The Down To Earth Woodworker

by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin



This month:

• Readers Respond to “It’s Hip To Be Square” (the Shooting Board article in the July Wood News Online newsletter)

• So You Want to Turn “Pro?”--- Be Careful What You Wish For

• Getting Into The “Zone”



Reader Comments: Last Month’s Shooting Board Article

We have received a number of comments about the “universal” shooting board adventure last month, and quite a few have posed the question “Why use a shooting board at all?” The general thread of these e-mails goes something like this:

“I have an extremely well-tuned [pick one: table saw, cross cut sled, radial arm saw, miter saw] with an excellent blade and I get perfect 90-degree cuts --- why should I build a shooting board?” These are excellent questions, so I will provide a few answers (pick the one you like the best!).

First, there are projects pieces and cuts that I make on my trusty, well-tuned, upgraded-blade (The Forrest Woodworker I is outstanding) radial arm saw that are perfectly fine and are not ever subjected to my shooting board. But, no matter how well tuned the saw or how good the blade, a tiny bit of tear-out on the “blade-exit” side of the wood should be expected. That alone, if it is an “appearance piece,” may be enough reason to turn to a shooting board for final trimming.

A shooting board also allows you to “sneak up” on the fit of a crucial piece unlike any saw. It is difficult to shave off a few thousandths of an inch with a power saw, but with a well-tuned hand plane, it is a piece of cake.

End grain finishing is another good reason. In the photo are three pieces of poplar cut from the same board. The first piece on the top was cut on my RAS and then sanded with a sanding block through a progression of grits. The middle piece is just a straight cut with no sanding, and the bottom piece was cut and then shaved on my shooting board. While it may not be absolutely startling (or apparent) in the photo, in person the difference in the stained finish is remarkable. The finish on the “planed” end is more consistent, smoother, and more closely resembles the stain color on the board face. You may also notice that in the first piece, even after sanding, there are still saw marks. Not so in the piece that was planed. Note also the difference between the sapwood and the heartwood. If it were your intent to even out the stain and go for a more uniform appearance, it is obvious that starting with the planed piece would get you partway home.

One of my favorite power tools in the shop is my long bed 6-inch jointer. I wish it were 8 inches wide, but that is another story. It is a wonderful piece of equipment, and many boards and many pieces of furniture have benefited from its power and speed. I’ve built dozens of tabletops and hundreds of panels with board edges power jointed. Then, one day, I finally broke down and ordered a jointer plane. It is a 22-inch long behemoth and it took a little while to get the “hang” of using it. Soon though, on a large table project, I decided to first power joint the board edges, then give each edge a final pass or two with the jointer plane. The results, and the difference, proved to be an epiphany.

After hand planing the pieces, I laid them side-by-side to prepare for the glue-up, and it was as if the boards “sucked” themselves together. The fit was like nothing I had ever experienced. Two hand-jointed edges together seem to “stick,” almost as if they need no glue. If you have never experienced this kind of fit, you owe it to yourself to try.

There is another reason to build a shooting board. None of us “down to earth woodworkers” should claim perfection (though I think some of you probably get pretty close!). There are times when the end of a board cut to a perfect 90-degree angle does not fit in its intended home as well as a board might if cut to, say, 89.9-degrees. Trying to make that paper-thin adjustment on the end of a board with a power tool will be frustrating, dangerous, and probably yield less than optimal results. On a shooting board, however, a shim between the fence and the work piece can give you the results you need. The shim can be whisper thin, like a piece of paper or tape.

Convenience is another factor with shooting boards. Sometimes setting up for a perfect crosscut with a power tool can take longer than grabbing a handsaw, cutting a bit outside the line, and then trimming to square and a perfect fit on the shooting board.

Of course, all these reasons apply equally to 45-degree miter cuts. For these reasons, and more, a shooting board is an indispensable tool in my shop, and probably will become important in your shop, once you give it a try.


Turning Pro - Be Careful What You Wish For

In last month’s column I promised a hard look and some unusual advice for woodworking hobbyists that want to turn professional – to “hang out your shingle,” so to speak. My apologies, but this segment is delayed and will appear in the September issue of Wood News Online.

