Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 153, May 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This Month's Column:

• The Six Senses Of Woodworking
A Little Woodworking Whimsey
The Under-The-Tablesaw Infeed, Outfeed, Utility, and Storage Cabinet

The Six Senses Of Woodworking

Six senses? There are just five senses, right? Well, yes and no. There are the five classically recognized senses; smell, taste, hearing, sight, and touch. But there may be more. We have a sense of time. Scientists call it chronoception.

Figure 1 - Allegory Of The Five Senses, also known as "A Merry Company"
by Simon De Vos was painted in 1640. It depicts hearing by music, tasting by
flagons of wine, sight by two lovers gazing into one another's eyes, smell by the
pipe smoke, and touch by the girl's hands on the musical instrument.
When I wake in the morning, I know, instinctively, what time it is, and I am usually right within five to ten minutes. Some think this might be a reaction to the level of light outside, but I would argue that point. Even if in a darkened room, blinds down, shutters closed, I still instinctively know what time it is. It's kind of weird, but I'll bet a lot of people can do the same thing. I don't think it is merely a synthesis of other senses arriving at a conclusion, but instead, another sense that we can't fully explain. Similarly, there is a sense of proprioception.

Proprioception is a sense of position. We know we are lying down, on our backs or sides; and if pressed, even with our eyes closed, we can reach out and touch our noses. We have a sense of where our hands are, where our other body parts are, and how they relate to one another.

Likewise, we have a sense of temperature. We know if we are cold, comfortable, or hot. This might foretell a sense of the ambient climate, but might also tell if we are well. If we feel hot, it could be a fever; if we feel cold, it could be the decreased metabolic rate we all experience during sleep. Or it could just be that the furnace is set a bit low, or a bit high.

Equilibrioception comes from the inner ears. It is not hearing, but instead, tells us whether we are balanced, and if we are moving, in what direction, at what speed, and helps us maintain balance. Equilibrioception allows us to walk on a moving boat, keeps tight-rope walkers on the straight and narrow, and frankly, is the first thing to go south on us if we have that third glass of wine.

And if we lose our equilibrioception and fall, we may well experience a sense of pain. Scientists call this nociception. Now you may well associate nociception with touch, one of the classically understood five senses, but do you need touch to experience the pain of a headache? No, pain is a real sense, and it serves an evolutionary purpose, if you believe in that sort of thing. We can touch a hot surface and not really feel that surface…. instead we feel pain, and that causes us to jerk back, protecting us from further injury. The sense of pain is a reflex, but a sense, nonetheless.

But even with acknowledgement of all these other senses, there is a long-standing "convention" that we humans have just the basic five senses, and there are plenty of people that say the other senses, like pain, temperature, time, pleasure and position are merely combinations or derivations or mental analyses of those basic senses. Feel pain? Well, the five-sense-advocates say that is just an extension of the sense of touch, since, of course, touch is not limited to just the fingertips. Your bare toes can feel the difference between concrete and beach sand, your scalp can tingle when a menthol-based shampoo is used, and your body can feel a static electric shock, wherever it occurs.

And just like texture, your bare toes transmit to your brain the difference between the cold bathroom floor and the warm sand on a sunny beach.

Our sense of position may be a synthesis of inputs from sight, sound, and even touch. Several of the conventional senses might be combining in the brain to tell us whether we are vertical or horizontal, and warn us when we are somewhere in between, as in falling, or to help us maintain equilibrium when we are walking uphill as opposed to down.

Many of the senses beyond the basic five are adaptations and combinations meant to keep us safe. I can touch fire, feel pain, and my brain says, "Don't do that again." I can rub my temples when I have a headache, and my brain says, "That feels good, keep doing that." Our senses, for the most part, are alive and well, even in our most sound and deepest of sleep. If our sense of temperature, be it another real sense or an extension of our sense of feel, was not active during sleep, people in Wisconsin would go to sleep and instead of waking up and adding more covers as the temperature drops, would simply freeze to death in our sleep. Everyone has had, or knows someone who has had, the dream of falling, only to wake when we hit the floor. Our sense of equilibrium sensed we were falling, even while asleep, and our brain tried to react, but we interpreted it as a dream for a split second until, wham!... we hit the floor.

For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, we mere mortal humans have identified the five basic senses because they were easy. Open my eyes, and I see. Listen, and I hear. Pick up a piece of bread and it feels crunchy or soft, smell it and it smells good, taste it and it tastes good. Everything else, which we don't intuitively understand, we chalked up to a mystical "sixth sense."

You can hear the manifestation of those mystical additional senses in our common vernacular. "I had a sixth sense something was about to happen." "My gut told me that was a bad idea." "She was certainly attractive, but I could just tell she was a real witch." "I could tell he was trouble as soon as he walked in the door." "Something told me to get out of there."

