On the endless layers of simplicity (or, why the dovetail saw is mightier than the sword)


It was with some horror that I realised only two weeks before my course with Roy Underhill that I’ve barely cut any dovetails this year. This has mainly been due to losing workshop time because of the move, and then focusing on the parlour guitar and my Furniture & Cabinetmaking articles. But even though I know I can cut a half-decent dovetail (thanks to last year’s dovetail death march with Chris Schwarz) I thought I should get reacquainted with my dovetail saw and put in some practice before the course with Roy.

And then I had a slightly better idea. Because you see, it is always worth stripping a technique back to very basics, and revisiting the fundamentals, regardless of your current skill level. This is a training technique I have always found to be very beneficial (and enjoyable) in my martial arts training. Leave the complex techniques alone for a few minutes, take something simple that you know off by heart and break it down to its constituent parts, dissecting exactly what happens at each stage of the technique. So instead of diving straight in to those practice dovetails, I decided to spend a couple of nights running through the Night of 100 Cuts exercise. Now, I wrote about this exercise back in June last year, but in a nutshell it involves practicing each of the 5 cuts you use in a dovetail (square on and straight down, angled left and straight down, angled right and straight down, square on and angled left down, and square on and angled right down) in isolation. So 20 repetitions of the first cut, followed by 20 of the second cut, and so on.

And here is the interesting thing about repeating this exercise for the first time since the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course. When I first started using the exercise last year I thought it was all about training that all important muscle memory of what dead plumb actually felt like, and how that compares to a 1:4 angle slope for cutting tails. And yes, that is an important part of the exercise. But I think it goes beyond that. Much like when I start breaking down my favourite joint manipulations in martial arts training, this week I have found Night of 100 Cuts to be an opportunity to focus on each aspect of each cut. So what are my feet doing? Where is my centre of balance and weight distribution? How am I orientating my upper body and shoulders in relation to my sawing hand? How am I gripping the saw (like I’m cupping a baby bird, as you asked)? What is my left hand doing? All the same questions I would ask when breaking down a wrist lock (apart from the cupping action, we rarely cup in the dojo).

And then, how do all of the above change when I move from cutting the left edge of a tail (square across the board, downward slope to the right) compared to cutting the left edge of a pin (angled to the left across the board, straight down)? To what extent does my posture, stance, and movement change between the five cuts? It becomes a forensic examination of the technique from the ground up.

Building things is always more fun than practice cuts or practice joints, but practicing a high number of repetitions of each cut, safely away from a real life project, means that you can analyse and adjust each element of your technique, and understand what effect your stance and posture have on a particular cut.

Of course the ultimate aim is to not have to think about any of this, just to step up to the board and cut row after row of perfect dovetails right off the saw (what in Jiu Jitsu we refer to as “mushin”; a clarity of mind in which the body can react without higher thought processes interfering). But to get there, the mind has to do a lot of thinking, and the more we progress and understand a technique, the more I think it is possible to get out of a seemingly simple exercise like Night of 100 Cuts. Because as our understanding and skill level increases, we become more sensitive to the nuances of a given technique or operation.

Simplicity, it would appear, is onion-like in its layers.


Parallel Skills (or why choke holds made me a better woodworker)

The following is a slightly reworked version of my second column for Furniture & Cabinet Making (published in issue 227).

Clive Elliott demonstrates a blood choke on the hapless author.

The first time acclaimed martial arts instructor Clive Elliott demonstrated how to dislocate my spine, my woodworking improved significantly. No, really. Let me explain. While teaching a WWI combat system, Clive recounted how his Thai boxing improved after he started training in Silat, while his Kali weapons techniques were improved by his boxing body mechanics. The message was that practicing different arts with different focuses would help to improve your core skill set. Most of us are familiar with the idea of “transferable skills,” but what Clive was suggesting was something more subtle: “parallel skills.” So far, so brutal. But what, you ask, does this have to do with woodwork? Well, the more I thought about this idea of parallel skills, the more I saw something that could apply to both martial arts and woodwork.

So let me offer a suggestion and a challenge. To improve as woodworkers, we need to stop building what we ordinarily build and try something different.

Build Parallel Skills

I am not suggesting that we do not need to be proficient at building whatever our primary focus is; far from it. The foundation for any woodwork must be an understanding of the techniques to build your main projects. But after those fundamentals are understood, try something new. Because when you come back to your main area of focus, you may find that your skill set is much improved.

Cutting a tight dovetail uses a number of core skills

Here is why I think it works. The majority of woodworking operations are not skills by themselves but instead draw upon a range of core skills. When we talk about dovetailing what we are actually referring to is accurate marking out, sawing to a line, and chiselling to achieve a flat baseline. Practicing those skills will improve your dovetailing, and although there are practice exercises you can try, building a project is much more satisfying.

