Heavy Handed Woodworker?

Iron-fist-hammerIf you work with hand saws then you’ve heard the oft repeated mantra:

“Let the saw do the work.”

Makes sense.  The problem is that it can’t be taught.  Told, yes, taught, no.  It is one of those things that can only be learned thru practice. How tight to grip the handle, some or no downward force.  These are things that must be experienced.  We all know it and have figured it out for ourselves.  Now, How often do you read or hear about the rest of your tools.  Let the chisel do the work?

Several months ago I was surfing thru tool porn and by chance read a statement on a Japanese tool sight.  At the time it didn’t really register and I passed it by without much thought.  I can’t even remember where exactly I read it.  My subconscious though, grabbed hold of it and kept pushing it into my thoughts.  The statement was made by a Japanese tool maker in reference to tool warranties and it went something like this:

“…heavy handed western woodworkers…”

I chuckled a little when I read it moved on.  But in the days and weeks following, the statement kept creeping into my thoughts.  The more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder.  “Am I a heavy handed western woodworker?”  So I began to deliberately ease up in all of my shop work.  I took smaller bites with the chisels and pushed them with less and less force.  I eased my grip on my saws and worked toward just pushing and pulling them.  Same approach with my planes.  Admittedly I took it to the extreme and then worked back into it to find the “sweet spot”.

What I found was quite surprising.  First, it takes a lot less force to accomplish woodworking tasks than I had ever imagined.  Second, my accuracy improved by a fairly large margin.  Third, my surfaces and joinery edges became much cleaner.  Fourth, I actually began to work faster with much less effort.  Who would have thunk it?  Heck, my tool edges are even lasting longer now.

Looking back now its hard to believe that a seemingly innocuous statement could make such a marked difference in my woodworking.  Apparently I was a “heavy handed western woodworker”.  Maybe its the inclusion of the word “work” that makes us think that building things with wood is supposed to be hard.  What I learned is that it really isn’t hard nor is it actually work.  Now I look at what I do more as “woodcoaxing” or maybe “woodnuancing”.

Here is where it gets tricky.  I’m not accusing any of you good souls of being heavy handed.  What I would like you to do is give it some thought.  More importantly, I would like you to experiment with the amount of force you use in your shop.  Not to prove my point, but in hopes that you can experience to some or greater degree the benefits that I have.  After all, I can tell you about it but I can’t teach it to you.  On the other hand, maybe I’m the last schmuck on the planet to figure it out.

Greg Merritt


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23 Responses to Heavy Handed Woodworker?

  1. BrianJ says:

    There are times when I’ve proven this out lately, I find especially in certain woods. Sharpness matters, and perhaps thats part of the reason for the ‘heavy’ effort required, and the ‘more power’ movement from the likes of ‘tim the tool man’ taylor era. (Maybe you should patent ‘woodnuancing’…. Haha)

    • Greg Merritt says:

      You may have hit on something there Brian. When we are starting out our sharpening is a little less than ideal. So we use more force and begin internalizing that effort. As are sharpening improves we tend to continue using the same force that we have grown accustomed to. It’s a theory.


  2. TIWilson says:

    I’d like to hear you explain that you are a woodnuancer to a stranger at a party.

    You’ve articulated an important aspect of woodworking that I’m just beginning to grasp. The other day I went back to practice using a coping saw because I really fail at it. Taking a lesson from starting kerfs with other saws and going very lightly, I focused on keeping the blade moving but not pushing it. Soft enough that sometimes I wasn’t even touching the wood. What do you know. I ended up doing some tight curves that had only frustrated me before.

    I feel like I’ve heard the “go softly” refrain from a lot of people who know what they are doing. But you’re dead right about hearing it, but only getting it through practice.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I think the trick will be to explain what it is before I announce the term “woodnuancer”.LOL

      Sounds like you have been on the same journey of discovery. The way to “get it” is to do it. Keep on the path!


  3. Jason says:

    Cool. I’ll take that challenge. I think Brian makes a good point too — if your tools aren’t sharp you have to be heavy handed. The more you bulldog a tool, the more likely it will distort and throw off the accuracy. But I’ve given this more thought with planing and chiseling. You’re challenge will do me good.

  4. Xavi Molina says:

    Interesting and very inspiring. Thanks Greg!

  5. ant11sam says:

    “heavy handed western woodworker”….
    NEVER! I bkoke axes, hammers helves, rasps, folded saws, bent knives, because the steel was bad. I blame the steel and the wood.
    That’s nothing wrong with my arms, that’s the way to grow byceps right?
    🙂 🙂 🙂
    Countless times I was told and old saying, the translation goes more or less like this:
    “…the material/tools is always right…”
    It took me 40 years to really, really learn it, althougt some times I ocasionally need to remind it to myself….

    Great, funny post Greg!
    You “nail it”

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post Antonio.
      A common saying here is “if you first don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer”. LOL Not the best advice.
      I still catch myself getting aggressive with the tools. A lot less now, but it still happens.


