Chris Schwarz's Blog

Eastern Advice for Western Woodworking

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The only thing I dislike about teaching at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking is that I’d rather be listening than talking – especially if Doug Dale is my assistant.

Doug, a 10-year employee at the school, is a low-key, casual and humble guy. But every time I shut my yap and open my ears, it’s like listening to the Buddha (or Yoda). Now I don’t think Doug is a Buddhist – I don’t think he owns a saffron MASW faculty shirt. But some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth sounds like ancient Eastern wisdom – even if it’s about operating a chop saw.

While teaching a class on trestle tables at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, I got into a conversation with Doug at a chop saw station about mistakes and injuries. And what he said is still ringing in my ears.

“Most of the mistakes and accidents I see are because the person is thinking about what they are going to do next – instead of thinking about what they are doing at that moment,” he said.

I would have slapped my forehead if I wasn’t holding a board at that moment. It sounds like simple advice, but it’s not if you think about it for a bit.

It’s common safety advice to avoid daydreaming while operating machinery, but Doug’s statement goes a step beyond that. Many times when we are working in the shop, we are tightly focused, but on the wrong thing. It’s easy to think ahead – even by a few seconds – instead of remaining in the tiniest pinpoint of the present where the saw is cutting and you are approaching your line.

If you can empty your mind (it’s a lot like meditation) and block out everything except the slippery present, you will find a calmness and confidence that will escape you at the moment you start worrying about the next task, or you start beating yourself up for a mistake in the recent past.

Jameel Abraham – another amazing woodworker and toolmaking guy to listen to – has another way of putting it. Earlier this year, someone asked Jameel how he did such incredible work. Jameel’s answer was only two words: “Pay attention.”

Nothing more.

Try it.

— Christopher Schwarz

14 thoughts on “Eastern Advice for Western Woodworking

  1. pjpryor02

    Wow, that is an amazing concept. I find myself doing that often because I get so intent on the project at hand and deadlines (self-imposed) and the progress that needs to happen that I am often a step ahead (in my head) of where I am. I think that might be one of the most transcendent woodworking tips of all time. I can see making this a part of my routine may be the key in elevating my work from good to great. Thanks!!

    “If better is possible good is never enough”!

  2. MgRasmussen

    Rules of the Workshop
    “Prolific not Perfect”
    1- Safety First – If it doesn’t feel right, seem right, or feel safe -> STOP and find another way.
    2- Work fast and hard.
    3- Don’t over think what you’re doing. Just do the woodworking.
    4- When you get hungry, eat.
    5- When you get tired, stop.
    6- When you get frustrated, stop.
    7- Remember, only you can see the small mistakes.

  3. BLZeebub

    I have one of those in my shop. Werdz to live by. Actors like to call it, “being in the moment” and that’s exactly what I love about woodworking as a craft and art. Room for everyone.

    Cheers,

  4. Bernard Naish

    I remember a friend pointing out that arriving is not important. It is the journey that it is important and that every moment should be savoured and enjoyed.

    He went on to point out that otherwise we would complete our life task by dying without enjoying anything!

    Enough of this deep stuff. Hope you enjoy slicing wood today.

  5. dave_b

    Completely agree on Doug. What a fun guy to spend a week with. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t moved away from Chicago, so I could spend a week there easier.

    I think part of the ‘problem’ during a class at MASW and in my own shop is lack of time, or not as much time as I would like. Then I can get in a hurry with the task at hand to get to the next task to get done. That week speeds by. My wife, my kids, my neighbors, my job, all need time and attention, which takes away from shop time at home.

    Maybe I need a sign over the door…

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