How To Learn A Craft

When I started woodworking, the internet was supposed to be a fad that was destined to fizzle out a couple years later. This means that before I attended Rosewood Studio for a formal education, anything I had learned about woodworking I learned from the printed word. Books and magazines were the only options available to me...that and actually getting into the shop and working wood.  Reading about and studying the theory of woodworking will get you about 20% there The real learning comes from doing. Long before me, in different parts of the world there were apprentices. People indentured to a master who would learn from them only to take their tools on the road to work for other shops where the learning would continue. 

None of these budding woodworkers spent time on the internet in chat rooms or on forums, reading about woodworking, they simply learned from someone who knew what they were doing and who was willing to pass on their craft. They didn’t have in-depth discussions about wear-bevels or how hand sharpening yielded a sharper edge or how the amount of skew a smoother was held at relative to the long-grain of a board would yield the perfect cutting angle. Nope….these folks just toiled for hours at a stone or a work bench and gradually got better at it. The results (or lack of) was quite apparent on the pieces they were working on. Tear-out on a board they were working on? Then back to the sharpening stone to refresh the edge. No theoretical discussions around the glue pot...no grainy Japanese videos to draw a myriad of conclusions from. Hard work and perseverance (and a grumpy master) spurred them on to getting better results. 

We are lucky nowadays. There are experts on woodworking, metallurgy, design and technique on any number of forums, ready to give you the advice (or berating) that you are looking for. No need for proof of their abilities are required. No portfolios or experience, just a bold voice in a small corner of the internet where they are just lurking, waiting for a ‘stupid’ question to be asked. Pages and pages of keystrokes all to debate, what a talented woodworker friend of mine would define as,  how many angels can dance on the head of pin. I’m not sure why forums are so adversarial. Perhaps it’s the relative anonymity a forum provides. In my experience, woodworkers are great people who are friendly and more than willing to spend time talking about their craft.  Having open-minded conversations about woodworking is how new skills get learned and new ideas discovered. Nobody ever learned anything from dogmatic, single-minded vaporing that leaves no room for discussion. Let’s be real here, there are many ways to cut dovetails and if a technique yields good results, what’s the problem?

Teaching anything is not easy. A good teacher makes you want to learn. A good teacher can draw on years of experience to help a student understand the fundamentals of any skill or craft. A good teacher can see the look in a student’s eyes and know that they aren’t getting it and can instantly change tack and re-explain things to clarify the point. I was fortunate to have studied with some of these teachers...teachers that I learned more than woodworking from. Some of the best woodworking teachers in North America have taught me about business, humility, patience and marketing, on top of how to properly cut joinery or lay down a finish.

My advice to any beginner woodworker? Be careful who you learn from. Read books and articles from authors that have been published - this ensures that they have been vetted and edited by other professionals or their peers. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Keep an open mind and never stop learning.  Most importantly, get into your shop and work wood. 

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