“Now let the tool do the work. The edge is sharp. All you have to do is guide it.” That was me to a student at the WoodenBoat School years ago. More recently, sensei said to me, “Lou, the sword is sharp, let it do the cutting. All you have to do is guide it.” In the first case, I was an instructor in maritime carving, and in the second, a student in Iaido – a Japanese sword art.
After years of working as a carver, my hands knew how to finesse a cut. To apply just enough strength to shave off what I wanted, and no more. As a neophyte student of Iaido, I was fighting the impulse to put too much power into a cut, and not trust the sword to do the work.
The solution is, as it always seems to be, lots of practice. With a gouge as with a sword, the control you need can’t be just a matter of mind over a tool. Something called muscle memory needs to develop. Muscle memory allows you to do the right thing as required without thinking now I’ll apply just this much pressure, rotate the tool five degrees, swivel two and finish.

When you begin carving, you can’t imagine how the carver almost idly manipulates the tool to remove precise shavings with the gouge. The secret is in part in the hands, but the entire body can be involved. Watch a carver or the swordsman cutting. The body shifts, the hips move, the shoulders flex. The hands are the recipient of all the focused energy and direction. Ask to be shown in slow motion how to do it, and most people won’t be able to explain it. It slips from the mind. One day you’ll be carving and wake up from musing on car repair or cooking dinner. You’ll realize that the past fifteen minutes, your carving has been on a sort of autopilot with your hands, body, and some deep part of your mind operating without you.