The electronic looking glass

The internet is a wonderful place – all of life is there if you look hard enough. In the Eighties I used it for keeping in touch with the local chapter of the motorcycle club to which I belonged. These days, as a responsible grown-up (though the wife might argue that point), I use it for research, for keeping in contact with like-minded people (there are a few, honest!) and for finding inspiration: a wealth of ideas and information is available at the tips of your fingers, as well as some very strange stuff.

A home to the weird and wonderful…

Recently, for example, I chanced upon a chap in the US who makes magic wands. These are beautifully crafted gem-encrusted items in presentation cases, and cost $100 or more for the wizard or witch in your life. The blurb makes much use of words like ‘heirloom’ and ‘art’, and while not wishing to divest anybody of their illusions by suggesting that these things are useless, I am left wondering who actually buys them and why? Having said all that, I have now been ‘commissioned’ to make a magic wand by a five-year old who has discovered the venerable Mr Potter for the first time. So, it’s back to the heirloom wands website looking for inspiration…

It seems to me that these gem-encrusted, presentation-cased wands must surely be for ceremonial use, by adults. And, just as I can’t imagine there are that many Lie Nielsen planes on building sites, I think the bluecollar spell-caster needs something a bit more workmanlike for field use. For the body of the wand, then, I’ve decided upon either ash or possibly yew depending on what wandlike off-cuts I have lying about; five minutes with a spokeshave should make a wand that’s serviceable. However, one imagines that wands — like the best woodworking tools — derive at least some of their power either from being made by their users or with their users in mind rather than as part of a production line. Some degree of personalisation is surely essential.

wooden box
as well as ideas and inspiration I have derived the essential

I have derived the essential finishing touch for the wand after — you’ve guessed it — some research on the interweb. I was looking for spells (did I really say that out loud?) runes, mystical languages like Elvish (as in Elven not as in a drunken Mississippi singer), when I stumbled upon Ogham.

Ogham is an ancient alphabet of Irish origin which consists of 20 characters formed along either side of a central line. Given that, as makers of things that frequently have straight lines or arrises between two surfaces, Ogham strikes me as a particularly good way to add a touch of personalisation to a project in a manner that can be nicely integrated with a piece while not being in any way pedestrian or restrictive. That the Ogham letters are mostly named after trees – birch, alder, willow, and so on – is obviously highly appropriate to woodworkers, and because the characters themselves are, to contemporary eyes anyway, non-representational, Ogham can be made to appear purely decorative.

Oh, how technology improves the human condition, eh?

A vast visual reference library

However all this is nothing without pictures, and again the internet is a treasure trove, providing us with a vast visual reference library. Once upon a time when I was studying graphic design during a work placement, I used to keep a scrap book of images into which I’d paste photographs and drawings, or snippets of magazine text if I found the type face interesting. These days, I do exactly the same thing with my electronic scrapbook, which is vastly more expensive and less flexible than my old paper ones. Oh, how technology improves the human condition, eh?

As I surf the web, I harvest images and collate them into electronic archives. I might grab an image of a wooden box and then six months later find myself incorporating some element of it into one of my own designs.

Recently, thanks to a posting on an internet woodworking forum, I found a new way to search the net for images. It’s called Piclens, and it’s a plugin for the web browser which offers a graphical search of images from various sources, including Google’s image search and Flickr. It allows you to zoom around, print and otherwise capture images on a theme. (For the picture shown overleaf, for example, the search term was ‘Ogham’.) Piclens is attractive, easy to use, and free to download from All the usual disclaimers apply, and I have no vested interests, etc.

Tapping the essence…

The trick and the trap inherent in this magpie behaviour is that you need to be able to identify what it is about an image that caught your eye; you have to tap into the essence and not just reproduce the object [Which is what Significant Styles is all about — DR].

This process touches on the business of what it is that makes a design work. In my opinion, a design works best when a part of it connects to us in some way. It might be the general look of an object, the feel of a chamfered edge, or a shadowline on a meeting of surfaces — whatever it is, it’s something that creates an ineffable emotional resonance.

For me, achieving this resonance should be our intention when we try to design and create, though sometimes it can come about not by intention but as the result of a happy accident, or through using a favourite tool instead of another. Recently, I heard the potter Grayson Perry say on the topic of craftsmen and craftsmanship that he regards mistakes as essential to creativity. He has the maxim ‘creativity is mistakes’ carved into the concrete of his workshop. The lesson, then, is the old one: always keep an open mind. (Perry, by the way, also had some very interesting things to say on the place of craftsmanship in art. If you’d like to hear more, a podcast of this discussion is available on the BBC Radio 4 website. It’s in the Thinking Allowed programme that was broadcast on 6 February 2008, and is available for download at factual/thinkingallowed or via iTunes. It’s well worth a listen.)

Above: Piclens at work; harvesting images from the web can provide a store of ideas, tho’ the trick is to identify just what it is in them that appeals to you, so that you can then adapt it to your own needs
…and weeding out the dross

Sometimes however, despite its ability to show us new things and allow us to talk to new people, the internet lets us down. For example, we are all aware that a plane becomes easier to push if skewed relative to the direction of travel. The idea behind this (and it’s an idea that I’ve always largely accepted without question) is that, if the blade remains at a constant pitch but the angle of skew is altered, then the effective pitch of the cutting edge decreases thus making the tool easier to push while maintaining the advantages of the actual blade pitch. It stands to reason, then, that by altering actual blade pitch and skew, a range of effective pitches, from not cutting to scraping, can be achieved.

The point of design is that it creates an ineffable emotional resonance

Now, this is a basic concept of blade geometry. It’s crucial to an understanding of how a hand plane works, and how to get the best results from this and other edge tools. The other day I came across a chart on a website that actually illustrated this relationship. It showed actual blade pitch on one axis and skew angle on the other, and across these axes were charted a range of effective pitches that could be achieved. I have stared at this chart for hours, and while I accept the concept I cannot understand how the effective pitch angles in the chart can be arrived at by any reliable mathematical means. I’ve Googled high and low, but I can’t find a method of arriving at these numbers.

Knowing that my maths abilities are not stellar I have entered into email conversation with mechanical engineers at a university Oop North. These chaps deny that the concept is even workable. They tell me that the effective pitch doesn’t change at all, but what does change is the direction of the applied force. When the plane is skewed, this force is applied in two directions simultaneously, and it’s this that has the effect of making the plane easier to drive providing that it is set to take a lighter cut than previously. This denial of our founding principle seems to me tantamount to heresy, and we probably risk being burned on a pile of damp faggots for even whispering it.

In extremis, then, I emailed the people at the company who provided the chart; if anybody could give me the answer surely they could. Alas, it was not to be: I received a reply telling me that the chart was developed using CAD, and that they were as baffled as me by the mathematical aspect! In signing off, though, they did ask if I could let them know if I found a mathematical model for it.

So here is a challenge. Given an actual blade angle that varies in 5° increments from 30° to 90° — let’s say this is the y axis — and a skew angle that alters in 10° increments from 0° to 50°, forming the x axis, can the intrepid reader, by means of cybermancy or any other means of divination (with or without the use of a gem-encrusted wand), demonstrate a mathematical formula or model which will reliably reproduce a range of angles for effective pitch across the described ranges? No prizes I’m afraid, just my lifelong admiration and possibly recognition as being a woodworking’s Sir Thomas Moore compared to the Tyndales of the aforementioned northern university.