “mistake”) so I knew I’d be waiting more than 10 minutes to clean it up. Eventually, though, I did gently scrape most of it away.

Spanish cedar platter, glued

Spanish cedar platter, glued

Here’s where I rushed it – after an hour or so (when I knew the glue had set) I saw that one part of the repair was just every so slightly out of alignment. The halves were offset by maybe 5 thousandths of an inch, about the thickness of 2 sheets of paper. Not terribly visible, but I could still see it and more importantly feel the ridge as I ran my fingers over the joint. So then I did what I would normally do – I grabbed a small card scraper and started to scrape down the seam until the two sides were flush with one another.

Except… this platter was finished (varnish or shellac, I can’t quite tell yet, but I’m leaning toward shellac). Which means i put a nice scrape mark in the middle of a finished platter. Ugly! I hadn’t thought of the consequences of taking a scraper (or any abrasive) to the work – to do it right I’d probably have to strip off all the finish and re-finish the piece. Even that wasn’t such a problem, but this wasn’t my piece to play around with. Remember, it was my friend’s late grandmother’s. Now I’m feeling really badly that I might have made things worse. I’ll take it in and talk over options over the next day or two, once I figure out what the finish actually is (easy test – if I rub it with alcohol and it dissolves into the cloth, it’s shellac. Otherwise varnish). Please let it be shellac – it’s easier to play with (again, dissolves in alcohol) and I might be able to just fix that one area and give the whole platter one more good top coat or two to make it all look even.

I’m hopeful that I won’t be referring back to this posting six months from now, but history has a way of repeating itself.

Taming bad habits

I’ve been making slow, sporadic process on guitar #2, but the past few weeks have seen a burst of activity. The sides are bent, the top and back plates are braced, and I’ve just finished sanding a contour into the top edge of the sides to mate with the slightly domed top plate. Next up: glue the kerfing (liner) around the inside of the sides to provide a gluing surface for the top to adhere to.

Today I also shaped and scalloped the three transverse braces across the back plate. I noticed that one of them did not have a perfect 90 degree angle between the bottom (where it glues onto the plate) and sides – it was canted over slightly. But the braces end up trimmed in sort of a cathedral or triangular cross-section, so I figured I’d correct that by over-trimming one side to bring the two sides into symmetry. That worked, more or less, but then I found myself rushing the process a bit, having to then stop and fix some of the unevenness with sandpaper… all in all, it felt rushed.

A local guitar maker (a retired hand surgeon) once told me that building a guitar is like performing surgery: if you are careful in executing every step, you might get a good result. But if you rush or are sloppy anywhere, the probability of success drops off rapidly. My biggest problem is not getting into that Zen, slowed down, in-the-moment space before setting down to work. Today I was able to more or less recover from working too quickly, but it was a warning. My next moves have to be done with greater care – as the build progresses there is more and more to lose if things go wrong.

So much of my work in software was at a much higher tempo, in part because one can always “undo” mistakes with a keystroke. Woodworking – like surgery – requires a much more deliberative pace. I’m clearly out of practice with this habit of mind.

Shaping the spruce braces underneath the top plate with a tiny plane.

Shaping the spruce braces underneath the top plate with a tiny plane.

Baby steps… again

I came home tonight in a bit of a funk.  The rain was dripping from the spruce branches, and it was already dark outside. The music to Barrios’s La Catedral sat on my stand, neglected for months. But that first movement, played slowly, reminds me of the soundtrack one might hear in a movie, as the camera focuses on rain droplets trickling down a window pane. I pick up my guitar, fingers cramping into the upper frets for the first few bars. The high string cries in soprano, while thumb and finger pluck the harmonies. After 10 minutes my hands are spent after too many weeks of not playing, but it’s a start.

Use it or lose it – one of those universal lessons. It’s so easy to stop practicing something when other live events intrude – playing music, jumping a mountain bike. And the body, eager to conserve resources, begins to atrophy the neural-muscular network that enables these activities. One saving grace is that we never have to completely start over; the body retains echoes of memory, the fingers find their places without conscious thought. Yet, it’s frustrating to expect the experience to “flow,” and to have to stumble like a toddler learning to walk, brow furrowed in concentration as I remember how one foot goes in front of the other.

Blogging is another skill that atrophies with neglect; let’s see if I bring this back as a regular practice.

Mastery and other paths

Once again, the commitment to write – something! – at least weekly is turning out to be an interesting challenge. Some weeks are rather “ordinary,” where there are no grand epiphanies to be written about. What to write on these ordinary weeks? I suppose look back on the ordinary moments and see what themes emerge.