  6. Sylvain says:

    I know people to which I would not lend tools.
    Paul Sellers speaks about feeling and listening. He has a video wher he cuts two mortises, one with a mortising chisel and the other with a beveled chisel. If you listen to the sound, he stops taping on the chisel when the sound of the blow change and then he exercise lever pressure. He says he has never bent a beveled chisel (nor his students).
    He also does not like the top ferule on the chisel handles (which is there for heavy handed worker ?).
    In this video, Richard Maguire: http://www.theenglishwoodworker.com/?p=2503
    in in fact also speaks against heavy handed work.
    I have also experienced that the blade of my coping saw tends to bind if I have a firm grip while it goes smooth when I just keep it moving with a light grip. With other saws, a light grip works also better.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Good links with really good information. Thanks for adding them here.
      I found that only after I eased up did I begin to hear the subtle differences in sound that Paul Sellers speaks about. I use a Japanese metal hammer for chisel work. I find that it actually helped me to ease up on my mallet blows. Its weight negates the need for added force. I suppose the whole journey is a process of moving from rough to refined. Each step of that journey reveals something new that aids the next step. Learning to understand and respond to what the tools are telling you is a big part of it. Force sends to drown out the feedback information from the tools.


  7. joemcglynn says:

    Greg, I think you hit the nail on the head with this. I’ve never formalized any thinking around this, but I know instinctively that I need to lighten up when using hand tools to get better results. (some would say I need to lighten up period…) When I take too bit a bite when chiseling it’s the most obvious. Dovetails in home center pine is where I first understood that I had to take little bites (and when I first understood “sharp”).

    As others have said, I think Paul Sellers’ comments about the sound the tool makes have been a really important step for me too. I just need to keep the tunes turned down enough so I can hear the hammer over the Hopkins!

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Joe. I need quiet in the shop if I’ll be chopping mortises or the like so I can hear the audible feedback from the tools and the wood. The tunes come on for the saw and pare work. Tactile is all that I need for that.
      I’m a firm believer that pine will make you a better woodworker. If you can produce clean work in pine, most other woods will be a walk in the park.


  8. Wesley Beal says:

    I’m definitely going to try to focus on this and see what happens.

    When it comes to Eastern vs. Western, whether some heavy-handed western woodworking derives from working with Oak, Maple, Hickory, & etc.

    Isn’t that part of the explanation behind how our saws and other tools have evolved differently?

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Make sure yo let me know how you make out.
      Eastern woodworkers use a good bit of hardwood. Rosewood, elm, white and red oak are pretty common. The biggest difference that I’ve found in my limited experience and understanding is the tuning of the tools. The Japanese tune there tools to the type of wood they are using. Chisel angles and plane blade bedding angles are changed to best suit the wood. Often whole sets of tools specifically for each type of wood. In the west we tend to shoot for a happy medium that works for everything. The Japanese approach tends to amplify what I discussed in this post.


  9. Randy Allen says:

    You (and your Japanese source) hit the nail on the head! I read your entry last night after working on my joiners toolchest project wherein I am currently trying to dimension the lumber by sawing it to size. It seemed like the best lesson learned from trying to saw a straight line was that it’s really necessary to lift the handle and take as light a cut as possible, not use as much power as possible. Going light makes starting a cut a lot easier too. I was using one of my D8 rip saws (4 1/2 pt) on 3/4 pine and found that the best results and fastest cutting came from using the left hand to lift and balance and the right to push and pull. Another example of this heavy handedness shows up when looking at used planes in flea markets. How often have you seen the back end and sides of a Bailey pattern iron peened out from being adjusted with a hammer. I thought that’s what the little wheels and screws were for. Even on a wooden plane that’s supposed to be adjusted with a hammer, it only takes a tap. I can’t imagine why anyone would hit a plane iron that hard unless they were using it for a chisel.
    This whole subject reminds me of some of the tai chi principals I’ve tried to learn and put into practice, looks like they apply to woodworking too. Thanks for your thoughts and keep up the good work.


  10. billlattpa says:

    I think there can be a tendency to be “heavy handed”, but I also think it is partially a Japanese misconception, the same way westerners have misconceptions about Japan. I’m not sure how true this is or not, but from what I understand the Japanese work with woods that are generally softer than North American and European hardwoods
    On a personal level, I do my best to never force the issue. Sharp tools help a lot, a whole lot.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      My intent was not to start a debate on eastern vs. western tools and techniques. I was simple giving the source of the statement that started me on my journey. Whether the statement itself was valid in its original context is an entirely different matter. At the beginning I did not think that I was heavy handed. But, once I started deliberately backing off, I began to notice a marked change. So much so that I am surprised how little effort is actually required for the vast majority of operations. Of course the assumption being that tools are sharp and properly tuned.


      • billlattpa says:

        I hear you. Each method has it’s ups and downs. I personally love Japanese chisels but the saws I’m on the fence over. As far as being heavy handed, I never saw the fascination with saws that cut “superfast”. Of course you want clean cuts, and a sharp saw that cuts quickly will provide that, but I don’t care if I need to push it a few more times as long as the end result is good. Much of the heavy handedness I see in woodworking is when people are sawing. I was taught to let the saw do as much of the work as possible, and only exert effort in the guiding of the tool.
        I agree with you that nothing should ever be forced, and if you find yourself forcing the issue, take a step back, a breath or two, and go back to work. Restraint and taking your time are the keys.

  11. John says:

    Heavy handedness is what the “let saw so the work” refrain actually addresses. You can’t really not push a western saw, but the less strength you apply, the less chance there is of bending it. This is true of Japanese pull saws as well, though the “push” return stroke is far less likely to catch or bind than the pushing cutting stroke. The point is keep it light, and the saw sharp. Things are much easier.

If you don't comment this is just a fancy way for me to talk to myself.

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