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“Hand Skills” by Dale Brotherton

For most of us it’s easy to forget that our modern approach to learning is very different from that taken by the majority of humans throughout history. Even when pursuing a traditional craft like woodworking or carpentry, the tendency is to study as much as possible, then, relying heavily on the perfect tool, carefully attempt to produce the “perfect” finish from day one. Such an approach inevitably results in only shallow and fleeting satisfaction.

On the other hand, those who have trained in the old ways or have accumulated much experience know that careful craftsmanship is ideally a product of the trained hand. The development of that skill is far more valuable than accomplishing any particular project, for in the process of developing basic skills, one also acquires patience, a deep understanding of materials, broader vision, and, most important, the capacity of mindless creation. It might sound strange, but only when the mind takes a back seat do the hands become free to express what’s most important.

So how do we develop basic hand skills? First submit to competent guidance. Ideally, an instruction that is well grounded in a time tested tradition. One whose results are readily available and naturally appeal to you. Next, practice, practice, practice. Follow the guidance and repeat the moves as much as possible. Let the body learn, and with enough repetitive practice, learn it will. Our bodies are amazingly versatile and capable of fulfilling almost any physical task if we can just trust, appreciate and point them in the right direction.

What do we mean when we say basic hand skills? For a carpenter or woodworker, most important is the ability for the hands to move in a straight line. Of course having the developed strength to hold and guide a tool at the same time is necessary. Beyond that, one can further develop control while the hands move in complex patterns and or in various orientations. To achieve this requires whole body balance. In fact development of ones Ki (core strength) is crucial to bringing refined control to any movements while using tools.

In the Japanese tradition, Blade Sharpening practice is the first step to developing hand skills. It’s something like the Kata (basic movement) in martial arts. The whole body assumes a balanced stance; with intention and focus the blade is rhythmically moved across the sharpening stone without the use of guides. The abilities derived from sharpening apply to pushing and pulling other tools such as chisels, saws and hand planes. This is an ancient approach to learning that is grounded in the physical. Our minds might point the direction, but ultimately the vital lessons are given by nature, as facilitated through our bodies.