Turning pro is a subject that has been covered many times, but most articles seem to fall into one of two categories: (1) How to go about the transformation, and (2) The joys of doing what you love for a living. Next month we are going to look at an aspect of turning pro that you have probably not considered, but many woodworkers have, in retrospect.

The subject is thought provoking, and simply deserves more space and more time. I guarantee it will be worth the wait!


In The Zone

Only in the slow-motion instant replay could you really appreciate the pure athleticism, the poetry of motion, and the extreme concentration. The defensive end ran stride-for-stride with the receiver, their steps almost like a well-choreographed dance. The defender’s eyes were on the receiver’s eyes, and in a split second, he leaped, pirouetted in mid-air, extended one hand, and with his fingertips in perfect position, deflected the ball from the receiver’s hands. Asked later about the inspiring play, he remembered every little detail. He was in the “zone.”

Ted Williams famously claimed that he could see the seams of the baseball as it left the pitcher’s hand, could gage the rotation, and then virtually instantaneously adjust to fastball, slider, or curve. When Ted was in the zone, time apparently slowed for him, and I have no doubt he could see all those things, and more.

Some years ago I was fortunate to attend a concert featuring the great Yo-Yo Ma. During his appearance, he performed solo – just him, his cello, and a simple metal folding chair in the middle of the stage. Within seconds, it was glaringly obvious that Mr. Ma and his performance had entered the “zone.” Every muscle of his body flexed and moved with every note, his face reflecting the concentration and utter absorption by, and into, the music. His intensity became the audience’s intensity, and we moved with the melody, strained with the difficult passages, smiled at the sweetness of the sound, grimaced at the effort expended. Yo-Yo Ma’s zone had enveloped the audience into its own zone. It was amazing. Then, the oddest thing happened.

During one of the most difficult portions of the piece, as Yo-Yo Ma’s body contorted and strained with the difficulty, his chair began to slip backwards. It was only a slight movement, and reflecting on the moment, I am sure that he was completely unaware the chair had moved, at least at the conscious level. I am also quite sure he was unaware that his left foot subtly hooked the left front leg of the chair and pulled it back into place as he played seamlessly, breathlessly, through his incredible performance.

Is this what being in the “zone” is all about? Is it a complete loss of consciousness for the outside physical world and absorption into and by the current task? Is it concentration of such intensity that all else disappears, or at least becomes automatic and subconscious? Is it the perfection of performance become so innate that the mind can perform other tasks without distraction? Is being in the “zone” replicable? Can the “zone” be entered willingly, on command? Does being in the “zone” require extraordinary skill or talent?

All these questions, and many more, were zigzagging through my mind while I was, quite unaware, in the “zone,” myself, preparing some lumber for a new project. I guess this answers one of the questions. There is obviously no extraordinary talent or skill required to find, enter, and enjoy the “zone.”

The “zone” is a thoroughly enjoyable place to be. Elite athletes often describe the phenomenon as a “perfect moment.” They use words like “fun,” “exciting,” and say they felt in complete control and totally relaxed when in the “zone.”

It is not just elite athletes that experience the “zone.” High intensity stock traders often describe being “in the pipe” while ferociously and accurately making high-speed trades on the hectic stock market floor. A bass guitarist, playing perfectly between the melody and percussion say they are “in the pocket.” Hip-hop performers that get into the “zone” and everything they say begins to rhyme, say they are “flowing.” So, whether you are “in the groove,” “on the ball,” or just find yourself “lost in what you are doing” you are probably in the “zone.”

Hungarian-born University of Chicago alum Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is the architect of flow theory. In his seminal work, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Csíkszentmihályi theorizes that people are most happy when they are in a state of “flow” - which he describes as a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation – what we would describe as being in the “zone.”

Csíkszentmihályi says that everyone has experienced “flow” at times (I’m not convinced that is true, by the way), characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill - and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego, self, etc.) are typically ignored. The term “flow” comes from the fact that many people Csíkszentmihályi interviewed described the condition as a current of water carrying them along in their activity.

It has been said that while creating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo worked for days at a time, not stopping for food or sleep, until he finally passed out. After awakening refreshed, he immediately reentered the “zone” and again became completely immersed in his work. For most of us though, being in a state of “flow” or “in the zone,” is a relatively brief event, although it is hard to judge the actual length of the event, since time does truly seem to stand still, race along, or otherwise become irrelevant.

