On tool marks

May 26, 2008

Above: A drawer pull, carved by hand, with the knife marks left behind.

The beauty of a crafted thing is largely in seeing the hand of the maker in the object — for instance, in tool marks left behind.

Now, there is a big difference between tool marks that are the result of sloppiness, carelessness and corner-cutting, and tool marks that are the result of patience and care and skill. The first results in something completely ordinary. The other is what may push a crafted thing toward the realm of art. Say if you took away the brush marks in a Van Gogh — there would be little left that makes the painting so wonderful, nothing that gives it its soul.

The imperfection of those brushmarks take on a perfection of their own. It’s the same with tool marks. What it boils down to, in a word, is skill. It is one of those things (like playing the blues) that is very simple, but not at all easy.

And nowadays I think it is easy to get sidetracked and direct your practice and your work toward achieving a machine kind of perfection — a glass-smooth table top, say.

But I’m of the opinion that a wooden table top ought not to feel like glass. It ought to feel like wood — or even better, like hand-crafted wood. Can you feel the mild undulations left by a hand plane on the surface? Again, this easy to do in a sloppy way, but hard to do in a way that seems both hand-made and, at the same time, elegant.

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3 Responses to “On tool marks”

  1. Great job! I’m new to woodworking, I like the looks of the tool marks. It gives it an authentic look, but I would guess that I’m in the minority here?

    Mike DiNapolis (a.k.a. shoptablesaw.usaveauction.net)

  2. bpassaro said

    I don’t know if you’re in the minority. I do think we are used to most wooden furniture that we come across to be sanded smooth and flat, which is really the only way to surface wood in a mass production kind of environment. And leaving artful tool marks is not easy even for a craftsman working alone on one piece at a time. I struggle with it. Sometimes it’s not going well, and it’s easier to just pull out the sandpaper. It takes a lot of practice, I think, to leave a hand-tooled surface that doesn’t appear crude. Surely, our society has very much lost its awareness of hand-tooled surfaces. I don’t know if that means on the whole people have lost appreciation for it, too, that they won’t be fascinated or charmed by it when they do encounter it. I hope not.

  3. Gary Rogowski said

    Bob,
    It’s an uphill fight against the smooth culture we live in. But it’s a good one. Keep up the good work. Gary

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