What Makes the Good Woodworkers Good

As complicated as we sometimes try to make it, woodworking isn’t that difficult. Or is it? Great woodworkers don’t possess magic powers or some great gift; they have mastered some basic skills, and practiced them. It’s a lot like sports, the champions are the ones with the best command of the basics, and the confidence that comes from that.

As much as I want the Cleveland Browns to do well this year, they will likely once again be the doormat of the AFC North and out of playoff contention by Halloween. It won’t be for the lack of a superstar quarterback, or a flashy wide receiver. History tells me they’ll try to get along without much of an offensive line. Ignoring the basics will only lead to frustration and failure.

So what are the basics that will get a beginning woodworker going? We kicked the idea around the office this morning and came up with a couple things we think are essential.

Our quick list includes good stock preparation, knowing what sharp is, the ability to saw to a line, measuring with accuracy (and working with fractions) and developing patience. We’ll cover these in some depth in the coming weeks, (I don’t think I’ll be real busy on Sunday afternoons) and we’d like to hear your input.

Chime in with a comment about a basic skill that opened the door for you, or let us know what basic skill has you stumped.

–Robert W. Lang

You can build a solid foundation in hand tool woodworking with this old book and new DVD- Exercises in Woodworking

18 thoughts on “What Makes the Good Woodworkers Good

  1. scott stahl

    I believe I can offer some true insight on this topic. I am a novice wood worker, but a professional in my career. I put in the time and sacrifice to excel in my field.

    Roy Underhill and Norm Abram are directly to blame for the lack of practice among woodworkers. Yep, I said it. Roy and Norm put in the time and sacrifice to be masters of their craft. For years we (the public) have been subliminally indoctrinated that fine wood working can be done in 30 minutes with three commercial breaks.

    We never see the poor schmuck whose job it is hone the tools and tune the machines. And that schmuck more likely than not is also the host of the show. Also, most people are not aware that Norm Abram builds the project once to work out the kinks before they film the second build. I can only assume that Roy Underhill does something similar.

    My start in woodworking began years ago with the gross carpentry involved in home ownership. Each project became more complex than the last. With complexity came more tools. Invariably the first incarnation of the tools were the cheap versions like the $99.00 table saw. When low skill plus cheap tools equaled crap projects, I became discouraged.

    Fast forward a number of years and it is now ‘obvious’ that effort similar to what I have put in for my career is necessary to achieve the quality I want in the hobby I’m returning to. Because it is a hobby the time spent doing it should not feel like work. The drudgery of practicing menial steps is against our self interest in seeking peace, solace, escape, or whatever motivation is behind our hobby.

    I have reached that point where in order for my hobby to provide further fulfillment, I have to put in that drudgery to master the basic hand tool steps.

    I recognize the benefit of quality tools. With three kids heading for college what was once economic ignorance has become economic necessity. Still, I have managed to cobble together a number of quality tools. All of which I will be bringing to the next Woodworking in America show in an attempt to learn how to make them sing.

  2. LizPf

    As a new woodworker myself, I think it’s important to learn about the materials we work with — wood is the most important* but also the glues, nails, screws we may use to fasten the wood together.

    Neil, I did the brick & board bookshelf decades ago … but it would have been nice if someone told me *not* to make 4′ long shelves of particleboard, or to glue and nail a cleat to the back of each.

    I’d also like to see more "why" articles/blog posts: "here’s why we chose this joint; here’s why we surfaced both sides of this componnent" …

    But most important is the practice! I’d love for Pop Wood to run a series of practice exercises for new woodworkers, so we can learn to saw straight, plane a board, etc.

    –Liz
    * as in, if you are going to try to carve a spoon with a Swirr Army knife, don’t use kiln dried maple, and definitely orient the pattern the right way on the grain!

  3. Eric R

    Two skills (or work habits) have helped me a lot.

    1) Getting the tools I need to do a certain task together and ready to use so I can concentrate on doing the task at hand instead of fetching tools.

    2) Practicing patience. You said it yourself in the past Bob, slow down & enjoy what you are doing.

  4. Neil Lamens

    I had written this yesterday but for some reason was unable to post….

    You’re already beyond getting the "beginning woodworker going" in this discussion. All the comments here are advanced beginner and novice. If a beginner were to read this post, he wouldn’t know where to start.

