Don’t Believe Everything You Read

For centuries, woodworking skills and techniques were passed down directly from master to student. If you wanted to learn, you spent time with someone who had done it for a long time, followed an example that you saw first hand, and tried it yourself with your teacher there to correct your mistakes. When we learn that way, it’s easy to develop a sense of what’s important and what isn’t. If you were learning to cut dovetails, the master would likely say, angle the saw a bit, like this. You could see for yourself what the angle looked like, you could ask “is this too much?” or “is this not enough?”, and you’d likely get an answer that, “it isn’t that important, just get on with it and get the work done.”

That type of instruction works well one-on-one, but it doesn’t translate well into print. An editor will decide that readers want or need something more specific, perhaps with an illustration to make it clear. And so the ratio of 1:8 for hardwoods and 1:7 for softwoods gets set in type. When we see something like that in print, we tend to take it seriously, especially if what we see in print is the only instruction we have and we don’t have a mentor to help us decide if this really is a rule to be followed, or if it’s something that isn’t critical.

Dovetails are a good example of this. When Glen Huey and I were doing our research for the book “Furniture in the Southern Style,” most of the dovetails we saw didn’t follow the “written rules” and wouldn’t pass muster to be published today. Somewhere along the line, dovetails changed from being a functional joint to a decorative one, from something generally hidden to something shown off as the main indicator of the builder’s skills. It isn’t that the old guys didn’t have the ability to cut perfect dovetails – in their world it wasn’t worth the time expended to make pretty joints that didn’t show.

Almost everything written about woodworking falls into this pattern. Techniques and tools that were abandoned for good reasons are revived, valid techniques fall out of fashion and priorities and attitudes change. The would-be woodworker is faced with a mountain of information, and is left to sort through all of it without the knowledge experience provides. Compounding the problem is the fact that it’s easier to share information that’s already been written than it is to deliver content that clarifies and puts things in context for the way we work today.

There is a tremendous amount of value in shared knowledge, whether it comes from a book, a magazine, a blog or a YouTube video. We’re better off today than we were 20 years ago because there is so much more information available to us. But we shouldn’t take anything as gospel. It pays to investigate where the author is coming from, what his experience is, and whether or not what is being presented is based on common sense and practical experience,  a rehash of something existing, an attempt to sell you something or an ego-building exercise.

The most important test is to compare what you read to real world examples, and the best example is your own experience in the shop, followed by the experience of someone who spends time in the shop. That experience doesn’t need to be years and years, often teachers who are relatively new have a better idea of what’s important to a beginner, and find it easier to connect and communicate. Old guys don’t necessarily have the keys to the kingdom, but real world experience does have a real value, if you really want to make things out of wood. You can learn something from anyone.

You don’t need to own every tool ever mentioned, or try every technique presented to you. Life is too short for that. Consider the source before you commit time or money to anything you read.  Step back from the books, log off the computer and go make something. That’s where real learning takes place and that’s where you’ll find the real value in woodworking.

– Robert W. Lang

26 thoughts on “Don’t Believe Everything You Read

  1. allwood

    Robert , thank you for your article. The woodworking world, has become a double edge sword in the 20th century, one would respect being taught their craft that was being passed on. The teacher would get a rewarding acknowledgement in passing on his skills to a worthy student, and satisfaction of watching his students skill grow.

    Now with the multitude of media,not pertaining to well written books and magazines, google and forums have become the so called teachers. Many hobbiests use these forms to become so called experts. Sadly one Australian woodwork forum is rife with ego driven google experts, Quite sad really.
    Is this a sign of the times, I hope not.


  2. Cliff

    Thank you for pointing out that while the wealth of information offered in the printed/electronic woodworking media is valuable, it may not be applicable to what we are doing in our woodworking journey. Non the less, it is worthwhile to read, and where appropriate, attempt to use the information to improve our skill set. Recently, because I had never attempted to mortice a lock into a drawer and a case of a chest, I looked up the “how to” information in a past publication. I was able to accomplish this because someone had written an article on how to do it. We owe much to all the folks who offer information to all of us who are attempting to learn this craft! It is up to us to discern what is applicable. I also appreciate the fact that these same folks are willing to answer questions when we inquire. Thank you and keep up the good work!

  3. michaeldfox2

    We all learn in different ways. I learn best from watching someone. Was almost always able to perform something after watching someone do it once or twice. Others learn differently. Those of us who have been in woodworking for a long time usually have a stash of tools, both large and small, that we bought because they were recommended in some magazine or they just looked like something we could use. That’s part of the learning process as well.

  4. shannonlove

    One systematic problem you find in all history based writing is that history always has a pronounced bias in favor of the economic and political elites of any era. Historical contemporaries usually write way more about the wealthy and their possessions tend to be more often preserved.