Last Tuesday I went for a trail run (first one of the season). Near the trailhead is a site where the city tree trimmers drop off the logs and limbs from major trees they’ve taken down. Local scavengers (the 2-legged variety) come by to take home some free firewood, while others (like myself) look for wood to squirrel away in our shops.  On Tuesday there were a couple of folks there with a portable saw mill slicing up some nice redwood slabs.  I was limited to what I could physically lift and carry over to the trunk of my car (as well as what I could store in my garage/shop), so I walked away with a couple of pieces of oak, what looked like crotches and other gnarly pieces with severed limbs and knots sticking every which way out of it.  These can often hold beautiful gems of wood grain on the inside.

I split one piece in half, chucked it onto the lathe (without even rough-cutting it into a circle), and started turning away the outer bark. There were some inclusions (bark that had grown inward between the limbs that met in the crotch) that promised an interesting pattern. Of course, they were also structural weaknesses – would the bowl hold once I started hollowing and thinning the walls?  Well, as the pictures below show, it stayed together.

That was a good exercise over the course of a couple of evenings. Having free wood to play with allows me to experiment and take chances with design choices – I have nothing to lose but my time, and even that is in service of learning and improving. As it turns out I might have tweaked the profile of the final bowl just a little, but overall (so far) it looks like a serviceable bowl for serving nuts or snacks at a party.  Whether it survives the drying process (which could take several months) is another question. “Green” bowls distort upon drying, and the structural weaknesses in the wood could decide to give way.  That’s part of the delayed learning process.

So this project was a small learning segment on a much longer journey of mastery. In fact, that’s what most of the week was like: I learned a little bit more about some technical aspects of my day job, had some minor breakthroughs in my relationship, continued practicing music… just staying open and aware and letting the learning happen.

The late George Leonard wrote a book on “Mastery.”  A PDF copy can be found here at scribd. It’s a fun, easy read, and very insightful. A keen observer of human learning (his own and his Aikido students), he’s characterized some typical “paths” that we take as learners. His characterizations have what we in the biz call “face validity” – we recognize the truth in them intuitively.

First up, the path of mastery:

If you think of the vertical dimension as “progress” in a general sense, and the horizontal dimension as time, this is Leonard’s take on the master’s path. It involves lots of time spent on plateaus, simply practicing our practice. Then (although the detail isn’t apparent in this diagram, but I’ve heard him describe it this way), things start to fall apart – there’s a small dip before the growth spurt. Growth tends to happen in spurts, and then there’s a settling back down into another plateau. As they say on the bottle: lather, rinse, repeat. This is mastery.

There are a couple of critical components to this path. The first is that most time is spent making very little discernible progress. That can be very discouraging to people who like instant gratification or quick fixes. The second is the somewhat chaotic nature of the growth spurts. In particular, that sense of things actually getting worse before they start to really improve is paradoxical, but I believe it signifies the beginning of some significant cognitive/neurological/whatever reorganizations. A time of “things falling apart” is emphatically not the time to give up in the pursuit, but to hang in there just a little while longer – great learnings are just around the corner.

Leonard’s three other paths are pathological cases (no pun intended) of how we fall off the path of mastery.

The Dabler

The dabler’s path is to start something with enthusiasm, experience that first rapid growth spurt, but when the inevitable plateau comes around say to oneself “this is it? I’m bored… time to move on”.  Variations on this theme include “I guess I wasn’t cut out for this” or “I guess I have no talent.”  So we move onto different activities or fields, and experience the same dynamic…

The Obsessive

The obsessive dives in 110% to a new activity. S/he attempts to prolong that initial growth spurt through increasing effort, refusing to accept any form of the plateau. “If you’re not growing you’re dying” is the motto.  Ultimately this simply isn’t sustainable – nobody can keep improving at a constant pace forever (I claim that as if it’s a fact, but it’s just a generalization from personal observation. If anybody knows of a counter-example, please fill me in!).  In athletics we see the injury-prone athlete who doesn’t know how to recover or taper effort.

The Hacker

This one is my personal nemesis.  The hacker starts off looking a lot like the path of mastery. Growth spurts, plateaus, more growth spurts. But then there’s that plateau that never seems to end. What’s happening here is the appearance of steady practice, but not masterful practice. And although I cite this as my personal bugaboo, we all probably do all of these in various areas of our lives. I enjoy bicycling, but my mountain biking skills haven’t noticeably improved over the past decade. When I was training for a century I was on a good mastery path, but then ramped down the effort during the fall and winter. My history with music is one of very long plateaus, dropped interest, and then a long time spent regaining the facility I had when I last stopped.