    The most basic skill a beginner must possess is to see that he/she has a need that can be resolved by using wood. That wood is 3/4" S2S (already I’m confusing the beginner) that can be picked up locally. This wood may not even be cut, but rather fit in between 2 re-painted file cabinets. It is this sense of accomplishment that pushes the individual, not to practice, but to experiment in order to resolve the next need, maybe making it in all wood and experimenting to connect pieces of wood together, maybe not. As the need solver feels the sense that comes with more and more accomplishments, he/she seeks more knowledge. The individual isn’t going to practice, what the heck is he/she going to practice.

    Make 10 gift boxes, realize you need a chisel and your chisel work gets better.

    Once the individual overtime experiments with his or her knowledge as applied to woodworking does the door crack open and the real fun begin

  5. Rich Snow

    Usually, I don’t do a project unless there is a "need". In other words, I don’t practice. However, I am focused on the quality of the results. Because the project is normally for my enjoyment, I want it to be as good as I can make it.

    By focusing on the end result, it doesn’t matter how long it takes; how many re-do’s of particular parts; or how many tools I need to buy and learn how to use. It’s part of life. Time is irrelevant. The better I make this project, the easier and better the next project will be. This makes it fun, educational, and high quality. Woodworking is cool. It just keeps getting better and better.

  6. Stephen Kirk

    I think practice is a hard concept to do in woodworking. We are often focused on producing something. So, when we think of practicing a cut that doesn’t actually make anything, it seems like a waste. Instead of practicing, I like to actually make things, or factor some practice into a current project. Need to dovetail, make a box, you can always store screws in it. Sawing to a line, crosscut your stock down freehand. I follow that life is the arena, there are opportunities to practice every second. Do all math in your head first, then check it on the calculator. Resharpen a chisel before you think it’s dull and see if that helps or hinders you.

    Albeit practice is cited heavily with hand tools, I think it is often overlooked with power tools. Everyone new to a table saw should have to experience reaction wood, knots, etc. It’s no fun to hit this situation on a production board. Working with lots of woods on the saw will teach you how to deal with all of it. Learn to set up every machine well and do it quickly. Try out some new jigs or fixtures.

    I also consider every project practice in some form. Always do something a little new or challenging. But don’t neglect what you learned on the last project. Take what you did previously and try to make it better. Then add something new.

  7. Dave Ball

    Patience, thinking, and attention to detail are the things that always get me into trouble when not exercised in spades.

    In our instant gratification society, practice is a ‘waste’ of time. I saw an interview with Chris Botti (unbelievable talented trumpet player). He said the greatest thing keeping people from reaching great heights in music was lack of dedication to practicing.

    All that said, I don’t practice much/enough…

  8. Dave Anderson NH

    A major and somewhat obvious area of importance is finishing. I have seen more pieces of otherwise really great work diminished in quality to ordinary and even sub-par by a poor finishing job. Even a piece of mediocre workmanship will shine if the finishing job is a good or excellent one. To my mind the hardest part of finishing is forcing yourself to prepare to do the job. This includes samples made and finished from the jobs cutoffs, preparing the surface, the actual finishing, and the rubout (finishing the finish). Any shortcuts anywhere along the line will diminish the quality of the overall piece.

    Dave Anderson

  9. Michael Marzullo

    All great points. I would have to say that the thing I’ve learned that had the most positive impact on my woodworking is that wood, by nature, is a living, breathing media to work with – even after the tree is cut down. I know as a beginner I looked at wood as a solid, immovable object. then, I would find myself in a panic as I ripped a straight but damp 2×4 on the table saw only to watch it come off the other side curled like a ribbon. Or cut some pieces one day and find they don’t fit the next day. I found that understanding things like wood movement, moisture content, grain direction, and relative dimensioning effected all steps in the process of a project – including wood selection, milling, cutting and shaping, assembly, and finishing. Now that I understand and compensate for wood’s nature, I’ve significantly decreased my mistakes, frustration, and "do-overs". It sounds like a no-brainer, but I feel these concepts escape many new woodworkers – or they have a vague understanding but don’t realize how much of an impact it all has on their projects.

  10. Chuck Bender

    Throughout the years of having apprentices (and now students) I’ve found that most folks want a step by step process to follow. They want to know the "rule of thumb" that they can apply universally: one overall statement that they can apply to any situation that arises. Every project is different. Throughout the duration of a project mistakes and problems occur that cause the craftsman to adapt their process. Woodworking, by necessity, is little more than problem solving. The hardest skill I’ve tried to teach people is how to think. While a good handtool (or powertool) can make the process more enjoyable, knowing how to make a tool do what you want, when you want is a far greater skill. Buying a premium tool will not, in and of itself, make you a better craftsman. Developing your skills and knowing how and when to apply them will. Being able to conceptualize how a project goes together in your mind helps with the ability to know how to put all the steps in the proper order. It also helps when those little problems conflict with all those "rules of thumb". The moment you stop thinking about what you’re doing, and how it impacts the project further down the road, is the moment you go into automatic mode and that’s when the biggest mistakes happen. That’s usually when people get hurt, material gets wasted and frustration hits its highest level. Slow down, think about what you’re doing, practice some basic skills and your work will improve dramatically.

