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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Hand Tool Techniques – Breaking Old Habits

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I moved my trashcan. Not a big move. From the northwest corner of my shop to the northeast corner. Maybe 25 feet. It made sense. It is a more convenient place. And it was a seminal event.

Figure 5 - Finally...I found my

Moving my trashcan made me think that the older I get, the longer it is taking to change my habits. It's been a month and a half. The first couple of weeks I walked all the way to the northwest corner of my shop, stared down at the empty floor, and realized my trash can was not there. In week three, I began to take one or two steps toward the northwest corner of my shop, remember, mutter expletives, turn, and head in the right direction. Now, finally, after almost five weeks, I can absentmindedly dispose of garbage without getting lost in my small shop.

Another seminal event occurred at the big box store. Cruising the racks, I spotted a guy I know. Not well, mind you, but I've seen him around enough to know his name is Jim and I have seen enough of his work to know he is good. He is a way-better-than-average trim carpenter, new houses mostly, and does some remodeling work (as many do now, given the lack of new home construction in these parts). He knows his way around door and window trim, hangs kitchen cabinets, and installs crown molding without much thought and no apparent stress. He copes joints with a jigsaw and uses a big 12-inch miter saw for everything else, and he works with pace and consistency. He doesn't need to buy putty in bulk. All in all, he's good. Incongruously, he was at the little "cut-it-yourself" station, hacking away at a piece of base trim.

Hacking is the only way I can really describe what he was doing, too. He was bearing down on the little store-supplied saw, sawing hard and fast, short little strokes tinged with impatience. A little bead of sweat was gathering on his forehead. The saw was occasionally binding and he was bending it a bit from time to time. He looked up and spoke, "Oh... hey Steve... how ya doin'?"

"Better than you, looks like... is that saw gettin' the better of you?"

"Aww, this piece of %!*+#... you'd think they'd put a decent saw out here!"

Of course I asked Jim why he was cutting off six feet of base from a fourteen foot piece and he explained he was finishing up a kitchen installation and needed just a few more feet. "They sell this stuff by the foot, you know..."

I know. The economy has everyone on edge. And I know about the saw… I've sawn a few pieces of trim at the store to avoid overpaying or the hassle of returning the excess. I know the saw they provide is no Stradivarius, and my technique is certainly not Carnegie Hall-worthy, but I never had as much trouble cutting a piece of trim as poor Jim. Jim might be a great trim carpenter, but he relies totally on his power tools and his hand saw technique is awful.

These two events got me thinking about habits, good and bad, and how long it takes to learn, unlearn, or relearn. And more importantly, is there a way to reinforce and keep the good habits, routinely re-master the bad habits, and relearn a new routine more quickly?

Experts refer to the term "automaticity" to define when a habit has become fully ingrained or inculcated. Research has indicated that on average, it takes 66 days to achieve automaticity for a new routine or habit. Automaticity is the state you achieve when you can do a thing without consciously thinking about it - it becomes second nature. Perhaps five weeks to achieve automaticity in the location of my trashcan wasn't so bad after all!

Automaticity applies to routines and habits. Showering before brushing your teeth is a routine. Brushing each tooth up and down thirty times is a habit. A technique is a little bit habit, a little bit routine, and a little bit something else. Technique involves memory, both conscious and subconscious, but it relies in large part on "muscle memory." How long it takes to develop a new technique is usually measured in repetitions, not time.

It has been demonstrated that learning a new technique takes 300 - 500 repetitions. However, once a technique is committed to muscle memory, it can take 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to "unlearn" one technique and relearn a new one. It seems our muscle memory is better than our mental memory.

With these benchmarks in mind, it is obvious that it is much better to train, practice, and learn the "correct" technique to start than to unlearn a bad technique and relearn a good one.

