Observations from the Woodpile” is a collection of essays bundled together and given as a birthday present for my wife, Nancy, in 1997. Twenty-seven years have passed since the collection was given. The two main subjects of the essays, my sons Justus and Jacob, have grown into men with families of their own.

The Right Tool for the Job

Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few devices for splitting wood. I’ve been tempted to try them all. Sometimes, I’ve been weak and fallen for promises of wood falling into nice uniform pieces with just one whack of this tool or that. After several seasons of trial and error, I’ve ended up with a basic set of tools: a splitting maul, two or three wedges, a chainsaw, and an instrument called a cant hook.

A splitting maul is a cross between a wedge, an axe, and a sledgehammer. It looks like a wedge with a handle. The chainsaw is noisy and otherwise ineloquent, but I don’t see how folks got along without them. My hat is off to the old-timers who felled the giants of the ancient forests with cross-cut saws.

Except for the cant hook, all these tools are necessary for getting the job done. The cant hook isn’t at all necessary. It’s one of those tools that make doing a job pleasurable or, at least, less of a burden, by taking some of the drudgery out. It’s a stout handle with a hook that pivots about a foot from the end. You use it to lift and turn logs by the principle of leverage. It has, no doubt, saved me from an irreparable back injury.

Being properly equipped for a task is often quite a balancing act. Not enough of the right equipment paralyzes a project. With too many tools and gadgets, too much time is spent on tools and not the task.

Properly equipping children with the right tools for their lives’ tasks is the quintessential purpose of parenting. The tendency is to equip them with too much hardware, too much stuff. It’s easy to throw money and hope it’s the right thing. So, what is the right list of tools?  Well, just as every job is different, so is every child. It takes a bunch of trial and error and that means a bunch of time. 

When Less Than Sharp Is Best

More than once, the boys have commented about how dull the splitting mauls are. They constantly want to file them to a knife edge. I explain to them that for the kind of work the mauls are designed to do, extra sharp is not best. Something very sharp is more easily blunted and dulled. The mauls are continually being driven into the ground and hitting rocks and such. It just doesn’t pay to keep them razor sharp.

Several years ago, I ran a planing mill in a cabinet-making plant. Every day, I replaced the huge planer knives with ones that had been sharpened the day before. Before finishing, I passed a special stone across the knives to take a tiny bit off the edge. I asked the fellow who sharpened the knives why that had to be done. He explained that if the knives were too sharp, the constant friction would cause them to burn up. They would not last through the next shift.

That’s a principle I’ve seen before. Very precise instruments require an extraordinary amount of maintenance. High performance cars spend a lot of time in garages. Sharp, intense people often can’t make it over the long run. They’re too sharp to resist the constant friction, and they simply burn up.

The two boys are too young to comprehend this observation, and I don’t want them using it on me as a way of avoiding their schoolwork. Someday, they’ll be grown men with careers and families and a thousand other responsibilities. I hope they will understand then to take a little of the edge off, so they can last the long run.

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