  11. Matt Kleinschmidt

    I think that basics need to be split into both hand tools basics and power tool basics.

    Some of the basics that I have had to learn are little things that make a world of difference when it come to power tools. Putting a strip of sandpaper on the miter gauge to keep stock from slipping. Learning to tune up your machines. That is crucial. simple little tricks to avoid tearout and set up a router.

    Hand tools, learning to sharpen and put a hook on a card scraper. This skill alone has saved me a ton of time and dust with my sander. Using setup tools and laying out joints. Using blocks of wood to guide my chisels and saws until I learned to get a feel for how the tool cuts and how the wood behaves. All important basics.

    And finally, just getting into the shop and practicing/goofing around to see how well you can do something. It saves you a ton of time when it comes to actual projects, and a lot of stress is relieved.

  12. Mike T.

    Being a fairly novice woodworker, I think this is a fantastic idea! My only concern is that for me, the most difficult "skill" to learn is not actually a skill….it’s patience. I’m always trying to ‘get one more thing done’ or working quickly because I have only limited shop time or getting frustrated at what I’m working on because it’s not working how I think it should. So I’ll be particularly interested in everyone’s thoughts on how to LEARN patience.

    Thanks everyone, I enjoy reading your thoughts.

  13. Stephen Ruddock

    Believe it or not, a bit of stretching and warm up. Follow that with a little bashing away and practicing on some scrap.

    Steve is so right about use of the metric system! Maths with whole numbers is so much easier to do and measure out!

    Cheers
    StephenR

  14. Steve

    As Mike Lingenfelter mentioned, Plotting and Scheming should be added to your list. Every minute spent planning usually saves several minutes of execution. As I learn more about using Sketchup I find it to be a valuable tool to uncover basic design flaws.

    Also, I get around fractions by working in metric. Rarely do I need to measure fractions of millimeters. Of course, in Canada (where I live) it is easy to obtain metric measuring instruments and there is very little bias against the metric system as I have found with my friends south of the 49th.

    I’ll admit, I don’t simply practice basic skills often enough but it is something that I have been working on changing.

  15. Rob Porcaro

    Great question, Bob.

    I think the biggest key to good woodworking is being able to understand where each step of the process fits into the ultimate success of a project. This includes wood selection, stock preparation, tool preparation, layout, accurate joinery, surface finishing, and so forth.

    A good craftsman has to understand how each of these elements connects to the whole process. Furthermore, he must have a feel for the range of tolerance for each step, and when to bear down for the most critical steps.

    In short, the hardest thing is to go beyond being good at the parts to being good at the whole. That’s how things really get done.

    On the other hand, where projects usually go south is when, as an abstract example, a woodworker does not recognize how a little problem with step E would affect step Q.

    And we’ve all been there!

    Rob

  16. Mike Lingenfelter

    You covered most of the "hand skills" I would say are basic to woodworking, but I would add one more. It may seem like common sense, but I consider Planning and Organizing a skill you have to develop. When I first started out I would just go out into shop and wing it. Too many times I messed something up, because I didn’t think a couple steps ahead. Now before I start a project, I create an outline of all of the steps and operations I will need to do. Many times during this outlining process I discover those problem areas, before I even cut the first board. Developing your Organizational skills will improve how you work in your shop. Planning and Organizing improves Speed and Safety.

    Mike

  17. Bob Lang

    Quite true. Woodworkers as a group tend to avoid practice. Golfers go hit buckets of balls just to keep their basic skills. Hardly any woodworkers will go out to the shop and spend half an hour cutting straight lines.

  18. Larry Marshall

    As I looked at your opening photo and title my immediate thought was "they don’t play for the Browns?" but I see you covered that.

    What fails most woodworkers is the over-emphasis by our community on tools. If I just buy XYZ I’ll be better. If we spent as much time talking about practicing woodworking skills as we do about buying tools, we’d all be spending more time practicing and improving our craft. But, shock of shocks, people don’t even relate to ‘just practicing’ when it comes to woodworking.

    Cheers — Larry "aka Woodnbits"

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