Against the grain…

As I was working on the shelves for the tool cabinet I am building today, a situation I found myself in reminded me of a conversation I had earlier in the week with a friend about certain aspects of community development – which I will come back to in a moment.

One of the things hand tool woodworkers have to understand and key in on is direction of grain in the wood. Wood is essentially lots of little fibers bundled together. The direction the fibers traverse throughout a tree, the grain, depends on a number of factors, such as the species of tree, location in the landscape, amount of water and sunlight available, prevailing winds, and so on.

Half-lapped dovetail drawers

Without careful planning (and sometimes regardless of planning) we have to plane against the grain. In this case, planing with the grain (moving toward the front of the drawer), would cause the fibers along the drawer front to bust out – causing more problems than planing against the grain. Photo by the author.

When working ‘with the grain’, one is cutting across or alongside the fibers in the wood and things generally go well. Going ‘against the grain’ essentially means cutting into the ends of fibers, which almost always forces the end of the cutting edge underneath the fiber, more often than not resulting in the fiber being ripped out. [A easy way to visualize this it to think about a bundle of straws – cut across or alongside the bundle and it’s fairly simple. Now try to cut into or through the end of the bundle…not so easy. That’s a going against the grain.]

Back to today – I found myself working on a piece where no matter what I did I was going to end up going against the grain in trying to true up the board. Call it bad luck, bad planning, or just karma, there was no way around it, I was going to have to go against the grain.


The culprits. Photo by the author.

As I considered my options it struck me that this was a micro version of what community developers sometimes go through when doing community and economic development work. Towns and organizations are like trees in some respects – their makeup and the way they grow are often directed by a large number of different forces. Over time, these entities and the people who make them up become set in their ways and resistant to change. Like trees, their fibers become set and oriented in a certain way.

This orientation is where things can go well or horribly, horribly wrong. Decisions and structures can be put in place which are open and flexible and allow for greater interaction and capacity. Or they can cause problems or prevent issues from being addressed by preventing the development of social networks and capacity. Either way, as a community practitioner, one can find themselves either going with or against the grain of the ‘fibers’ within a place or organization.

My friend was in a place where no matter what they did they were going against the grain. Their choice was to cause tear out with a group or tear out with themselves. Not an easy place to be.

Approaching the situation from a woodworking perspective, I would have thought through my options. Can I maneuver around the problem area or approach it from different angles? Can I adjust the depth of cut (taking smaller ‘bites’)? Can I switch tools (say, going from a plane to a card scraper)? Can I use a different type of the same tool (low angle plane instead of a standard angle plane)? Can I use a different piece (not an option in either cases!)?

Walnut bench button recess and button

Oops…not considering grain direction and a bullish approach to cutting this button recess resulted in the grain blowing out, thanks to the swirling grain around this knot. Photo by the author.

Can I sharpen up and just go to town? This was my solution today. I stopped, sharpened the iron, and went back to it with a very shallow set. Low and behold, it worked just fine. I did have some very minor tear out that I hit with a card scraper but all in all I was able to tackle the problem without much effort.

My advice to my friend was a variant of this. Figure out what you can and can’t change. Figure out what really matters in relation to the situation. If what matter requires you to go against the grain – do it.

We can’t effect change or improve our situations without challenging the processes and structures creating the problems – that does nothing. But if we approach the problem from multiple angles and determine what the proper tools are to address the problem, we can address many of the challenges we face.

That said, we cannot bull our way through these situations. If I had approached my shelf with a heavy set, taking a thick shaving out of the surface, I still would have had massive tear out regardless of the newly sharpened blade. My friend’s situation will still require delicate discussions and engagement over time. And they may end up having to clean the ‘tear out’ up regardless. That’s just the way community development works.

tool cabinet with tools

A community developer, just like a woodworker, needs a wide variety of tools in their toolbox (or cabinet) to tackle the job at hand. But in order to be effective, those tools need to be sharp, prepped, and appropriate for the job or else they are useless. Photo by author.

So don’t be afraid of going against the grain. With a little patience, a good selection of tools, and a strong, ethical approach to the problem at hand, you can make a world of positive change within yourself and those you work with.

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