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Re: spokeshaving as zen?

>Date:    Mon, 2 Jun 1997 10:07:46 -0400
>From:    Dorothy Africa <africa@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
>Subject: spokeshaving as zen?
>    a) what are your thoughts on spokeshaving, in general
>    b) are you conscious of how you do it?

I'm not particularly fond of spokeshaving leather.  I use spokeshaves when
reducing the thickness of wooden boards for the covers and sharpen the
blades with that in mind, so the angle is not especially good for leather
and I'm too lazy to want to keep track of two different sets of blades.

My favorite tool for paring leather is the English-style knife, but I
modify them when new, before sharpening.  My hands are large but I find the
knives, as they come from the supplier, too wide for comfort and I don't
like to wrap the handle with leather (or anything else to make a soft
handle), so I grind approx. 3/16" from the widest part of the blade,
narrowing down to approx. 1/16" narrower at the narrowest part of the

I don't measure the angles when sharpening, so I'm not able to state them.
My goal is to have a long *flat* sloping surface polished to where I can
see something clearly in the reflection.  Then I raise the blade slightly
and put a final, steeper bevel, at the cutting edge.  That bevel is very
small/fine.  I look at the bevel in the light and move the edge back and
forth until the final bevel/facet reflects an even light.

Final polishing and making the final bevel is all done in the direction of
paring so there will be as little as possible in the way of the smooth
passage of leather over the top of the knife.  I grind a knife's edge to
the point of shaving hairs off my arm, then I polish the edge to the point
of splitting hairs.  Then I pare leather.

It is a zen-like time; the edge is out of sight, covered with leather, so
it is necessary to *listen* to what the edge tells the fingertips and
adjust angle and pressure accordingly.  And I use the English knife to
reduce the thickness wherever it needs reduction, as well as paring the

>    b) are you conscious of how you do it?

Now that's an interesting question.  In the beginning, I doubt that I was
very conscious of the accomodations a persons hands and body make to
accomplish paring.  In 1974, a blind friend became interested in what I was
doing and we decided that there was no particular reason he could not learn
the basic mechanical operations of book binding and book conservation.  I
began paring leather while looking across the room or with my eyes closed,
and I'll be damned if it didn't work out alright.  No big surprise, once I
began to think about it; most everything we do to a book with a knife
happens out of sight.  Our fingertips tell us what we need to know.  Now,
when paring, my mind wanders off to a zen space which *listens* to what the
invisible cutting edge of the knife has to say to my fingertips.

My friend went on to become a professional writer.


Jack C. Thompson
Thompson Conservation Lab
7549 N. Fenwick
Portland, OR  97217


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