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Thoughts on a working system...
Great Woodworking Advice From Mark Duginske

Mark Duginske
Mark Duginske is a fourth generation central Wisconsin woodworker. Known to our readers as the author of "The Bandsaw Handbook" & "Mastering Woodworking Machines" and inventor of Cool Blocks & FastTrak (sold to Kreg Tool). He makes his living as an inventor, teacher, writer and woodworker. Years before his huge success in the woodworking industry, Mark was our frequent guest teaching our locals woodworking fundamentals and sharing his woodworking wisdom.


Originally published in Wood News Issue #15 Spring 1985,
written by Mark Duginske.



Woodworking is an ancient craft in the middle of a revival. A small number of modern woodworkers are doing work on par with the best in history. We now have access to the best tools and techniques ever available - our work ought to be good. Even with all of the modern advantages, however, many contemporary woodworkers are not happy with their work. Their progress is painfully slow. The modern woodworker is missing something; his approach is incomplete. This is particularly true of the novice who is self-taught. The rare successful woodworker of to day shares something with the woodworker of the past. We will attempt to explore why both function well and how the developing woodworker can improve.

Woodworking is a lot of fun, and on one level it is quite simple. You measure aboard and then cut it. No problem, just pay attention. The harder part of woodworking is understanding, and hopefully dealing with, the minor details. Woodworking is a series of steps. The proper sequencing of each step is critical. Each step depends on the accuracy of the previous steps. And error, poor judgment or sloppiness at any early stage will haunt you later on. We all know that horror story.

Fundamentals are incredibly important. Once you can make a nice square box you can build nearly any piece of carcass furniture. Making the first square box is the hard part. The beginner re-invents the wheel with each project. The first time you try something, it takes a long time period the second time takes less time and less mental energy. The first cabinet or chair is actually a prototype and should be accepted as an experiment. It is normal to feel that you would change something if you did it again. You may want to change the design or technique, or both. The third attempt will be even more evolved. By the tenth time you will have developed an efficient system.

At each step of the building process there is a jungle of options. There are few concrete right answers. Two experienced cabinetmakers will use different tools and techniques, yet arrive at similar results. Each step is a move in a chess game. You must consider all of the different pieces and how they relate to each other. It requires that you balance many factors: your skill (or lack of it), wood technology, your tools, design, aesthetics and technique. The list goes on and on. It becomes rather complex because everything is interrelated. Picking the most important element is similar to picking the most important noodle in a plate of spaghetti. How does one began to deal with all of these equally important considerations? An answer may be found if we look at the woodworkers of the past and try to understand their approach. Throughout history each culture developed a system to deal with the complicated problems of design and construction. Each system balanced the cultural needs with the locally available materials. The Japanese system is quite different from the various European systems. The European systems are different from each other. Each system works well in its particular region. Through trial and error the systems evolved over generations.

Historically, woodworkers worked in small groups. Family members often composed the group. In contrast, most woodworkers to day work in isolation. Few function together well as a group.

The group not only supplied physical help, but also provided emotional and financial support. The approach to design and construction used by each group was the accepted system of their area. Each group would vary its technique slightly but the general system remained intact. The slight variations contributed to the group's particular style.

A style is the result of a working system. The Shaker "style" is a natural outcome of their system of design and construction. The Shakers didn't hire a designer and ask for a line of simple furniture with exposed joints. Real style comes from within the piece; it isn't clothing worn on the outside. Our modern preoccupation with "style" often results in a superficial work we see to day. Old handmade furniture often has real style. You don't get the feeling that the person who made it was trying too hard, a frequent feeling with modern work. Pre-industrial objects reflect an evolved refinement which is rare today. The refinement is the result of system which blended design and technique in a compatible way. The system evolves over years. The early Shaker furniture is clumsy in comparison to the more evolved later pieces.

The traditional woodworking system was also an educational environment. The apprentice was an integral element in the system. The apprentice started by doing basic task. He then gradually learned to function at a higher and higher skill level. He was not responsible for design; that was the master's area. The apprentice enjoyed the advantage that today's beginner has when he uses a plan. The complex problems of design have already been solved. The apprentice did the basic preparation for work requiring more muscled than skill. It was a good use of adolescent energy. Apprentice work was very repetitive. After enough repetition a process becomes a habit. At the habit stage the process is automatic; little energy is wasted. Modern woodworkers rarely evolve to the habit stage and less they are experienced professionals.

The successful woodworker of today mimics the cultural system. Both have developed a system through trial and error. Their systems suit their needs and contribute to their individual styles. Real woodworkers are often poor teachers because their systems are so fluid, hard for them to analyze and bottle into words. A woodworking system is a soup, a mixture of ingredients which work well together.

