Radical Objects

Sharpening Skills

A spokeshave. Photograph credit: Paul Warde.

This is perhaps my favourite tool. It is a spokeshave, a plane blade for taking small shavings off wood, whose name betrays its origin in a lost world of wheelwrights. This spokeshave belonged to my grandfather, and while I don’t know for sure, was almost certainly acquired by him in the late 1920s or early 30s. He then lived in Cork, and as a Stanley Plane no.53, it would have been made in that company’s famous factory in New Britain, Connecticut. You grip the spokeshave on the two handles either side and carefully pare away the wood with the central blade. It still works very well – if I have it properly sharpened.

I learned to love wood and woodwork in my grandfather’s garage five decades later in County Down. When I then first went to work in the Ulster Folk Museum a few miles outside of Belfast, it was perhaps an expressed interest in wood that meant my first task was to work on the conservation of planes that had been deposited with the museum (wood planes – not the aeroplanes that belonged down the road in the Transport Museum!). I learned what a bewildering variety of planes there were to create specific shapes and mouldings, a world of tools now lost in turn to the modern adjustable electric router. Many came from companies I recognized from their stamps on tools in my grandfather’s garage.

Perhaps of all tools, the plane is the one you have to keep sharp. As with all tools, you need to have the right stance, the right tension in your limbs, the right rhythm, the right setting of the blade to use it well. But above everything, it has to be sharp. That makes all the difference between a smooth, sure passage along the wood’s grain and the stuttering bounce over the surface or even worse, dreaded tears. This a truth felt immediately in your hands. There is no rushing sharpening and planing – not if you want to do it right.

I find it hard. I have good tools, some of which have endured for decades; I have a grinder and oilstones for sharpening, a honing guide for setting the correct angle on the bevelled edge, beyond-pinpoint-accurate measures, even if I am a little old-fashioned with my habitual use of hand, not power tools. As I try to turn a rough plank into a squared board, I think: How did people manage to do this in the past?

The further back in time we go, the less of this stuff a joiner or a carpenter possessed. The iron or steel was generally of lower quality, was less easily protected from rust with waxes and oils, and was expensive to replace. I have read many probate inventories taken of possessions on death. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century craftspeople generally had only small collections of tools.

Yet nearly every agricultural and industrial process until relatively recently involved people cutting things. Cutting, paring, digging, scything, shearing, trimming, marking, felling, splitting. It’s a simple question that troubles me, out in the garage. Has any history ever been written about the whetstone? What work went into keeping things sharp?

Economic history has a lot to say about productivity. Or at least, it evokes it. It is usually done in terms of ‘skill’, or application and motivation, or organisation. Productivity is an ethic. Or sometimes, it is associated with ‘gadgets’. Productivity is measured by a ratio between inputs and outputs. If this grows, so must have skills. Yet what capacity actually is this, this skill? To do good work, time after time, keeping mind and blade sharp in a world that wears and tears? This is actually so difficult that when people achieve it today it often seems exceptional. Yet for many tasks – including and particularly in developing economies today – it must be, must have been, normal, and if anything more, not less challenging as we go back in time.  Where are its histories? It is invisible, but it must have been felt in the digits and limbs of million upon millions of those who set their hands to work.

Of course you keep things sharp by sharpening. The best account of this I know is George Sturt’s The wheelwright’s shopwritten of his family’s Surrey business in the 1880s on the cusp of a world of standardized, factory-made kit. But everything Sturt’s workers made was bespoke. Sharpness was an obsession, every process a ritual of keen eye and unwavering devotion. Sharpening was honed with age. You could work harder and longer; but you could not rush. The quickness of youth was as nothing to the quick of experience. Of course, there was a gendered element to this, in the flexing of the body into work that was traditionally assigned to men, or to women. In Sturt’s shop it was about manliness and the authority won and conveyed (where the young Sturt felt himself subaltern to his elder employees). This wasn’t just in handwork. It was also in this world that one learned how to carry a sack of two or three hundred pounds, day long through the fearsome heat of the malthouse, from the docks, from the threshing machine. In Alasdair MacLean’s lugubrious account of crofting life at the remote end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Scotland in the 1960s (Night Falls on Ardnamurchan), he recalled the speed and power of his grandfather scything hay, not just the rapidity with which this was accomplished, but how many sweeps of the blade he could manage without sharpening. This precision and economy of action was one way to deal with the blunting entropy of a life of labour. It helps explains too why it was so important, in a manner now almost entirely forgotten, to match the tool to the user. This was not just true of the scythe, where it is essential that the handles are matched to the height and limb-lengths of the harvester. It was true of a tool as simple – to our perspective – as a spade. In a world of scarce items, standardization would not have been a boon. Spades were wrought differently for a myriad of tasks, lands, and manners. Why did one small County Tyrone mill offer 230 different types of spades to its clientele, a repertoire probably unmatched in any hardware store in the today’s world? A spade is not just a spade, after all.

