There is quite a bit of repetitive motion in the knife shop. Forging can be fun but grinding and hand sanding are the real time sinks in knife making. Grinding the bevels on a knife can be the hardest part to get right and your brain can really get in the way. I actually listen to music or podcasts while grinding because I find that being slightly preoccupied helps me grind more consistently. I suppose I could just be alone with my thoughts but that doesn’t always work out so well. When I am grinding knives, I want to be in the zone. Thinking about what I’m doing doesn’t help, just allowing muscle memory and some deeper-than-conscious part of my brain to take over just works. This doesn’t work when you are first starting. You have to develop muscle memory before you can use it and until you can grind how you want consistently, you will unfortunately have to think about it.
The Flow State is what I am referring to. Unfortunately for me since I’m trying to write about it, the experience of this state is ineffable. It’s like melding with the activity until the lines between your own being and action are blurred. You’ve heard “Be the arrow” in archery and seen the seemingly effortless way a master plays an instrument. We seem to actually release ourselves fully to the task at hand when we are in flow. I see it as a manifestation of the true meaning of fulfilling work, as in: action that produces good which fills us with good. Something like that. Surprisingly, love has to enter into this topic. Love is many things but one way to think about it is the best in me serving the best in the thing or person I love. So the best in me engaging with the best in the activity I love is true avocation. Fully releasing ourselves to be at one with the process is the love act of that vocation. Its how we have sex with our job! Ew.
Much has been made about the science of flow. The nerds call it an autotelic experience which means an intrinsically rewarding activity. Another way to put that is something worth doing just for the experience of doing it. In order to enter this state, the challenge and skill level of the activity need to be high. We have to be performing a difficult activity well. High skill with low challenge is boring, high challenge with low skill can be frustrating. Evidently, the areas of our brain used for self focus become less active and our cognitive energy requirements decrease. This would explain why being in flow state doesn’t feel mentally taxing. In fact, flow has been proven to contribute to overall well-being and happiness. No wonder! Losing yourself in something you are really good is a much better alternative to clenching your teeth through hours of soul sucking and meaningless work.
So the flow state is great for making knives and everyone should be great at it and do it all the time, but that’s not how it works is it? First you have to spend many hours of deliberate practice to reach a level where this state is even possible. Here’s where novelty comes in. Novelty is like flow in that it can take our mind off of distractions and self awareness to focus on the task at hand. Let's take grinding knives as the example as it tends to be the part of knife making that Flow helps with the most. Before we can get in the zone while grinding, we have to have enough skill and muscle memory to be able to do it repeatedly without tearing our hair out. The process of developing that skill is high in novelty as we learn the extremely subtle ways that slight movements affect the grind.
Everyone’s early knives usually come out with a convex grind because instead of a single bevel, each side of the knife is made up of many small bevels that connect together at different angles. This is not the convex grind that a maker with experience achieves on purpose when that geometry is desired, I’m talking about the “I made so many mistakes that they blend together well enough to almost look ok” kind of bevel. Learning how to fix mistakes in your work is way more important than shooting for perfect on the first go - because that ain’t happening. Ask any experienced maker, craftsmanship is the art of fixing mistakes and mishaps.
Novelty then helps the activity be engaging and worthwhile when we are not yet highly skilled. The key to avoiding frustration and anxiety is patience. Setting realistic expectations for yourself is the way to stay sane while attempting to learn something that only insane people do - make knives. Early in the process there are more incremental goals to achieve which really give us a boost. Psychologists that study this stuff say satisfaction that comes from attaining a big goal only lasts a short while but making incremental progress toward a goal over time is the way to keep those satisfaction levels up. Somebody should have told Mick Jagger, although I don’t think this research was published in 1965. The best thing to do while learning grinding is to allow yourself a few dozen knives to trash. If they look somewhat useful then give them away but don’t expect too much too early because you’ll just turn a hobby that is supposed to make you feel good into something that makes you grumpy.
I teach knife making classes at my shop and one of the most common things I hear is something like “you make that look easy.” The difficulty of grinding is almost always underestimated because it is at the core a simple task. There is a big difference between simple and easy. I think Ben Abbott first told me that. Grinding a bevel is the process of removing steel from the side of a blade with the goal of achieving a flat, homogeneous plane between the cutting edge and the top of the bevel - be that at some point in the flat of the knife or the spine. I start grinding and many times I can grind evenly and incrementally up the blade until the bevel is as high as I want it. On every knife I make small corrections as I move up the bevel. To the untrained eye it may look like I’m just grinding away until it looks good, but I am constantly grinding and evaluating the results of the angle and pressure I used on the last pass. This amounts to constantly fixing mistakes.
I need to clarify at this point that I grind all my knives freehand. That just means I hold the knife at the grinder instead of using some kind of jig or a milling machine. I learned to hand grind before trying a jig but I know plenty of great knife makers who use some kind of set up to get repeatable results. There’s nothing wrong with it, in fact it takes skill to use a jig as well because there are still ways that a knife can be over or under ground while using a jig. It is not cheating, although using a cnc milling machine feels kind of impersonal. Be that as it may, I couldn’t program and set up a cnc machine if my life depended on it so its all hard work and the end result is really what customers care most about.
Back to flow state, I heard that a combination of coffee, a sativa strain of marijuana (just a bit) and jumping jacks to get the heart rate up can be a shortcut to getting into the flow. I usually just go with the coffee. If I make a big mistake or get too distracted, I try to get away and come back to the task later. Other knifemaking tasks where flow comes in are forging, hand sanding, filework and handle shaping. Stitching and stamping leather can take me there too. With forging, I don’t even know what all steps lead to the end product. I definitely start with a plan and many forging projects take specific material and technique planning, but the hundreds of micro adjustments just seem to happen by themselves by feel. I definitely think that when we are working by instinct, we are in the flow state.
Through teaching classes I have had to try to explain many elements of the knife making process that are instinctual. How do I show a group in a weekend or single day a skill that took me years to develop? Well that is not an easy question to answer and for the most part the answer is that I can’t. But I can give people a serious boost in how they conceptualize the process. You can’t really see what is happening when you are grinding because the material removal is happening between the abrasive and the steel in contact with it. Just like forging, we have to work the piece, look at the result and then adjust. I see many students pounding away or grinding repeatedly without stopping to check what’s happening. How do you know what to change if you don’t take a hard look at the results? That may be a question to put to other areas of life.