Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 151, March 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This Month's Column:

• Essential Basics Of Woodworking, Part 1
Future Of Tool Buying

Essential Basics Of Woodworking, Part 1

Beginning woodworker emails are hands-down my favorite email. Oh, make no mistake, I appreciate all comments and emails. I am gratified by positive comments about my videos and articles, sometimes I get a chuckle from a pithy writer, sometimes people are negative and their feedback is important, too. Some comments and emails are questions about techniques or tools. But my favorite comments/questions start something like this: "I am just getting started in woodworking…" or, "I am just setting up my first workshop." These are the folks joining our brotherhood and sisterhood and they deserve the best, most complete response I can give them. Unfortunately, I have this nagging worry that I may be letting them down.

New woodworkers are like the Human Growth Hormone coursing through our system in our formative years. New-to-the-hobby woodworkers keep our craft alive, vibrant, and interesting. New woodworkers feed our manufacturers and suppliers life-sustaining dollars and help us all by the commercial numbers they add. We all have a vested interest in helping new woodworkers get started on what will hopefully be a lifelong pleasurable pastime; but how can we be sure that our help is really valuable help?

Figure 1 - If you were tasked to teach a class to first-time woodworkers, what
would/could you do to get them started "right?" It is an awesome responsibility!
As an experienced woodworker, if you were asked to teach a class to beginner woodworkers, what would be your focus… your curriculum vitae? Would you talk about tools? Shop layout? Joinery? Or would you start with a simple project and let the learning about tools and techniques be a part of the process? I think it would be interesting if everyone reading this article would close their eyes for a moment and give some hard thought to what they would cover in an introductory class to woodworking. If you are anything like me, the thought is a bit intimidating, because what you teach could launch a new woodworker into a lifetime of happy woodworking or could sour that individual and damp their enthusiasm and perhaps, worst case, even turn them away completely from this great hobby. It is a sobering thought.

What makes for a "happy" woodworker that will make his or her hobby a lifetime avocation? What can happen that makes a potential woodworker "unhappy" to the point he or she loses interest? This is a core question.

Happy woodworkers are likely somewhat successful woodworkers. No one enjoys continual failure. Occasional failure is okay… it is a learning experience… but systemic and repeated failure is discouraging. Making rickety "things" from wood, things that don't "look" right, things that don't "work" right, is a prescription for disappointment, and we have all seen woodworkers with tons of expensive equipment and nice shop spaces that seem to always turn out less-than-stellar projects. And, of course, we have all seen woodworkers that turn out beautiful functional things with a minimal "kit" of tools working in cramped or temporary quarters. Happy woodworkers make nice things. Perhaps not museum quality heirlooms, but nice things… things that are sturdy, look good, and are functional. Unhappy woodworkers often under-achieve in the "sturdy," "attractive," and "functional" metrics and become disillusioned with the hobby. An aspiring cook that follows recipes religiously but never seems to turn out a decent meal will soon give up cooking or treat it as a "chore" rather than a pleasant pastime. Worst case, they resort to microwave meals or meal kits ordered online, roughly the food equivalent of buying a coffee table from IKEA.

The first and most natural thought we have is that there is a mysterious force called "talent" that a person either has, or doesn't have, and regardless the instruction a person receives, the abundance of, or lack of, this mysterious "talent" is what will make a new woodworker successful or not. No doubt there is such a thing as "talent," but untalented people can learn to play the piano, guitar, or harmonica, and can play music their entire lives, deriving great satisfaction and joy from playing. They may never quite have the "talent" to perform at the Met or become rock stars, but music becomes a lifetime passion and enjoyable pastime. I don't think "talent" is what separates a reasonably successful and happy woodworker from an unsuccessful and unhappy one. There is something else… something elusive, but something very important. What is it? What is the "magic potion?"

Going back to our hypothetical class of newbie woodworkers, what knowledge would you impart that would set up your students for a lifetime of learning, achieving, and growing in the hobby of woodworking?

A quick perusal of "How To" books aimed at beginning woodworkers usually breaks down along the following lines:

  • A bit about wood
  • A lot about tools (some broken down by "hand tools" and "power tools")
  • A bit about joinery
  • Some small projects to demonstrate tools and joinery

Here is a breakdown of a best-selling "how to" woodworking book that, judging by its title, is most definitely aimed at beginners:

  • 10 pages about wood
  • 14 pages about joinery
  • 24 pages about power tools
  • 15 pages about hand tools
  • 30 pages on making joints (of which 15 pages are dedicated to mortise and tenon and dovetail joints)
  • 66 pages of "beginner" projects

To adequately explore the "correct" way to get a new woodworker started down the road to a fulfilling hobby would likely require the expertise of a professional teacher. I am not. But a number of great teachers have told me that their deepest desire is to (a) instill in their students a curiosity and desire to learn more about the subject matter and (b) give their students the knowledge/tools they need to explore and learn further on their own. If we parse the previous sentence, the key words are "curiosity," "desire," and "knowledge/tools." When I think back to the teachers that had the most profound effect on me, whether it was intentional or not, exactly what they instilled was core knowledge, curiosity, and a desire to learn more.

Positive Feedback Loops

Successfully learning a musical instrument almost always involves some reinforcing feedback loop. From the first or second lesson, students learn a simple musical passage they can play and enjoy, and that others can hear and enjoy, and a reinforcement feedback loop is established. No one gets a ton of enjoyment from playing, or listening to, endless scales or chords, and while that is necessary, a simple ditty played well is enjoyable for all. I once knew a wealthy guy who wanted to learn to play the piano, so he bought a Bosendorfer Imperial Concert Grand to the tune of $100K. I asked his wife why in the world they would spend a hundred-grand on a piano on which her husband was just barely eking out "Chopsticks," and she said, "But ‘Chopsticks' sounds great on a Bosendorfer!"

Woodworking instruction usually involves the building of some simple project that, with the help of the instructor, is useful and technically correct. The student obtains positive feedback from his/her own sense of accomplishment and perhaps from relatives and friends. This is an excellent way to teach and instill confidence and even ratchet up the curiosity level among aspiring woodworkers. But is establishing this positive feedback loop enough?

One class learning to build a birdhouse or footstool might launch the next grand master woodworker, but it could also lead to frustration, disappointment, and abandonment of the hobby once the aspiring woodworker is no longer under the direct tutelage of an instructor. The class might lead to a lifetime of stagnant repetition of building birdhouse after birdhouse, footstool after footstool or it could inspire an individual to tackle ever more ambitious projects, exploring their own designs and creativity. Positive feedback is not the sole "magic potion." How do we instill the "curiosity" and "desire" that will assure a beginner woodworker sticks with the hobby, seeks growth and knowledge, builds on experience, and enjoys every minute of the journey?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I have a few thoughts of my own, some, or all, of which could be completely wrong. My thoughts are based solely on observations of hundreds of woodworkers over scores of years. Many woodworkers I have known have gone on to make ever-better, ever-more complicated and beautiful pieces. Some have drifted away from the hobby, some stopped woodworking abruptly and shifted their leisure-time activities elsewhere. Trying to glean what made some woodworkers stick with the hobby and what made some give it up is a key, critical finding. I think it might be the key to finding the "magic potion" and to keeping our hobby alive and prospering well into the future.

Next month, I will outline a couple of "essential basics" that I believe differentiate enthusiastic, curious, and fulfilled woodworkers from the disillusioned folks that leave woodworking. I will also incorporate and explore your thoughts. Email me at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com - I look forward to hearing from you!

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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