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

So, if you have experienced being in the “zone,” or in a “flow” state, you know the power and the enjoyment, the reward and the feeling. Many describe it as euphoric, joyous, and even rapturous. I’ve been there, enjoyed it, and want more. Is there a way to force oneself into the “zone?”

Csíkszentmihályi identified ten factors that accompany the flow experience:

  1. Clear goals. Goals are clear cut, able to be easily envisioned and skills are aligned (the goal is neither too hard or too easy).
  2. Concentration.
  3. Self-consciousness disappears. Csíkszentmihályi is a very positive guy and seems to indicate that self-doubt can prevent flow.
  4. Time distortion. A person experiencing flow will usually also experience a distorted sense of time. For some, time flies by unnoticed while in a flow state, for others time slows - think of Ted Williams seeing a 90 MPH baseball pitch in slow motion.
  5. Instantaneous direct feedback. The basketball forward who senses and reacts to an opponent behind him may be said to have “eyes in the back of his head,” but he is actually more likely to be “in the zone” where sensory feedback is heightened.
  6. Balance between ability and challenge. A task too easy can become repetitive and boring. We are more likely to enter a flow state if the challenge is aligned with our abilities, but is not too easy. It appears that a goal slightly exceeding the skill level can also lead to the flow state. This is what we might commonly refer to as a “stretch goal.” A boring task leads to distraction, a “stretch” task hones concentration.
  7. Being in control. Describing the flow state almost invariably includes a feeling of being in command, in total control.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding. Ever heard someone say they enjoy hand-planing a board? While it may be more work than a power planer, it can also be immensely rewarding. Regardless of the caloric expenditure, being in the “zone” almost always involves doing something you love, not for the glory or the outcome, but for the “something” itself.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs. Do you get into the “zone” and forget to eat? Have you ever left a cup of coffee to get cold because you were engrossed in some shop activity?
  10. Complete absorption. In the flow state, outside stimuli often recedes and one can become completely unaware of distraction. Focus narrows significantly to the activity at hand. Often in the shop I tune the television or radio to a program I like, then realize, some time later, that a program I really dislike is now on, and I didn’t even notice.

There is a great deal of overlap in Csíkszentmihályi’s list. Absorption is a product of, or companion to, concentration, and the narrowed focus of absorption lends itself to time distortion and a feeling of being in complete control. Whether or not the list might be pared down a bit by merging overlapping conditions, attempts to document the factors that accompany flow may also help us identify the factors that might help us willingly achieve flow. Not to relentlessly pound this point, but being in the “zone” is a remarkably pleasurable experience, and if there is a way to encourage and induce the flow state, I intend to find it.

A warm day, some cool music,
a sharp plane, some crazy curly maple,
and long unbroken shavings…
nothing gets me in the “zone” faster!

In the Down to Earth Workshop, getting into a flow state, or in the “zone” happens fairly frequently, but at least so far, not by design --- it just happens. It has happened while sketching a new design, while hand cutting dovetails, while milling parts at the router table, while cleaning the shop, and, believe it or not, even while sanding. The experiences are all similar. Time seems to stand still, while flying by. Background noise (radio, TV, machinery noise) disappears. Concentration is at hyper levels, physical exertion is inconsequential, and there is a great sense of satisfaction. Not to sound too new-age cosmic or to revert to late-sixties’ hippie-speak, but while smooth-planing a board recently, it felt as if I had become “one” with the wood. Once while rough milling lumber for a project, I could see with startling clarity the grain flow in the future finished piece from the raw bits of wood on my bench – I simply “knew” from which piece of wood each piece of the project should be cut. It was “like, far-out, man!”

So how can I make this “flow” experience happen more often? Psychologists tend to agree that a person cannot force him- or her- self into a state of flow. In fact, they mostly agree that we cannot even predict when it is going to happen. While there is probably evidence and science to back up this position, I refuse to accept the premise. I have become a “zone junkie.” Being in the zone is intensely pleasurable, and I need more! The mind is a powerful tool, and we have tapped into precious little of its potential. So, if naysayers say we cannot force ourselves into a flow state, we can certainly set up the conditions which are conducive to, and usually accompany, being in the “zone” and hope for the best.

