On Hacking and Sharpening Tools

Mrs. Woo watched Monty Don. That always means trouble. Monty said ‘we’ must stake our raspberries at the weekend. He appeared to use brand new fence posts for the job but our raspberries came under the fence from next-door, so I wasn’t going to spend money. Last year, I replaced half a dozen cross-members in fence panels, so they’dĀ  do. They were triangular in section, like carpenters’ pencils, which I sharpen with a Stanley knife. I couldn’t see any reason why the operation wouldn’t scale. I fetched my hand axe and started to whittle, at industrial scale. In my head, I was already writing a Tweet about hardware hacking.

I soon knew that I should have sharpened the blade before I started but it might take me ages to find the sharpening stone and some oil. I could even remember thinking the same the last time I used it. It might have been worthwhile if I had a bigger herd of yaks to shave but this wouldn’t take long.*

An axe is an interesting tool, relying on the momentum of the head, once the cut has started. Unfortunately, when hacking tangentially at a lump of wood, getting started is the biggest issue and this depends on blade sharpness. The more my efforts honed each giant pencil, the slower I progressed. When I was close to finishing each one, any possible last stroke seemed to have a more than equal chance of breaking off any point I’d created. It wasn’t until I’d had a particularly frustrating time with the last piece and was gripping the axe head between both hands, trying to use it like a chisel that I remembered my Dad’s old spoke-shave. I was long past the point where going and sharpening its blade, so I could use an appropriate tool, would have been a wise move. If I was going to do that, I might as well have sharpened the axe two hours ago.

There IS a point to this story, beyond self-flagellation. Hacking techniques are great for immediate, fast progress, and the sharper your tools the faster you’ll travel, so investing in preparation can be cost-effective but sharp, crude tools can only take you so far. I hadn’t been aware enough to see that I’d moved into the precision stage of pointy-stick development and should have changed to precision tooling, the low gear of change implementation.

The archaeology bit

Have you ever watched a pre-historic archaeological dig on TV? Sometimes they find a few flint axe-heads which they get very excited about and loads of flint scraping tools which they say were probably used for scraping animal skins. They should try sharpening a stick with a hand axe. I think our ancestors were busy incrementally inventing the spoke-shave. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the wheel was invented by a stick sharpener, probably a woman, as she chuckled at the men showing off how many rolling-logs they could carry at a time.

* – For “yak shaving”, see The Jargon File.
http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/Y/yak-shaving.html
Beware: it is a yak watering-hole and many of them could do with a trim.

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