    In woodworking, that means that our idea of traditional and classical woodworking is actually largely based knowledge of say, the top 10% of any eras woodwork. By comparison, it would be like someone two hundred years from now basing their concept of early 21st century cars based on solely on an examination of Lexus, Porsches and Lamborghinis.

    Since a lot of experts base their claims on historical research, their claims usually have an elitist bias as well.

  5. prov163

    In a seminar by Jim Heavey recently, I was struck by his comment “The only reason I am a better woodworker than you, if I am, is because I’ve built more projects than you.” We learn by doing. Never let your schooling interfere with your education.

    Thanks for the article.

  6. marc.adrian.scott

    As a newbie who really only has the printed material to rely on, thank you for this!

  7. Jack Plane

    Sage advice!

    By the way, the black and white picture of the drawer is upside down.

  8. Gary Roberts

    Most Excellent Bob! There is no one way, no one teacher, no one philosophy. As soon as someone says so, someone else will say otherwise. So, go out and do it and stop worrying about why, how and what.

    And here I thought craft was supposed to be relaxing…

  9. BLZeebub

    “It” is always in the doing. Always needs to be reiterated to those of us who make things and established for those who are about to. Bravo.

  10. Vinny

    Total agreement with you article. Woodworking, with time and practice becomes an individual element. We all learn at our own pace and do it the way we see it best. The only caution is to not get so focused on the way we always do something and not look beyond to other possiblities. Learn everything you can from others, but develop your own style.

  11. Dean

    Some good thoughts Bob. By the way, I’ve never heard the 1:7 ratio recommendation for softwood dovetailing, only 1:6.

  12. peppersvnv

    Trying to learn without a mentor has both advantages and disadvantages. Experience is a tough teacher but it takes too long. I recently started an online course with Shannon Rogers at I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in learning traditional woodworking. Shannon charges by the “semester” rather than an anual fee. I like that. No, I’m not his dad, or a favorite uncle. There is a lot of free instruction at so you can try before you buy.


  13. oakripper

    Some times practical experience is the better than learning from a book or another person, i have learned a lot from just getting out into the shop and doing the job. If i make a mistake then i have learned something and i got it from hands on experience.

    1. gumpbelly

      The sage advice from someone who knows, and can watch you and how you perform will always be the best teacher, but you make a valid point, it`s in the doing that we take the lessons and apply them. After we repeatedly apply these lessons we can then start to look at the process, and it`s then that reading, watching vids, and seeing how others skin that cat, that we can make modifications. It`s through that cycle you learn, and improve.

      I have been making DT`s for years, but always with a router, and a jig. It`s just been in the last few years I tried to tackle DT`s using hand tools. I made great punkin teeth on my own, and after reading volumes on the subject. Glen Huey straightened me out in one short weekend, since, I have looked at vids by Rob Millard, and Chuck Bender, and have improved my DT`s to the point I feel like I could teach the next generation.

  14. Eric R

    Your take sounds pretty clear & confirms what a lot of people are saying these days.
    Thanks Bob.

  15. JimDeL

    There’s a lot of bogus “info” out there, and a lot of stuff that goes against everything the ‘old guys’ did. Regarding dovetails, I once heard Frank Klauz say that during his apprenticeship, they made dovetail joints on just about everything because it was cheaper than using nails. Beauty had nothing to do with it.

    BTW, the ‘modern’ techniques I get the biggest laugh out of are the “micro sharpeners.” Several of the woodworking boards have had exhausting discussions, including micrographs of edges sharpened to 12,000 grit, and beyond. Our ancesters likely used a sandstone rock for the rough edge, then refined it on a noviculite (or similar) stone, and (maybe) stropped it on leather. Their edges were sharpened quickly and frequently, and their work was definitely of great quality. Times sure do change, don’t they.

  16. tsstahl

    You just summed up my philosophy and the entire purpose of my woodworking blogging.

    Not that I needed validation or anything.

  17. Mitch Wilson

    Bob, what I get from your article is that I shouldn’t be listening to an old guy like you. Hmmm, that’s something of a paradox.

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      I hope people listen, otherwise I’ll have to go get a real job, and anyway I’m not that old. Everybody is worth a listen, but not everybody passes the sniff test.

      1. Jimboz

        You’ve really set the cat among the pigeons Bob especially among the dovetail extremists and by extremists I mean both sides.
        Even the doves are looking uneasy.

  18. woodcanuck

    Well put Bob, thanks for this.

    I know a lot of the online community of woodworkers have been having an achey feeling in their posterior the last few days. Your statement “You can learn something from anyone” pretty much sums up what all the buzz has been about.


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