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.