A good example of this is a golf swing. If you had never swung a golf club in your life, a good golf coach could have you making respectable golf shots after 500 or so practice swings. Unfortunately, most of us learned our golf swing from a friend, a magazine article, or we simply modified our baseball or (gads) our hockey swing and our technique is wrong for golf. So we practice, and practice, and try, and try, and seem never able to "unlearn" our old bad swing.

You see, a saw is the same. At some point as kids we picked up a saw and started hacking away, and our muscle memory developed and our poor technique got set in stone. Unlearning and relearning a new technique is difficult. It might take Jim months of hard work to saw a straight and smooth line with a handsaw. And why would he bother? He is making a living using his miter saw and jigsaw and the once or twice a month he has to cut something by hand hardly makes it worth the time and trouble to learn a better technique.

In context, all this makes some sense. When I moved my trashcan, it took over a month to break the northwest corner habit and mentally habituate instead the northeast corner of my shop. No muscle memory involved in this exercise. But when I broke my bad habits and learned to saw a straight line, it took hundreds and hundreds of cuts and months of time. My mental memory is fleeting, but my muscle memory is like an elephant's.

So when we straighten up our shops and move things around a bit, it will take a little time to get into the habit of where everything is located. But when we are frustrated with our inability to freehand sharpen a chisel, hand plane a perfectly jointed edge on a board, or hand saw a laser-straight line, learning the right technique takes time and thousands of repetitions. Even though we have read about or been shown all the right techniques, it is normal to not see overnight results. Our patience, or lack thereof, becomes our worst enemy. There are, however, a few tricks we can employ to speed up the development of new muscle memory patterns. The keys to embracing a new technique:

  1. It is very hard to undo an ingrained technique, but the first place to start is mentally. If, like Jim, you have been hacking away for life with short choppy saw strokes, you have to convince, first your mind and then your body, that you are starting over. The key here is visualization. Close your eyes and visualize the perfect smooth saw stroke. The mental visualization prepares your muscles for the coming attraction.
  2. Concentrate solely on the technique. Forget the outcome. A golf coach once forced me to keep my head down so long I never knew where the ball went. My swing improved rapidly because without looking for the ball there was less to distract me from concentrating on my swing. If you are learning to saw by hand, concentrate on the technique, not the quality of the cut… that will come. Turn off the music… eliminate all distractions.
  3. While concentrating solely on technique, whatever you are doing should feel "wrong." That's when you have it right! That "unnatural" feeling is your muscles protesting doing something differently. Go with it, and keep going.
  4. Talk to yourself. If no one is there to hear you, it won't sound crazy. Talk yourself through the technique with each repetition. When it feels "wrong," say, "It's okay." When it starts to feel "right," give your self some praise. Auditory feedback helps banish the bad and reinforce the good motions.
  5. Give yourself a visual or tactile cue. For example, if you have a tendency to take too short a stroke with a handsaw, hang a piece of paper in front of the saw, where at its fullest forward stroke the front of the saw touches the paper. Hang another piece of paper behind your arm, where on the fullest backstroke your elbow hits the paper. Concentrate on making sure to hit the paper, front and back, with every stroke.
  6. Don't give up. Results do not occur rapidly. Because of the muscle protestations, you may even feel like your technique is worsening instead of improving. This, too, is normal. Keep at it. Muscles, like minds, have epiphanies. Like an "ah ha!" moment, one day your muscles and technique will suddenly seem in perfect synch, and it will all feel "just right." This is a pivotal moment. When this occurs, don't celebrate yet… practice some more.

Now, if I could just remember where I put that saw when I cleaned up the other day…

This month and next we are entertaining lots of visitors in the Down To Earth Woodworking Shop … it is that time of year… and it is a good idea to be prepared to make our guests comfortable, keep them safe, and show them what true professionals we are. I will share a "guest prep" list with you, plus a sign that helps keep my shop clean and "pure." I will also have a report from a recent custom furniture show and a few woodworking tips and tricks that turned out to be really bad ideas. See you next month!

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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

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