Paring the joint for the slipper heel, on an acoustic guitar neck in steamed pear

Focusing on parallel skills is an approach I have found to yield results. My focus is on lutherie, particularly acoustic guitars, although as regular readers will be aware, I have recently branched out into cabinet making with my Anarchist’s Tool Chest. And after just one project in a different field, my skill set has improved. When I build acoustic guitars I attach the neck to the body using the slipper heel (or “Spanish heel”) method, in which two slots are cut in the neck, into which the sides are wedged. This requires accurate sawing followed by precise paring to the baseline, and I covered this in more detail back in May. Before I went on the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course in July, I cut the slipper heel for my current acoustic guitar build. And because it is a joint I have done a number of times, I made a good job of it. After the course finished, I did the final tuning of this joint, and I was amazed to see that my chisel work and sawing had improved since I last cut the joint. What had caused this noticeable improvement? Cutting dovetails for five solid days on the course.

Gluing an acoustic guitar in a solera. Once the glue is dry the mahogany wedges will be trimmed to length and the back glued on.

Problem Solving

This is the second major benefit of trying a new area of woodwork. Think about it: whether you build Danish minimalist tables, lutes, or Shaker grandfather clocks, we all use wood. And unless you build something novel and cutting edge, most problems have been encountered before by others.

Dyed sycamore veneer between a birdseye maple neck and fretboard, on an electric guitar build.

Here’s an example: one of the things that crops up on guitar building forums is people getting in a tangle when using thin veneers, either as an accent line between other timbers, or as a face veneer on electric guitars. Ultimately they devise complex and ingenious solutions to do this. But if these guitar builders thought like an 18th century ebéniste, then they might find that a simple veneer hammer and press would be easier (and pose less risk to the household Dyson than a home-brew vacuum mould). Similarly, there are lutherie methods that translate to other fields of woodworking. When gluing up braces to acoustic guitar soundboards, I use a “go bar” deck – essentially bending thin strips of ash to fit into a space shorter than they are. The downward pressure of the go bars provides precise force, and is useful for any number of clamping tasks. I once read a woodwork book where the author explained how he parked his van on top of his work to get the necessary pressure, and although this apparently worked very well, it lacks the elegance of a go bar deck.

Using go bars to glue braces to an acoustic guitar soundboard

The Challenge

In throwing down this challenge I am not trying to tell anyone how to go about their craft. But, I hope I have shown there are benefits to breaking out of our comfort zones and trying something new. And I am happy to put my money where my mouth is. Although lutherie will continue to be my focus, my project list for 2015 includes building a trunk and maybe a pair of Roorkee chairs. And I have no doubt that my guitars will be all the better for it. So, what will you do that is different in 2015?

At all good news agents now!


Issue 227 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking landed on my doorstep this morning, which means it should also be hitting the high street shortly.  My latest article, on parallel skills, is featured at pages 47 and 48, along with excellent articles by my good friend Jason Thigpen of Texas Heritage Woodworks, and the legendary Jeff Miller. It is always a buzz seeing my writing in print, and to be included in the same issue as makers of such high renown and talent as Jason and Jeff is a real honour.

If that wasn’t enough incentive to pick up a copy, my article also includes a lovely photo of Clive Elliott choking me out. Now who could resist that?

Embracing the unfamiliar – JKD Super Seminar

I was fortunate yesterday to attend a four hour Jeet Kune Do seminar co-taught by Clive Elliott and Steve Martin. The opportunity to learn from two top instructors, and train with their students, was a real privilege, not to mention a fantastic chance to broaden my martial arts skill set.

This was the first JKD training session I’ve attended, although the R.AT. is grounded in JKD concepts. As a result, a lot of what was covered fell outside my core skill set of traditional Jiu Jitsu and Defendo. But cross training is something which is increasingly important to me, as a way to fill in the gaps ,and to address some of the assumptions which can develop if you only train in one art (attacks always start at a set distance, or in a set manner).

The seminar covered a significant body of techniques, from a number of different entry and exit points, and it was here that a theme started to emerge; namely of being able to transition between the different ranges of a fight and not get trapped in just one. For the uninitiated, the four fighting ranges are long range (kicking and some weapon attacks), medium range (punching distance), close (upright grappling), and groundwork. Most martial arts only operate within one or two of these ranges, which make it difficult to react if an attack originates in an unfamiliar range. Being able to effectively move between the ranges means that you can react appropriately, and move to a range where your core techniques fall.

So, over the course of four hours we worked on moving between the ranges and disrupting our opponents attacks, always from different starting points and assumptions. This included working from clinch, where I was delighted to get to use a technique with which I was intimately familiar (Koshi Garuma, everyone’s first hip throw, and the only thing which was familiar during the course), several sticky hands responses to a jab, cross punch combination, timing punches to disrupt a switch kick, and some wonderfully elegant lock flows on the knees and ankles.

Despite being well and truly out of my realm of experience and my comfort zone, a number of aspects of this approach really resonated with me, particularly being forced to work in ranges with which I am not familiar, and with attacks I am not used to dealing with. And this is such a necessary element of any training. This is not to belittle my core arts, far from it. But there are so many unexpected situations in which you may have to use your skill set, and training in a broad range of styles and arts presents the opportunity to functionalise training and increase the variety of situations which are no longer unexpected or unfamiliar.