The other day it was warm… well, that is relative around here… it was 42 degrees, so I decided to sit outside and drink a cup of coffee. For some reason, I looked up at a big tree about twenty yards away, looked directly at a limb, and just as I did, the limb broke and fell. Was this some type of subconscious sixth sense, or did my ears hear a crack before my brain registered it, causing me to look in the direction of that as-yet-consciously-unheard sound? I don't know, but if forced to explain it, I might say, "I had a sixth sense something was about to happen."

All of this, of course, leads me back (as most things do) to woodworking. Clearly, our five senses are active and in high gear when we are building something. We see what we are doing, we feel the wood, we smell the sawdust, we hear our tools, and taste the coffee we drink in the shop… well, okay, maybe it is a soda or a cup of tea, but you get the idea.

We measure, we fit, we assemble, and we finish, and all of it directly stimulates one or more of our senses. But I think there is a "sixth sense" that comes into play in woodworking… and for that matter, any other creative endeavor… and that is the sense of "pleasantness." If we are building something without plans or drawings, we might build something that is "pleasant" to look at and pleasant to use. Or we might build something that is structurally sound and technically correct, but not pleasant to look at, hold, or use.

Consider this scenario: You are walking in the woods and feel like it is time to rest a bit. You could sit on that tall pointed rock, sit on the ground, or on that fallen log. You choose the log instinctively, as it will be the most comfortable sitting position. There is an innate sense of what will be most pleasant and most comfortable. I call it the "sixth sense of proportion," and it is, by extension, a sense of what will be pleasant and comfortable.

We all have this sense. We can look at a dozen paintings and know, instinctively, what we like. We can look at a line-up of different chairs, but we will be drawn first to that which gives us the best sense of proportion and pleasantness. The question is whether or not we can use that sense proactively in the design of a piece of furniture, or whether we build something only to find out after the fact that it is not as "pleasant" as we had hoped.

Figure 2 - The Spiral based on Fibonacci Proportions or, as we like to call it,
the Golden Ratio. Leonardo Da Vinci called it the "divine proportion."
We can use the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio, to guide us in the design of "pleasantness" and "proportion," or we can measure what we already deem pleasant and build to those dimensions, but I believe there is a sixth sense of what is, or will be, pleasant and proportional, and I also believe all people possess this sense. But like all senses, it is more highly developed in some, less in others.

Can we train ourselves to be more attuned to and aware of our sense of proportion and pleasantness? I don't know. If I could train myself to see better, I wouldn't need glasses. If I could train myself to hear better, I wouldn't need to turn the TV up so loud. Is there something we can do, though, to be more in touch with, and directed by, our innate sense of proportion?

It turns out there is a near universal phenomenon that may help us get in touch with our sense of proportion and become better designers.

People who lose their sight almost always talk about how their other senses have been heightened. They seem to hear more, feel more, smell more. People who lose their hearing also tell of being able to better read people's facial expressions, sense their moods, understand their communication without hearing the actual words. As one sense is occluded, others heighten. The senses to which we are "tuned" can rally and strengthen.

The heightening of one sense does not have to come about as a result of the loss of another sense. We can learn to focus specific senses. A soldier on a dark night focuses on sound to protect himself from attack. A wine connoisseur focuses attention on smell and taste whilst allowing hearing and touch to fade into the background. We have phrases that describe this shifted attention and focus on certain senses, like "being in the zone" or "totally into it."

In woodworking we are all too often consumed with technical details. Our five senses are simply overwhelmed fretting over the perfect mortise, the perfect dovetail, the perfect alignment of parts, and the perfect finish. All this focus on our primary senses overwhelms our ability to let our natural sense of proportion and pleasantness rule. What if we just "let go" and focused exclusively on the design? Obsess over the proportion, not the joinery? Obsess over the final shape, not how we got there? Obsess over pleasantness, not perfection of execution?

Which would you rather have… a poorly built chair that was exceeding comfortable or a perfectly executed piece that was a pain in the butt in which to sit?

Of course, it is easier for a deeply experienced woodworker to whom joinery has become second nature to put the basic five senses on the back burner and focus on proportion and pleasantness. But it is possible, I believe, for even an inexperienced woodworker to achieve the same focus on our woodworking sixth sense, even though the shaping, cutting, and joinery will consume our sensory input capacity when we start to build. How? Well, one way would be to build a model. We could hack together a table with cheap wood, nails, and simple butt and face joints. It would be technically ugly, but it would serve to tell us if the height, the length, and the width are pleasing. We could make a mockup of a cabinet out of cardboard and duct tape, and get a sense of whether it looks too boxy, too skinny, or too tall, or too short. In short, we could first design for comfort and proportion, paying no attention whatsoever to joinery or the technical aspects of woodworking. Then, when the design is "pleasing," we could allow our other senses to take over and drive us toward excellence in technique.

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Steven Johnson is 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 sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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