To start, we know conditions that are antithetical to being in a flow state. Basically, any negative emotions should be avoided/eliminated. Self-consciousness, anxiety, worry, boredom, apathy must be displaced by relaxation, a feeling of being in control, confidence, and enjoyment of the activity for the activity’s sake. The goals we set for ourselves should not be unattainable, but should also be a “stretch,” so that we avoid tediousness and boredom.

Conscious distraction should be removed, so that our unconscious (or subconscious) can control our concentration and our physical actions. A big ticking clock on the wall in front of our workbench might not be conducive to losing our sense of time while we are carving or cutting. Drinking twelve cups of coffee before starting a complicated glue-up might not allow us to ignore our bodily functions and will likely prevent us entering the flow state (at least the flow state we desire!).

The activity in which we immerse ourselves, hoping to achieve the flow state, should be an activity we intrinsically enjoy. The concept of “intrinsic enjoyment” requires a little explanation. Question a few woodworkers “What do you enjoy about woodworking?” and the answers will range from the superficial (“Everything!”) to the bizarre (“I really love sanding a piece before applying the finish.”) but you have to dig down deep in the questioning. Get specific. Do you enjoy picking a design or designing the piece? Do you enjoy buying the wood? Do you enjoy dressing the wood? Do you enjoy cutting the parts to size, cutting the joints, or gluing up the assembly? Do you enjoy the finishing, or do you just enjoy “being finished” and delivering the piece to the happy recipient? This is where the rubber hits the road, folks, because unless there is a part of the process somewhere between buying the lumber and delivering the finished piece that you thoroughly enjoy doing, you are not going to find yourself in the zone, no matter how much you might try.

The reality is, some woodworkers enjoy buying tools and building their dream shop more than they enjoy actually working the wood. You might get in the “zone” looking at tool catalogs, but you will never get in the “zone” cutting, carving, or turning unless there is a facet of woodworking that you intrinsically enjoy.

For me, there are several aspects of woodworking that I intrinsically enjoy. Turning rough-cut lumber into milled-square stock is a kick. I love to see the grain emerge from beneath the aged, dirty, saw-scarred surface. I love to see a cupped, bowed, twisted board transformed into square, straight, and beautiful. I also love the act of planing by hand. There is nothing, in my opinion, that gets you closer to the wood. The whisper-thin see-through shavings effortlessly shooting up through the mouth of the plane make an almost imperceptible sound, like breeze and bough in a quiet forested valley. Gluing up a project almost always results in a “zone” experience, too. There is no frenzy or drama, because I have rehearsed it, but there is concentration and focus. Time becomes suspended, yet races ahead, and there is a real and palpable pleasure in seeing the almost-finished piece come together. I enjoy starting a project with the roughest of sketches and a measurement or two, and designing as I build, mostly in my head. I have never been fond of following a plan, assembling a kit, or even drawing my own plans in detail. I get in the “zone” designing as I go. And, admittedly, I enjoy buying tools! I must be in the “zone” when the hours disappear as I read catalogs, literature, and reviews and ponder my next purchase.

When you were last in the zone, what were you doing? Whatever it was, that is one of the things you enjoy most. Do a little honest self analysis to determine what aspects of this great hobby you enjoy most, set up the conditions that will be most conducive to entering a flow state, then get to work! Chances are, you will get into the zone pretty quickly, stay blissfully there, and can return to that great “zone” anytime you choose. Call me an optimist, but I believe you can willingly enter a flow state and get in the “zone.” Great things happen in the “zone!”

Let me know if you have found the method to get purposefully into the “zone.” What helps you get to this special place? Is there a technique, a certain atmosphere (music, incense, whatever), or a time of day that works better? Is it activity-specific, or is it something else?

As promised, next month a unique spin on the concept of “turning professional” and more will be discussed. Believe it or not, another book will be reviewed, and some feedback on the “gestalt” experience from last month’s column. Until then, I look forward to hearing from you. Enjoy, stay safe, and keep it “down to earth!”





Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson13@mac.com.

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