Clive’s club are always a great bunch to train with, and the amount of information presented in just one morning by two expert instructors was incredible in breadth and almost overwhelming. I can’t wait for the next seminar!

Year of the R.A.T

Thus far, I have mainly written about woodworking and music on this blog, and that is where the primary focus of this blog will stay. But this evening, I want to write about my third passion; martial arts.

At first blush, the world of martial arts may seem far removed from the workshop and from the cafe’s and local clubs where I play live music. But I think all three worlds share common and complementary themes. All contain physical and mental components – relying on the joining of mind and body to play a song, plane a board, or execute that perfect hip throw. All three are based on the use of simple movements or processes which build towards the whole. And I think that all three are at some level concerned with the refining of skills towards achieving a state of perfection (what I believe the Japanese term kaizen).  For me, one of the most crucial aspects of all three, and one which really tickles the pleasure centres, is the mental and physical discipline, the focus, required to engage in the activity properly, and to develop and hone new skills.

My martial arts background is in Shorinji Kan Jiu-Jitsu, and I have been lucky to train under some very very good instructors in both Yorkshire and the West Midlands (particularly at York Town Jitsu Club, where I trained under the tutelage of Sensei Stephen Millard for four years – someone I am lucky to count as both an instructor and a close friend). Back in 2009 I also started training in Defendo with Clive Elliott. Clive is one of the most talented, knowledgable, and humble martial artists I have met, and he was kind enough to teach a four hour Defendo session as part of my stag party last year. When Clive announced that he was teaching his first R.A.T course in five years this February, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to train with him again, and to learn a new skill set.

Rapid Assault Tactics, or “the R.A.T”, is a combative system originally developed by Paul Vunak for Navy SEALs team 6. Yes, you read that right – US Navy SEALs team 6. This is a serious system. Based on Jeet Kune Do concepts, the R.A.T is a road map which takes you from the start of a fight, to exit, in a few very simple steps. The obvious benefits of such a system is that the next stage of the system is always obvious, and having as few moving parts as possible means that there is less to forget or to go wrong. The down side of the R.A.T (and one which Clive emphasised repeatedly throughout the course of the day) is that it is a loaded gun system which should be used only when no other option is available – the end technique has the same pressure per square inch as a bowling ball dropped on your opponents head from a second storey window. The outcome of which is, very obviously, death. This is a really serious system.

The R.A.T road map has two starting points based on determining the range of the attack, with an emphasis on protecting high-line and low-line attacks as you close in on your opponent. Coming from a traditional Japanese style of Jiu Jitsu, the blocks in response to both punches and kicks felt a little uncomfortable at first – I am used to moving off the centre line to parry and collect the attack, before redirecting the incoming energy for a throw or joint manipulation. Instead, with the R.A.T, blocks are made from the centreline with only a subtle amount of movement, the intention being that the block itself will destroy the attacking hand or leg. That being said, once I had got the hang of not moving as much as my inner jitsuka wanted, the subtle movement to place the block felt very straight forward. And I can attest to how effective these destructions are; even with an 18oz boxing glove, and thai boxing shin guard, placing the punches and kicks (rather than wailing in full pelt) left a very definite sense of pain and all momentum going out of the attack. If the block connects properly on a fully committed attach I can imagine that the effect on your opponent would be devastating.

Having successfully blocked the incoming attack, closing the distance involved a Wing Chun style chain punch, albeit with a great deal more forward movement, with the objective being to overwhelm the attacker and get to his (or her) head. I won’t detail as to what follows, but needless to say it is nasty stuff, and definitely effective. There were two things I found interesting about the straight blast. Firstly, as your opponents posture breaks down, it could sometimes be hard to stop the chain punch in order to take control of the head and finish the R.A.T, rather than continuing with the straight blast and drilling them solidly into the floor. That I think comes with practice, and also remembering what the objective is. Secondly, although we drilled the R.A.T with boxing gloves and motorcycle helmets, receiving the straight blast was still incredibly disorientating and painful (my neck and shoulders were none too happy the next day), and the thought of receiving this without protection is definitely not something I would relish. Again, this is a serious system.

In terms of the course itself, Clive taught us the R.A.T over the course of eight hours, firstly focusing on each of the component steps, building up to drilling the R.A.T on individual opponents, and culminating in an escape scenario of 5 on one, then 7 on 2 (which is total chaos). Being such a simple system meant that after only three hours we had covered the R.A.T from start to exit, and could then focus on building up the flow and intensity. Clive is one of the best instructors I have had the pleasure of training under, and not only did he present the R.A.T in an accessible and straight forward way (peppered with appropriate anecdotes), but also set the flow and the rhythm of the seminar so that the eight hours felt manageable and didn’t suffer from the oh-will-this-never-end lull that can so often set in mid-afternoon. I would unreservedly recommend Clive’s classes to anyone who wants to learn functional martial arts.