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Use it, or lose it

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Some things, like riding a bicycle, are never forgotten once learned. But hop on a bike for the first time in a few years and you’ll be terrible at it.

“It’s just like riding a bike,” goes the old saying. The meaning here is that things involving physical skills and movement become permanently ingrained once you learn them. This is true in the deepest sense: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve gone without riding a bicycle, you still know how to ride one years later, at least in the sense that you probably won’t immediately fall over.

But staying upright on a bike (although the most important part) isn’t the only thing involved in riding one. There’s gears and knowing when to use them, there’s foot placement and angles, there’s brake use and tire pressure, and dozens of others things you need to not only know, but also know instinctively enough that you don’t have to think about them.

Cut to my woodshop where the other day I pulled out my mortiser for the first time in a year or two for a project that required several mortise-and-tenon joints. I’ve owned mortisers for 25 years and know perfectly well how to use one. But go a long time between uses and skills get rusty.

I found that it took forever to set the thing up. Once ready to go, I had to make numerous test cuts in scrap before controlling it felt natural again. After practicing, the first mortise I made in the project itself was acceptable, but not my best. The second one was much better, and by the time I was done I felt like I knew what I was doing again.

Yeah, it all comes back to you. But “just like riding a bike?”

Not in the woodshop.



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