July 2005 Wood News Online Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Opportunities at Highland Woodworking

Expand Your Woodworking Skills By Expanding Your Library

By Chris Black

Whether you're a Pro or an Enthusiast, every serious woodworker hopes to get better with each project. New projects are opportunities to experiment with different techniques, hone old methods and expand your skill set. British Design Philosopher David Pye, in his book The Nature and Art of Workmanship , defines skill as care, dexterity and judgment. As people interested in well executed craft, care is probably a given. We want to do a good job or at least be reasonably satisfied with the results. Dexterity comes simply through the repetition of doing a certain task over time. Judgment is a little more elusive. We can talk to other woodworkers, go on-line to chat groups, experiment in our shops or we can study the masters and their methods. By studying the methods of proven experts you reduce the learning curve and save valuable time reinventing the wheel. The easiest and least expensive way to learn from these craftsmen is through books and videos.

These resources, acquired over time, allow you to revisit your woodworking library to reference information without having to remember every minute detail of a given task. Compared to the cost of private lessons or classes at a technical school, print and video media is cheap. Plus the information is usually close at hand just waiting for you to check the index or pop a disc or tape into the player.


If you really boil it down, there are just a few basic woodworking joints; the joined edge, the dovetail joint and the mortise and tenon. Most other joints are a variation or combination of these classic three. The problem is that most of us spend our time trying to avoid these simple joints. Just look at the plethora of jigs, fixtures and alternative fasteners that come out each year, attempting to replace the mortise and tenon joint. Not that there's anything wrong with these products, but they generally remove you from the process, prevent you from furthering your skills and often rob you of the mind, body and spirit pleasure that woodworking affords. Isn't that why we got into woodworking in the first place?

If we do attempt traditional joinery, we convince ourselves that we need some expensive equipment or an impossibly complicated production router jig. When you consider that the electric motor did not exist for most of human history, and that the great examples of period furniture were constructed with little more than saws, chisels and hand planes, then your perspective changes.

The mortise and tenon joint is arguably the most misunderstood and feared joint. The question I get most often is what machines or jigs do I need to make mortise and tenon joints. My answer is: You don't need any. All you need is a mortise gauge, a mallet, a chisel and a saw. In the video Mortise and Tenons Made Simple (220613) , master of apprentices Jim Kingshott shows you how to effectively make this joint with just a few rudimentary tools. If the average table has just eight mortises and tenons, then it is perfectly reasonable to chop a few square holes with a chisel and kerf down a handful of tenons. All it might take for you is to watch Jim Kingshott do it a few times and practice until you achieve proficiency. It is just like learning to ride a bike, and soon you'll be riding with no hands and jumping the curb.

These hand tool skills will put you physically and emotionally closer to your work. You will grow more intimate with the processes of woodworking and your "fingerprints" will begin to appear on your projects, making them uniquely your own.

Dovetails are another source of contention for woodworkers. We know when, where and why we're supposed to use dovetails, but we're convinced we don't have time to learn how to make them. So we resign ourselves to purchasing an expensive router jig. But by the time you uncrate the thing and read through a lengthy instruction manual, you could have watched Dovetail a Drawer (220446) with Master Cabinetmaker Frank Klausz. Frank Klausz explains how he hand cuts dovetails for speed and accuracy in a production environment. Yes, even in this modern era, pros like Frank Klausz still cut dovetails by hand. Frank's engaging approach and encouraging attitude will have you knocking out through dovetails in just an hour or two of practice.

In his Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking book set (with DVD) (203162), the great Dane introduces the essential skills of joinery, step by intricate step. The point is that by watching the work patterns of these masters, you can internalize their rhythms and begin to develop your own techniques. You can achieve the same level of proficiency as Frank and Tage. Joinery is just a skill set, not an art. You are certainly not born with it. Good joinery has to be learned. Don't be lazy.

Now, with all this talk about hand tool woodworking, don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not a hand tool purist. If Thomas Chippendale had had a table saw and thickness planer, he most definitely would have employed them. What I'm advocating is for you to get out of your comfort zone, expand your woodworking vocabulary and further your enjoyment of the craft. Once again, woodworking is supposed to be fun. Fun might not always include hearing protection, dust masks and a death grip on a noisy power tool.


The second most asked question or group of questions I get is about Finishing. What products should I use? How do I apply it? What's the best….? Whoa! Finishing is a complex subject. You could spend a lifetime just mastering coloring wood or top coating. Fortunately, there's Bob Flexner's Understanding Wood Finishing (203621). It's one of my favorite finishing books and I highly recommend it. Bob's no nonsense voice is a welcome relief to the information fog on wood finishing. Bob gives you the kind of practical advice you need to make good judgments about product selection and application procedures. Of course, a book won't guarantee success. As with any skill you must practice. If it were easy there would be no reward and your level of satisfaction would be diminished.

If I had to pick a favorite finish, it would have to be French polishing with shellac. I'm not talking about the shelf stabilized shellac that comes in a can, but shellac flakes freshly dissolved in alcohol and applied with a pad. Although premixed, canned shellac does have its place, it doesn't have the same properties as fresh shellac. In fact, for most furniture and cabinets, I can't imagine why you'd use anything else. Fresh shellac dries instantly, builds quick, it's easy to repair, lasts for centuries, and it is inexpensive. If mixed fresh and used within a couple of weeks, shellac is tough and durable in spite of what you may have read. So why doesn't everyone use shellac if it's so wonderful? The answer is because shellac requires skill to use and skill takes care, dexterity and judgment, not to mention practice. Practice doesn't conform with our microwave, instant gratification world. The practice is worth it because there is no more beautiful finish than a French polished shellac finish.

So how do you start? Vijay Velji's video French Polish Like a Pro (221999) will give you the foundation for learning this ancient art. As with all hand skills, French Polishing with shellac will add to your woodworking repertoire, giving you options in your projects and making you a better woodworker.


Not all woodworking skills are tangible techniques. Some skills are attitudes, principles and general philosophies that guide our approach to our work. Sometimes we just need a new outlook, a refreshing of the mind or a renewal of the spirit. As mentioned earlier, David Pye has two excellent books The Nature and Art of Workmanship and The Nature and Aesthetics of Design .

Although Pye does not cover the 'how-to' of woodworking, he does elegantly discuss the why and what for of craft and design. Pye confronts our presumptions about the way things should be. James Krenov's A Cabinetmaker's Notebook (200504) expands on Pye's ideas and creates an inspiring philosophy towards woodworking. Krenov transforms the theoretical into the practical. Along these lines is The Woodwright's Shop (200511) by Roy Underhill. Not only will Roy Underhill teach you new skills, but he will confront your notions of surface quality and texture. Roy tackles the question: Does woodwork have to be glass smooth and highly polished to be considered good craft? The book A Reverence For Wood (202694) by Eric Sloane is a personal favorite of mine. It's more than an essay about wood as a raw material. It is a treatise on the awe and mystique that make wood such a joyous part of our lives.

Finally, Toshio Odate's Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use (290426) will transport you into the rich and fascinating world of traditional woodworking in Japan. Steeped in culture and spirit, Toshio Odate will open many doors and paths you might not have considered before.

Our sincere hope at Highland Hardware is to help you become better at your craft and for you to enjoy your precious time in the shop. We believe the resources listed here will challenge your thinking and inspire you to expand your woodworking skills.

Return to Wood News front page

Bookmark and

See Previous Newsletters Subscribe to our Newsletter

Copyright © 2005-2014 Highland Woodworking, Inc.

Highland Woodworking | 1045 N. Highland Avenue, NE | Atlanta | GA | 30306 | 404.872.4466