In a world before such made-to-measure was lost in standard factory products – that is, in a world before the brute power of mechanization largely rendered local exactitude and the blending of human qualities with the tool superfluous – such skills were an essential part of enduring hour after hour of physical work. Surely, one can hardly begin to discuss ideas such as the long years of apprenticeship and the generational transfer of knowledge without appreciating such demands. Yet in most literature in economic history, it seems entirely invisible.

In one of the reconstructed nineteenth-century houses at the Ulster Folk Museum, a jug and water bowl lie on a bedroom window sill. They have sat there for decades and they always draw my eye. These hail from an age before piped water, one that lasted long into the second half of the twentieth century in some parts of Ireland’s north. Ironically, perhaps, before it came on tap, rural historians have had little to say about fetching and using water (a recent exception is Emma Griffin’s Bread Winner). If people lived somewhere, well, they must have had water. Electrification has received more attention than water, and urban histories have focused more on the benefits of piped water in regard to hygiene and health, themselves not minor considerations of course.

Oh, but getting water was work, hard work, even in a land as drenched as Ireland. It’s no accident that the men writing the Ordnance Survey memoirs for the Tyrone parish of Tamlaght in the 1830s recorded the access to a well or pump for every household. Or that a team of sociologists and ethnographers sent out to Northern Ireland’s rural communities just after World War Two diligently recorded how far one had to go to fetch water for each household in their survey area, at distances ranging from a few feet into the yard, to hundreds of yards, and fractions of miles for the most disadvantaged (and then there was the man who lived in a barrel, but that’s another tale). This was, not universally, but most frequently, women’s work, work they flexed their bodies to. There was no fetish for these families that disguised what it took to produce the simple and serene joy of a bowl of water to send ebbing the sweat and dust of the day. Yet perhaps the historian’s or economist’s search for measures of productivity and paper trails of inputs and outputs is precisely such a fetish.

We have our histories of comfort. Good ones. Not so much, histories of convenience and what this has meant to people. Yet comfort and convenience are not quite the same thing, and conflating the rise of convenience (or decline of inconvenience) with a desire for leisured ease, mere ‘affluence’, can disguise the challenges that people have faced, and the fortitude and skill with which they faced them. It can also disguise the opportunities for new kinds of work that the elimination of inconvenience permitted. We can perhaps add to the many paradoxes of modernity the fact we can often find people arguing that we have made life too easy whilst also finding people, perhaps the same people, saying we have become more skilled. Yet this paradox only exists if we are determined to see each aligned along a scale of more or less. If we understood skill as the capacities of people to adapt their attention to different challenges that arise over time, and not something that simply increases or decreases, we might sharpen our sense of people’s capacities. This requires however a strong appreciation of what people in the past – or anywhere, at any time – actually had to do. Such an appreciation would perhaps assist economic history to not be another of those discourses that too often seem to contribute to the demoralization of the putatively ‘unskilled’.

At a basic level, one could think more of the intimacy of skills and tools. Of skills and environments.

At the most basic level, as a historian I can take a thought from whatever fills my own life about what it takes to do a job and do it well. And I can suppose that the subjects of my studies knew this in their own regard better than I ever will.

This article was first published on Invisible Histories, a platform for researchers to present photographs in context and explore hidden narratives. 


  1. Lovely post. My husband, who died a couple of years ago, would have really enjoyed this – he discusses similar themes on his blog. You might enjoy his series on building a Roubo bench, based on designs by the eighteenth-century French cabinet maker. https://overthewireless.wordpress.com/2019/01/27/roubo-is-coming-part-1/ For readers interested in more like this, Lost Art Press do some fantastic books on historic woodworking!

  2. Thanks for this lovely article, Paul, and you are absolutely right about the need for an understanding of ‘productivity’ beyond the rigid terms of economic history. Of course there is much written in autobiography and now in family histories about what apprenticeship and learning the ropes (a phrase literally from joining the navy where many had other skills, including carpentry of course) meant. I was always fascinated by my father’s tools – the plumbline and spirit level – but most importantly, what you say about giving dignity and acknowledgement to the so-called ‘unskilled’ – a misnomer in so many cases – is crucial. You probably also know Raphael Samuel’s article on ‘The Workshop of the World’ in HWJ, which stresses how much manual and ‘old-fashioned’ skilled labour continued despite and during ‘the Industrial Revolution’.

  3. This is just excellent. For all the recent(ish) academic interest in bodies, the frames via which they are viewed, the mechanisms by which they are ‘disciplined’, there is so little work on what they actually do. I began to consider this when I was working on performance movement, then peeled of in this direction, becoming fascinated by buildings and tools. I am especially interested in the way bodies interact with objects and environments – the idea of the ‘cyborg,’ used in a vague, metaphorical fasion by a certain academic, is actually more illuminating if we take the idea literally, understand that actions/behaviours are shaped in engagement with concrete things, which are themselves shaped by social and economic forces. I suspect one could hypothesise a sort of ‘habitus’ in which the socio-cultural and the practical intermesh (perhaps telling that my dad was a carpenter). Fabulous stuff, this, and hugely evocative. Thank you.

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