Chris Schwarz's Blog

Things I Cannot Teach About Woodworking

The best things about the craft of woodworking – the things that bring pleasure in the work – are beyond my skills as a writer, teacher or friend to explain.

Example: Powered jointers are – in my opinion – the most sensitive machine ever invented. They are like Phil Donohue with an induction motor. Beginning woodworkers struggle with where to put their hands, where to apply pressure, how to move their bodies and how to listen to what the machine is telling them.

Oh, and they need an excellent understanding of how wood behaves in different cutting environments.

This morning I was dealing with some case-hardened white oak that I had prepared for chair spindles. Even after one careful round of machining, the spindles were cuppy. As I was redressing the stock, I started wondering how I was going to explain this operation to my daughter Katy.

I had no words. I had only hints. Jointers are backwards machines.

The most important control surfaces are behind the cutterhead on the outfeed side. Pulling the work through on the outfeed side is more critical than the pushing part. Too much pressure, and your stock will never get flat. Too little pressure and pressure applied at the wrong time, and you will lose control.

Oh, and keep your hands away from the cutterhead.

Handplanes have a lot of the same challenges. The amount of pressure forward and down can radically change the cutting action or spoil the work. The only safeguards are to keep the iron sharp, start with light cuts and plane, plane, plane.

Which gets me to my point: The wood will teach you what you need to know – if you shut up, stop trying to always be in control, listen and feel.

Oh, the eye is important, too. The problem is we all see different things.

As I started sketching out these Welsh chairs I became enamored with the tapered octagons I was preparing in advance of the lathe work. They reminded me of old tool handles. And then something clicked.

These two chairs are destined for a toolmaker, and so I decided to lean a little into the tool handle shape. I started trying to give the tenon shoulders a bit of a ferrule-like appearance.

Will anyone else see this? Will they even think to look? I look up at the pile of discarded furniture parts in our shop and wonder what it is that I cannot see.

— Christopher Schwarz

A Shout-out for “The New Traditional Woodworker
If you like to think about the craft, to become “craftier” perhaps, I recommend Jim Tolpin’s new book “The New Traditional Woodworker.” The book is a lot about how to do the work with your hands, but it also is a lot about how to use your head.

11 thoughts on “Things I Cannot Teach About Woodworking

  1. Recruiter

    I used to hate using a jointer. I didn’t have any problem getting a face flat. but when I was done, the board was like a very long wedge. Always wider on one edge than the other. Then it hit me. Its all finesse. Learn where to put your pressure, and you get flat boards. Guess what. It worked! I’ve done that with most of my woodworking. Figure out what you are doing wrong, then learn from your mistakes. Recompensate your motions, pressure or feel of working the wood, to get your end result.

  2. David Keller

    Chris – A question. I’m gearing up to make a few of these chairs, and I have Drew Langsner’s book as a guide. You picture seems to show a seat blank of white pine, but Drew’s text suggests that the seat blank should be out of a wood “no softer than poplar”. And that they’re typically made of oak, ash or elm. All I have that is suitable at the moment in large enough size is white pine, or possibly mahogany, but that would be a bit extravagant, and in my opinion, a bit out of place on a vernacular chair.

    Have you made these stretcherless stick chairs with a seat blank of EWP, and in your opinion, are they strong enough?

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      David,

      White pine is a very typical wood for stick Windsors. However, I’ve not made one with a white pine seat that lacks stretchers. These will have oak stretchers, spindles and crest rail. The arm bow is ash.

      Sorry I don’t have a good answer for you.

  3. George West

    Great post Chris, for 2 reasons. First it shows to do woodworking you learn by doing, it is the feel, touch, and sound, of either the machine, or hand tool that tells you if you are on track. No writer can pass that experience, or knowledge on to you. Second it is further proof you are indeed a mixed woodworker, congratulations x 2 as well, on this fine piece, and your time with Katy.

  4. samson141

    There difinitely are many things in woodworking, as in life, that cannot really be taught, but must be learned through first-hand experience and practice.

    But about those welsh stick chairs … a jointer? Will you be using a CNC machine to shape the seats? ;-) I wonder what John Brown would think? But seriously, it seems very incongrous to use machinery to form perfect tapered octagons on a form that is so rooted in its hand wrought nature. The charm of many such chairs stems from the quirks that happen in drawknifing, scorping, and otherwise engagin in the “workmanship of risk.”

    1. Christopher SchwarzChristopher Schwarz Post author

      I’m just roughing out the stock with machines — just like John Brown did. He used an enormous band saw to saw all his stock. No riving.

      About 90 percent of the work will be by hand — saddling, shaving the spindles, boring, etc. etc.

      1. samson141

        Make yourself happy. I wasn’t suggesting you should rive the spindles; I thought you were saying that you shaped them into tool handle tapered octogons on the jointer and were making ferule-like tenons on the lathe for more or less immediate use on the chairs. Which even if it were true, of course, would be fine.

        By the way, does the anarchist even have a jointer machine? I remember a planer, table saw, bandsaw, and drill press …

        Good book, by the way. kudos

  5. Niels

    I hear you.

    Teaching craft is a difficult thing. Everybody has different ways of seeing and has different “hands”. To my mind there are two critical parts to learning anything. The first is having good information. Understanding the mechanics: how a process works, what are the critical components and what are they doing, and what is your relationship to the process. Real nuts and bolts stuff.

    The second part is far more subtle and largly internal process. This part is about paying attention. It requires focusing on the task at hand and making connections between action and result. I am convinced this is where real learning happens. Through practice, repetition and FAILURE you gain the experience and confidence to work with consistency and quality.
    Also you are able better equipped to diagnose and make corrections when something unexpected happens or something is broken. It’s usually not rocket-surgery.

    One of the biggest challenges learning something new is to get frustrated when the results don’t line up with your intentions. It’s even more frustrating when you’ve spent a great deal of time and energy and the results are still disappointing. I see people get discouraged and give up before they step back and look at what they trying to do and how they were going about doing it.

    I think the best advice you can give anyone is that failure is a constructive part of learning. Training the hands is as much about training you eye to recognize the hallmarks of success and error.
    The key to NOT GIVE UP, learn from your mistakes, and move on.

  6. mscaldas

    Well, believe it or not, this is a very inspiring post. See.. for quite some time I’ve been demotivated to say the least with the jointer/planner combo I got, because I can’t get a good ol’ square piece of stock…. I was blaming the cheap jointer and tuning that is beyond my skills…

    Well, surely there’s some of that. But it gives me hope to know that there’s more for me to learn… some of those learning curves, takes time and experience and that’s what I understood when you said there’s no words to teach, but again, it really gave me hope that I can probably get better results from the tools I have by simply paying more attention and actually using it.

    thanks!

  7. Mitchell

    My old man took a different approach when teaching me about using a jointer. He told me to think like a machine.

    As he put it to me; you are using a multipurpose machine to do a specific job. If you were building the machine to do this specific job, what would you add to it to make it work?

    The answer, of course, is a pressure plate and feed drive. Calculating where you would place the mechanical device over the bed quickly tells you where to put the human pressure and how to handle the feed.

  8. Jonathan Szczepanski

    “…like Phil Donohue with an induction motor.”

    Awesome. :-)

    I think that the best design elements – such as the ferrule-like tenon shoulders – work best when they don’t shout out. Like a good stew, everything needs to work together.

    Jonathan
    ====================================

COMMENT