It is worthwhile to look closely at a "system" to see how and why it works. A system is a group of solutions to specific problems. It is a framework, a set of shelves, which helps separate and organize each step or process. A complete system must include the material, design, technique and skill; it must somehow make sense out of the mixture. A system provides the ounce of prevention; it anticipates and arranges each step. Anticipation of what can possibly go wrong helps avoid frustration. A system lubricates the woodworking process, maximizing energy and avoiding waste.

A mature system is past the experimental stage; it provides certainty. After you become efficient at a particular technique becomes part of your system. If you think about it, we have systems that we use every day. We use a system for brushing our teeth, putting on our shoes, etc. A system helps to organize activity with a without a great deal of mental effort. It is particularly handy for activity requiring multiple steps such as cabinetmaking. Little things add up. Keeping a router in a box with everything for its function adds to your system. It saves the time and frustration of looking for wrenches and screw driver drivers. Anything that saves time and decreases frustration adds to a system.

How does one go about developing a system? First, you must decide what your goals are, the type of work you want to do. Are you doing it for satisfaction or for money? If you are doing it for a living you must gear your system and your mentality for survival. In the last 15 years, too many idealistic people tried to do a woodworking for a living. many failed because they were inefficient. They hadn't developed a system of their own. It is very hard to simultaneously earn money and develop a system.

After you decide on the kind of work you want to do, you can concentrate on developing your own system. If you have been doing woodworking for a while you have developed your system partway. You have solve some of the problems. You have a repertoire of techniques that work well for you and are now part of your system. You are also aware of things that you haven't worked through. A technique is two-fold. Part is conceptual while the other part involves skill. Thinking or reading about something (conceptualizing) and actually being able to do it (having the skill) are two completely different things. A technique becomes part of your system only when you can do it.

Ideas and concepts are seeds. With the informational explosion of the last few years we have access now to a multitude of ideas and approaches. Books and magazines are raw information, a garden. You must pick, clean, and process the individual components to make your own soup. When you read someone's book you are reading about their system. It is a temptation to copy someone else's system. There are some problems with that approach. Copying copying someone gives a false sense of development. What works for them may not work for you, and vice versa. Do you really want your furniture to look like someone else designed it? Probably not. However, you can learn from someone else. We should be receptive and experimental. Borrowing an idea or technique is productive; slavishly copying someone isn't.

A note of caution is appropriate when discussing written information. It is useful to appoint, but only up to a point. Woodworking is best learned in a real environment. A magazine picture may be worth a 1000 words, but it doesn't give off the smell of freshly cut wood. It is not real. Magazines and books are good entertainment. They provide relief from the isolation of working alone. They often have more emotional than technical value. Don't take written information too seriously. "Experts" often give contradictory advice. This leads to confusion. Some woodworkers are intimidated when an article gets too wordy or cosmic. Others are intimidated by the dogmatic expert and lose confidence in their own ability. Many woodworkers feel that something is wrong with them when an article doesn't make sense. It may be that the article was glossy Lee grossly over-edited or didn't make sense to a lot of other people. Written information is a useful tool, but every tool has its limits. The best way to use written information is to try out the ideas that are applicable to you and your shop. Only after experimentation will a process become your own, part of your system.

You should be conscious of your experimentation, but don't get too compulsive about it. You will do better if you play than if you act like it is a scientific exercise. When you get a new tool you should play with it. See what it does or doesn't do. Get to know it. Develop a habit of using it. Most woodworkers are too goal oriented. They get a new tool to do a particular job and expect immediate results. If they don't get the expected result, they get frustrated. That starts a destructive cycle. It is healthier to be a relaxed observer.

A great part of your system is your physical environment, your shop and your tools. Getting your shop together is closely related to getting your system together. It takes time and energy. Your shop should be efficient and comfortable. It should become one of your favorite places, a private place devoted to exercising your creativity.

Making storage cabinet, jigs, and tools greatly adds to your system and is very rewarding. No one can develop your system for you. It is something you have to do for yourself.

Originally published in Wood News Issue #15 Spring 1985, written by Mark Duginske.

Explore more of Highland Woodworking's early years in Retro Woodworking our archived collection of woodworking articles, woodworking tips and woodworking nostalgia:

Learn About Wood, Part 1 General information about wood and wood terminology
Learn About Wood, Part 2 Learn About Wood Characteristics
Learn About Wood, Part 3 Black Walnut Tree
Learn About Wood, Part 4 A Tribute To American Chestnut

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