A Skew Whiff Tale

A very good club site on the Internet is that of the Peninsula Woodturners Guild Inc. Victoria, Australia at http://home.vicnet.net.au/~pwguild/  One of the, tongue in cheek, articles there that I thought needed a wider audience is reproduced below with their permission.

Is this how the Skew started?

To arrive at the sequence of events that led to the development and use of the skew chisel, one must go back in time to the days when men were first learning primitive woodcraft skills, mainly by trial and error methods.  Having learned these, they soon found that a round pillar was far better to bump into than a rough hewn square one, so they applied their minds to this problem.  The obvious solution was to use much smaller younger round trees but the conservationists quickly put a stop to that, so back to the drawing board.

The more skilled artisans began to experiment with short sections of timber and found that by shaping a square, then cutting the corners off, then cutting the corners off the corners etc. etc. they could arrive at a point where they had created a fairly well rounded short pillar.  A spin off from this of course was the invention of the wheel and, because the processes involved in making wheels and pillars were at best labour intensive, minds were applied to the problem and mouths to bottles.

The end result of course was a crop of first class headaches and, as you have probably guessed, the lathe was born.  The woodturners very quickly realized that they were on to a good thing, so, closing their ranks, they formed a Guild and for many years they prospered sharing their skills only with other members.  Secrets, even the best kept ones, will out and, as a result of industrial espionage or just plain snooping, trade secrets were laid bare to all comers.  Amateur turners grew in numbers and developed skills in the craft that were equal to if not exceeding those of the professionals.  This was bad enough, but imagine the impact on the industry when amateur turners began to give away work instead of selling it!

The Guild members got together to discuss ways and means of overcoming the problems being caused by the amateur, and after much discussion it was decided that the best way to combat the threat to their livelihood was to invent a new tool which would be so hard to use that the amateurs would become discouraged and things would return to normal in the trade.  After much consideration they took a flat bar of steel, fashioned a tang on one end and then, because it was too long, cut a few inches off the other end. Owing to the fact that they were not very proficient in working steel the end they cut off was far from square, but they ground a cutting edge on it anyway and fitted a long handle.

The next problem was a name. One said it was a chisel, but another objected on the grounds that the cutting edge was not square and, furthermore it was positively askew, which everyone knew was also askance, awry, aslant and definitely oblique.  Much argument ensued and things became rather heated until the President remarked that, even if it was askew, it was still a chisel and maybe they could call it just that.  This suggestion became a motion, was put to the vote and passed. So it was that the tool became known as a skew chisel.

Volunteers were called for to test the new tool and two doughty members stepped forward.  In very short order one slashed his wrists and the other disembowelled himself, dying for the cause a few minutes later.  The tool was, it seemed, a far greater success than had been hoped for. A delegation took the prototype, wiped the blade clean, and carried it off to the toolmakers.  They requested that several thousand copies be made and released world wide after suitable media coverage had whetted the appetites of all the amateurs.

The toolmakers accepted the order with grateful smiles, and emptying out their scrap barrels, went to work producing large numbers of the new tool from all the off cuts they had been hoarding for years.  This set a precedent which is still followed today.  It is a well established practice in the trade to use up any large stock of otherwise useless off cuts simply by putting a cutting edge on one end and a handle on the other the resulting object is then promoted as the latest wonder tool and sold to unwary wood turners world wide.

The dreaded skew was duly released onto the market.  The amateurs snapped them up, and shortly thereafter throughout the length and breadth of all the lands of the earth a large number of freshly turned graves began to appear.  In a world subject to wars, plagues and pestilence, this in itself was no great cause for comment. There was however cause for speculation as it became apparent that a large proportion of headstones were designed in an unusual manner.  Instead of the popular Norman or Gothic arch atop the stone, or fluted column dripping vines and angels, these headstones were almost austere in their simplicity. They were some three or four feet in height on one side and the top sloped down eight or ten inches to the other.  This gave them the appearance of a parallelogram with one end buried in the ground.  The only inscription upon the face was the dear departed's name and age at the time of death.

There was one minor difference to be seen, some sloped to the left and some to the right.  At first this was thought to have political significance and, in some cases, widows and children were subjected to the usual discrimination from an ignorant minority.  Nothing was further from the truth as the variation only indicated the direction that the skew was being traversed along the tool rest at the time of death.

The guild members agreed that the results of their plan exceeded all their wildest expectations.  They closed their ranks and went about their business certain in their own minds that a return to the prosperous days of old was just around the corner.  The one thing that they had not allowed for was human nature

History has shown us that the human race, when faced with great adversity rises to ever greater heights and the amateurs responded to the occasion.  They took up the challenge of the dreaded skew, and slowly learning from the mistakes of others finally mastered the skills required to survive.  Whilst doing this they discovered that the skew really was a wonder tool.  It produced a finish far superior to that achieved by any other tool and it soon became apparent that any turner who could not master the art was at a great disadvantage when it came to reducing costs.

The Guild members suddenly found that they were trapped in a snare of their own making.  This trap was twofold, as, whilst the amateurs were mastering the skew, the professionals had discovered another interesting fact about woodturning.  Put simply it was that far more money could be made from teaching others the art and craft than by continued hard work in the trade.  In a manual craft or skill one needs to be able to demonstrate the use of all tools pertaining to the said craft.  This meant that the Guild members now had to master the art of using the very weapon with which they had tried to decimate the ranks of the amateurs.

During the period that it took for the Guild members to master this dread tool their numbers fell at an alarming rate.  To avoid the very real possibility of the Guild being wiped from the face of the earth the members opened their doors to all comers.

So it was that the situation where both amateur and professional can share in an ancient craft first began, and as we all know, still exists to the present day.  This happy state of affairs was brought about by the introduction into the craft of the not so humble skew chisel.

Murray White