You Got to Know When to Shut Up…

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I learned long ago to stop talking and start listening when I ran into
someone who knew more than I did, and the lesson came in handy when I
committed to taking a booth at the Woodworking in America show in Pasadena
in September, 2012, in hopes that I might come home with some orders for
my infill planes.

That didn’t happen, but something far more valuable did. Yeung Chan, the
master woodworker and tool maker who had been engaged to teach two classes
at the Pasadena show, one of them on making your own hand tools, stopped
by my booth to look at the plane pictured here.

I had no idea who he was, so I launched into my trade-show spiel, telling
him that I had begun making infill planes only months before, that the
plane he held was the tenth plane I’d made that year, that the infill was
spalted pashaco amarillo, and so on.

The look on his face told me that I wasn’t making much of an impression.
He didn’t roll his eyes or shake his head as he turned my plane this way
and that, and to be sure, he made no polite noises about liking my work.
Instead, he looked the plane over in silence, and then he started talking
about design.

As he was a perfect stranger to me, I wondered whether the appropriate
reaction on my part was to think him presumptuous. Who was this fellow,
and why did he take it on himself to lecture me about design?

He had said only a few words, however, when a small crowd gathered around
him, among them several people who had stopped by my booth earlier in the
day and several others who had seen my booth but had passed on without
stopping.

Clearly, the people in front of my booth had gathered not to admire my
plane but to hear what Yeung Chan had to say about it.

It seemed a good bet to follow their lead, so I stopped talking and
started listening.

Half an hour later Yeung Chan had moved on down the aisle to another
booth, gathering another small crowd around him, and I was rummaging about
in my bag of supplies for a pen and some paper, because I wanted to make
some notes. He had asked: Was there a particular element in the design of
my plane that I liked? A curve, perhaps? The proportion of one element to
another?

I had answered that I liked the long sweep of the crown of the tote – the
part that extends backward, over the web between the thumb and the first
finger of the hand.

Go home, he said, and design a new plane centering on that particular
curve. Pick up, turn it around, reverse it, invert it – play with it, he
said, and see whether you can get everything to coalesce into a single
design.

It took me three months to make his advice tangible, as evidenced in the
photo.

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