(Well, I guess I found something to write about, even if it’s just reflecting on someone else’s writing)

I’d like to – obviously – stay on the path of mastery in as much of my life as possible. I’m doing it in my primary relationship – I’ve experienced more steady, genuine growth here than in any other time of my life, and have also never worked as diligently at it. I’m trying to stay attentive to my growth in woodworking and woodturning. The challenge for me at the moment (as has been the case in the past) is musical – staying at it when sometimes what I’m playing doesn’t flow very well.

Flow. Leonard cites Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow as being a characteristic state of one on the master’s path. In my day job as a researcher I experience flow frequently, getting lost in my work, not knowing where the time has gone.  That’s one place I don’t worry about falling off the master’s path. Similarly in the woodshop – I can stay at a task all day, plodding along at a relaxed pace, engrossed with what I’m doing.  I think the trick for me in music is to find the style and level that lets me flow. I’ve played mostly classical guitar, which is technically demanding and not always the most soul-satisfying genre of music. I’m been branching out more this past year, taking classes in celtic and folk music, trying to find that style that makes it effortless to pick up an instrument and practice on a daily basis.

So there – I found something to write after all.  I do recommend Leonard’s book (available on Amazon and probably still in print at brick-and-mortar stores) as a fun read, particularly for my friends in education. And of course, I’d love to hear your own stories of mastery (and/or other paths) in the comments section below.

Without failure there is no learning

I’m not sure who originally said “without failure there is no learning.”  Google that phrase and you’ll see blog entries both embracing and critiquing that idea. Clearly one function of that saying is to console who has just suffered (or is afraid to soon suffer) failure. At least, that’s how I’m using that mantra at the moment.

I just trashed my third attempt at a “slim” acrylic pen, a gift for a friend. Some people like their pens slender, and in this particular design you end up turning the material down to barely more than a millimeter thick. If there are any stresses in the material, then taking it down that thin tends to release them, causing buckling or bubbling. And if the material is not glued perfectly to the brass tube in the center, it doesn’t take much for a slight imperfection to catch the blade of the chisel and tear a whole chunk of material right off the tube. In theory, I could have 1) drilled more carefully, and 2) glued more carefully, and 3) taken a very fine cut at the end.  Well, I tried #2 and #3, and I’m not sure about #1.  The material simply deformed, and I have no idea whether the glue could have been strong enough to hold it.

OK, so what is the learning: don’t try to turn down thin pens out of acrylic? Clearly it’s theoretically possible (I’ve actually succeeded once or twice at this). If it was really important to me to continue to produce thin acrylic pens, I’d figure out a better way to do it.  (I really do suspect that a cleaner bore with the drill might have strengthened the glue adhesion…).

Now that I’ve got that venting off my chest…

I’ve written before about how failure – or more precisely, experiencing first-hand the consequences of mistakes – does seem to be a better teacher than hours of reading books. I’m starting to wonder, though, what the counter-point is to the “aversive” learning of failure?  For example, I’ve learned (the hard way) what happens when I run too-thin wood through a planer with dull knives (hint – you don’t want to be standing in the line of fire). A few stitches in my finger tip reminded me to be aware of where all 10 digits are when working around an exposed router bit. These are actions I’m highly unlikely to perform again.

Somehow, the sweet feeling of success doesn’t quite “teach” the same way. When I pop a nicely shaped bowl or pen off the lathe, I’m pretty sure I’m not chiseling a “do this again next time” lesson into my brain. I’m satisfied, certainly, but more likely what I want to do is push the boundaries of what I’ve just done. Can I make a variation? What if I try…  and I’m off again, daring failure to teach me another lesson.

Success is certainly motivating.  My own experience (and there’s a nice line of psychological research supporting this) is that after a series of frustrations, I may dial down the challenge a bit just to experience a confidence-boosting success again. And of course, there is the Zen like idea of pursuing an activity for its own enjoyment (the feel of wet wood slicing away under a gouge is so silky smooth…), not worrying about “outcome.”  Hmmm…  yes and no.  I need to ponder that more.

Then, of course, we have the perversity of school failure. We let kids fail all the time, without paying attention to whether they’re optimally challenged, what might support their successes, etc. In some cases we require failure in classrooms; without somebody failing a teacher may be accused of being too “lenient”, whatever that means. In school failure is often not teaching any lesson other than reinforcing that somebody is innately inept.

So, I may attempt a fourth slender pen, being careful each step of the way to construct it as carefully as possible. Or, I may decide to step back and try an easier variation (using wood instead of acrylic – it tends to bond better to the tube – or trying a design with a little more “meat” on it).

That’s it for tonight. I have more thoughts brewing I want to blog about soon, but they’re not quite ready to see the light of day.