Sensory Overload vs. Sensory Perception

I am in no way “anti-machine.”  I have them.  I like them, especially the ones that work well (I will write later this week about two old gems rediscovered).  But, I am not bound by them.

Since I am increasingly tool-challenged, or more precisely machine-challenged back here in the burbs while moving more of my capacity to The Barn, I am by necessity turing to alternative processes.  This imposes a certain innovative “simplicity” on my working regimen, causing me to reflect on Chris Schwarz’ accounts of Ghandi-izing his shop through tool divestment (my characterization, not his), which in turn makes me recall (in the pinball machine that is my brain) a comment by a Ghandi lieutenant while the latter was leading the rebellion against the British through his mimicry of an ascetic lifestyle.  The expense of maintaining a phoney simplicity in the midst of a modernizing industrial economy — then and now — was exceedingly expensive, prompting the aide to remark, “If the Mahatma’s life gets any simpler, he may bankrupt the nation.”

That is certainly a roundabout way to introduce the topic of sensory perceptions made possible through the use of simple(?), non-mechanized processes in the shop.  While working by hand (mostly) the window trim in the bedroom, I have mused the following (musings made possible by the ability to put part of the brain in neutral while doing repetitive hand work, whereas machine work requires constant hyper-attention.  You can remove a digit or limb with hand tools, but you have to work at it pretty hard.  With machines?  All it takes is a moment of inattention.)


Consider the following sensory observations.

Aural – when working with machinery, my hearing sense is dulled to almost nothing due to wearing the  protective muffs or ear plugs.  When working by hand, not only is there not the exhausting whine of the machine and the sense of isolation imposed by the protection, you can both enjoy the aural surroundings, like listening to music, podcasts, or simply enjoying the relative silence, there is the added delight of the sound of a well-tuned tool fashioning the wooden component.  Further, these sounds are vital feedback to the work itself.

Touch – When using machines I often wear gloves to keep from picking up splinters.  Not while using the table saw, but certainly in material handling attendant to mass processing.  Even if not wearing the gloves, I get little useful information from my sense of touch while working with machines.  Conversely, my fingertips are a non-stop feedback loop when holding a hand tool.

Smell and Taste – When working by hand, the gentle aromas, or even cloying stink, of the wood is released through the shaving or sawing with sharp tools.  Whether I enjoy these fragrances, I can at least notice them.  With machines, alongside my hearing protection I generally wear respiratory protection because the waste product is fundamentally different and must be dealt with more aggressively.  Ultra fine sanding or power-sawing dust can be aspired efficiently, while a plane shaving requires a lot more effort to breathe in.  Even with a protective particle mask, many an evening after machine work is spend blowing brown goo out of your nose.  I cannot recall any tales of someone needing to evacuate a nice curly shaving from their head orifices, but my experiences are definitely finite.  And the bitter taste of cypress dust in the mouth takes a lot of expectoration to purge from the taste buds.


Sight – A lot of this is the result of the amount of money Blue Cross/Blue Shield and I have invested in my very “at risk” eyeballs.  When using machines, I wrap those puppies behind layers of isolating protection.  Not so much as to obscure my work and make it more dangerous, but certainly enough to remove any sense of visual intimacy.  Further, when using machines I cannot observe the work occurring, I can only observe the result.  By hand?  A totally different game.  I can actually see what is going on, in part because I have a different protective set-up (polycarbonate safety glasses vs. goggles and full coverage face shield), I can observe the edge of the tool on the work piece, and the rate of the work is slow enough to actually observe.

Just some cogitations on a snowy day.