I truly wish there were four times as many woodworkers in the world… life would be better, I am sure. In last month's column I posed the questions: "What would assure that someone demonstrating interest in woodworking gets started on his/her path of discovery correctly… what would make sure that a new woodworker enjoys the hobby and never strays from it? What is the 'magic potion' that gives a beginner woodworker the desire to continue, to learn, to improve, and to progress in this hobby, making it a lifetime passion?" I asked readers to submit their thoughts, and promised to give you mine. First, let me tell you what some readers said.
No one disagreed that the available crop of "How-To" books are all somewhat lacking. As one reader relayed, a purported "basics" book on router use never covered how to install the bit… how far to put it into the collet or how much to leave sticking out. For experienced woodworkers that seems "obvious," but for a newcomer it is not. Thus, one glaring dilemma; only a "professional" woodworker would have a chance of getting a "how-to" book published, but a "professional" woodworker is the one person most likely to leave out a basic, but critical, bit of information like proper router bit installation.
We all "know what we know," but empathically knowing what another person doesn't know is difficult. You may have to re-read that sentence… I did… but it makes sense. Not knowing what a person knows and doesn't know leads us to make assumptions. Even more difficult is separating out what we deem "intuitive" from what is "teachable." And virtually impossible is identifying what has become muscle-memory and subconscious through experience, bringing that to the surface, and teaching it.
Highland Wood News reader David sums it up this way, "…the experienced woodworker makes too many assumptions about what we know or should know and they don't give us what we need." I agree with David, but I don't believe that an experienced woodworker would leave out basic and critical information purposefully. I think, rather, that experienced woodworkers thrust into the role of teaching are simply oblivious to, or overlook, many basics. We can easily "take for granted" and "assume" that people know things.
Another reader, Kevin, notes that in a beginner's woodworking class the instructor jumped right to the task of making a simple project. Students were first tasked with sawing a board to a specific length using a hand saw, but there was no discussion whatsoever on the width of the kerf or whether the saw did its cutting on the push stroke or on the pull. There was also no guidance on how best to start the cut. Just, "Here is a tape measure, a pencil, and a saw… cut this board 24" long." In this class students were cutting their first board for a first woodworking project and most in the class were probably already falling behind, getting frustrated, and feeling negative.
Besides teachers and writers that overlook basics, there is another challenge… let's consider the router example from before: If this had been a live class and the teacher spent a couple of minutes describing the basics of how a router works, how to install the bit, and how to adjust the height of the bit in the collet for both safety and efficiency of use, there would likely be a group of people in the class that would be appreciative, but there would also likely be a group that would complain that the class was "too slow," "too elementary," or even "condescending." It is hard to make everyone happy.
Brad, another Highland Wood News Online reader made a couple of significant points. First, he points out that "new" woodworkers are most likely to use materials purchased from "big box" stores, yet many beginner woodworking classes are focused on using materials not commonly available at those stores. That would seem to be a big problem. If you attend a class and learn to build a project using maple, oak, or pine, then want to replicate and practice at home but can only find plywood and those generic mystery "white wood" boards some stores sell now, how can you help but be disappointed?
Brad also, I think correctly, points out that many new-to-woodworking folks will build their first project using commonly available materials and fasteners. We more experienced woodworkers sometimes seem to scorn fasteners and would rather show off our skills to newbies with mortise and tenon, dovetail, and rabbet joints. Brad is correct, many first-time woodworkers will nail and screw their first project together. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with nails and screws. But even those fasteners should be installed correctly, or the first project an aspiring woodworker creates could be a mess. A "beginners" class would do well to focus on commonly available materials and simple fastener-based joinery.
Every email I got, in one way or another, complained that books and classes gloss over, or do not cover at all, basic skills that will "make or break" a project. And it is the first project or two that likely determines whether an aspiring woodworker continues to pursue the hobby. It is that all-important "feedback loop" discussed in last month's column.
Well, as stated before, I am not a professional teacher, but for wannabe newbie woodworkers, I think this would be a good first class:
Using common two by fours and a couple of inexpensive hand tools students will learn key, basic essentials that will lay the foundation for future success in woodworking.
