Pencil Lines

February 4, 2014

What does a carpenter think about when he wakes up in the middle of the night lying in bed unable to get back to sleep?

I would think about pencil lines.

I’ve noticed a word popping up in the media. Granularity. It means the quality of resembling small grains or particles but refers more specifically to the practice of viewing something in greater detail, or at a higher resolution or with greater granularity.

It doesn’t take much granularity to see that a pencil line has three elements:

  1. One edge
  2. The other edge
  3. The space between the edges where all the graphite is.

When you look at a saw blade you see an even more exaggerated version of the same thing… two edges and the steel teeth between them. A saw blade can cut a swath, or kerf, 1/16th of an inch to 1/8th of an inch or more. A pencil line is about as wide as, well, the proverbial pencil tip. The width will vary depending on how recently you sharpened and how much pressure you apply when marking and how soft the lead is. Depending on where you align the saw blade in relation to the pencil line you have a number or permutations. Right side of blade against left edge of pencil line, left side of blade against right edge of pencil line, eliminate the line all together, split the line, etc. It might seem like an unnecessarily fussy distinction but the consequences to the work are significant and will make the difference between a precise joint that snugs up tight and one that doesn’t.

Add to this the fact that even the tick mark on your tape measure has dimension. Those little sixteenth inch markings are also made up of two edges and some ink between them.

You take your measurement, transfer the point on the tape measure to the piece of wood with a pencil mark, or what carpenter’s call a “crow’s foot”, which is actually TWO pencil marks converging on a point. Then you draw another line through the point you think is the exact place the crow’s foot converges. By the time you set the saw against the wood to make your cut you have accumulated a number of opportunities to stray from your original measurement.

The key to precise work lies in the ability to see all these things with finer granularity. There’s no set rule about which side of the line to cut. If you can see more precisely where your ultimate measurement falls in that broad swath of graphite you can make a better decision about where to cut. The metaphors for business or life in general abound, but that’s a topic for another time. I’m going to try to get back to sleep.

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