Your Progress as a Woodworker

Article - May 9, 2011

I recently received an email from Scott B. who was concerned about his personal progress as a woodworker. He’s new to the craft but finds that his progress is slow and he isn’t producing work that matches the quality of the stuff he sees online. He was curious to know if this is a sign that he isn’t cut out for the craft. Does this sound like something you might be thinking about too?

You’re Not Alone

I bet Scott isn’t alone here. Many of us go through periods where we feel that we’ll NEVER get better or we’ll NEVER be able to make projects as nice as (fill in the blank). This feeling can be further exacerbated by the social media and technological advances of the last 5-6 years. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, and the forums and you subscribe to newsletters, blogs, and podcasts, you are constantly being bombarded with other people’s accomplishments. For some this is encouraging, but for others it can be daunting to say the least.

Woodwork for YOU!

Always remember to woodwork for YOU. The bottom line is this craft/hobby needs to be satisfying for you and you alone (assuming you aren’t working for someone or trying to make a living at it). Pardon my French but who gives a $%^& what other people think? If you want to make a whole village out of popsicle sticks, toothpicks and hot glue, go for it! As long as you are satisfied with your work and it brings you gratification, then I say mission accomplished.

For many of us though, learning/mastering new skills is all part of “woodworking for you”. And it just seems to be in our nature to compare our work to others with a healthy sense of competition. In order to feel truly satisfied with our work, there needs to be a challenge, a lesson, and a victory. And furthermore, we try to raise the bar with each and every project. I suspect this is the way most of us think; including our friend Scott here.

Like Anything Else

If you find yourself in Scott’s position, I do have some things for you to consider. Remember that woodworking is much like any other intellectual or physical pursuit. Some will have a natural talent for it (have you seen Vic’s first project?), and some will have to work their butts off to make even a modicum of progress. In the world of drumming, I knew I would never be the next Neil Peart. But I practiced my butt off so that I could carve out my own little drumming path and enjoy my time with my band. I didn’t NEED to be as good as Peart to enjoy the thrill of making music. Here’s another analogy, since I know you love them! Some may be surprised to know that my dad was a competitive body builder. As a teen, I used to tag along to the gym several days a week. I learned more about weight lifting and nutrition than any skinny guido in Trenton should know. But apparently, I get my frame from my mom’s side of the family. So while it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be winning any competitions for my sweet sculpted 6-pack abs, there was nothing stopping me from being in great shape and living a fit and healthy lifestyle.

A Series of Steps

OK enough analogies. The thing you need to realize about woodworking is that just about everything boils down to a series of sequential steps. Even some of the most complex pieces you’ll see could be constructed by a novice, if given the proper guidance during each step of the process. I have taken (and given) enough 5-day classes to see for myself what a complete woodworking newb can accomplish with the right amount of information and support.

So why isn’t everyone making masterpieces right out of the gate? One reason is feedback. The above-mentioned classes work so well because the student is under constant supervision in a controlled environment and corrections can be made if they begin going off-course at any particular part of the project. Another reason is a lack of understanding and patience that comes with experience. For instance, a new woodworker really has no idea how important it is to have perfectly square and flat stock before cutting joinery. You can tell them, but most won’t really “get it” until they see what happens when their boards are NOT square. In woodworking, the consequences are usually not identified until several steps (days, weeks) after the action. So it can be difficult for new woodworkers to identify the source of a particular problem. Its the accumulation of these little consequences that will eventually sabotage the new woodworker’s efforts. After several years of building projects, most woodworkers are able to easily identify the cause and effect of each operation while also pinpointing the areas where their attention will pay big dividends. So even when presented with a detailed set of plans and step by step instructions, some new woodworkers just won’t have the experience level or patience to make it to the finish line unscathed.

Tips for Success

If you follow the instructions closely and you set up your machines correctly, there are very few projects that you won’t be able to build if you have a set of plans. Here are a few tips to ensure your success:

Review the entire plan before cutting anything. Many times, you’ll find important tips and details at the end of the write up. If you blindly start at step one, you may find yourself near the end saying, “Had I known THAT, I would have…..”

Slow down. Just because a plan allows you to easily visualize the end-game, doesn’t mean you need to get there this weekend. Give each part of the process an appropriate and realistic amount of time. That includes surface prep and finishing!

Use practice boards to confirm setups. If you can’t get a good result with scrap, how can you expect to get a good result with your actual work piece? Always confirm setups using scrap wood and you’ll save yourself a bunch of frustration.

Don’t cut all your stock ahead of time. Plans have a way of deceiving people into thinking they are putting together a jigsaw puzzle; cutting all the parts ahead of time and fitting them together later. Well, its sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, if you accept the fact that the puzzle pieces are going to move and change in both shape and size. So try to cut your parts as you need them and at some point, you will need to abandon the measurements in the plan and instead take your measurements from the workpiece itself.

Do your research on any tools or techniques you aren’t familar with. If something is unfamiliar, take a break from the project to familiarize yourself. Whether a new tool or a new technique, do some research and make a few practice cuts. Don’t let this project be the very first time you experience this new thing, whatever it may be.

Seek help from online or local resources. If you get stuck, take advantage of the thousands of woodworkers out there willing to give you free advice. A forum like Wood Talk Online is a great example of such a place. And if you really want more in depth assistance, there are new resources such as The Wood Whisperer Guild and The Hand Tool School that will help you take your woodworking to the next level.

Keep in mind there will certainly be numerous advanced techniques that will need to be done by eye and will require manual dexterity. For this stuff, there’s just no substitute for practice and experience. But with the vast majority of projects, the only thing standing between you and success is your ability to follow instructions and knowing how to operate your tools. Of course, this assumes the plans you are following are complete and well-written. Obviously, not all plans are created equal.

Clarification

Now don’t get me wrong here; I am by no means down-playing the skill level of accomplished craftsmen nor am I advocating mediocrity. There are whole segments of the craft that we haven’t even discussed here such as design, creativity, and the pursuit of perfection. That’s not what I’m talking about today. I’m specifically referring to woodworkers who simply want to build stuff; most of which will be reproductions or modified reproductions. These early successes can, and usually do, lead to bigger and better things. Ultimately, every woodworker must one day make the decision to either be the cool new ground-breaking avante garde band or the cover band who’s primary goal is to emulate the greats. Either path is respectable, but one may appeal to you more than the other.

Most of us will never be the next Maloof or Krenov. But should that stop us from making a sweet sculpted rocking chair or a beautiful Krenovian floor-standing cabinet? Heck no! As long as you are having fun and learning at a pace you enjoy, you are on the right path. And remember, most of our craft relies on knowledge and skill, not talent. That means anyone willing to put in the time and effort should be able to become a fairly accomplished woodworker.