Measuring and Mark
Leave the line, take the line, split the line… cutting on or to the left or right of a line can change the dimension of a work-piece by 1/16th of an inch or more. Yet, I see aspiring woodworkers all the time ignorant of this most basic principle. Slap a tape measure on a piece of wood and even though the tape is not running perfectly parallel to the wood, new woodworkers make a mark anyway. Worse, I see new woodworkers make a mark on a piece of wood, cut it, then use that just-cut piece to mark out the next piece. Errors can be multiplied.
If I were conducting a beginner's class, I would give every student a tape measure, a couple of two-by-fours, a pencil, and a handsaw, and tell them to cut two pieces 14-1/2" long. After they are done, stand the pieces side-by-side, on end, on a workbench and see how even the cut ends are… line up the pieces from the whole class and compare them. My guess is that there would be few pieces perfectly equal in length, and lots of angles.
After this first exercise, discuss the width of a pencil line and the difference between a sharp pencil and one that is dull. Discuss the advantages of using a marking knife as opposed to a pencil, and show the students how to avoid parallax errors when measuring. Discuss how a tape measure held parallel to an edge of a board will give a more accurate reading than one that runs at an angle. Show them how to make a mark on one edge of a board, and then mark the other edge, and use the back of the tape measure like a ruler to draw a straight line. Following that line can help a person make a straighter cut.
Discuss the difference between cutting on the line, on the "keeper" side, or on the waste side. Talk about saw kerfs and how to factor the kerf width into a dimension. Show how using one piece to mark the next can lead to cumulative errors. After all this, have the students cut two more boards and again check the results. The boards are simply bound to be more consistent in length and the cuts straighter. Now they have a positive feedback loop and the impact on their woodworking efforts will be significant. They will also begin to appreciate what it takes to get a nice straight cut and later, when the class progresses to power tools, the appreciation for what each tool provides in the way of support, accuracy, etc., will be easier to explain.
Hold It Down
Now it is time to demonstrate what a good workbench and a few clamps can do to make life better. Show the students how to fasten their two by four to the work bench and have them measure, mark, and saw two more boards.
Now that they can concentrate totally on the cut and not split their mental and physical effort with holding the board while sawing, cut quality will improve and the work will be easier and more accurate.
The next challenge for the students would be to nail two of their newly cut boards together forming a right angle. Let them have a go at it without any assistance or guidance from the instructor. That first attempt will likely be disastrous. Next, show them how to put two nails into the first board until the nail points just poke out of the other side of the wood, then hold the two pieces together and finish nailing. The results will be easier and better. Then, as a final step, fasten one board to the bench securely with clamps, fasten the other board in position, and with both boards held firmly in place, let them drive the nails… much easier and more accurate. The lesson here is that holding work down and concentrating on the task is much better than trying to hold onto the work while performing a task. Multitasking is imaginary, and in woodworking it is pure folly. You simply must have "helpers" (clamps, bench dogs, vises, etc.) to hold work pieces securely when you are performing any type of work.
Last, to complete the exercise, provide the students with speed squares and show them how to mark a cut location and then use the speed square to draw a perfect cutting line. Allow them to securely clamp the wood in place and then make their cuts. Then let them clamp the boards together and drive home a couple of nails. Talk a bit about how square cuts will lead to square joinery. Discuss how accurate measuring and marking will lead to consistent part sizes, and how perfectly sized parts will lead to square, frustration-free assemblies.
Now, when it is time for the class to progress to either hand-held or stationary power tools, every advantage of the power tool can be discussed in relation to its ability to improve upon the basic challenges of cutting and joining wood. A miter saw helps hold the wood, the carriage assembly holds the blade in plane with the cut, and with all that work being done by the saw, the woodworker can easily concentrate on only the exact placement of the cut. Show how a simple stop block arrangement can make quick work of cutting identically-sized pieces. Things will all start to "come together" in the students' minds.
Think It Through
To wrap up the first lesson, I would spend some time encouraging each student to carefully "think through" whatever they are about to do in woodworking, now, and forever. Explain that anything that can cut and shape wood, can easily "cut and shape" a finger, too! Bottom line, we want woodworkers to leave their first woodworking class with a desire to learn more, an experience with pleasant feedback loops, and an insatiable curiosity and desire to do more. Any kind of personal injury would be antithetical to that intent.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org