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Litmus tests are a necessary evil in life. In the sciences they are a critical tool; in a social context they’re a justification for exclusion, and a rationale for prejudice. Having said that… Woodworking is not a science and during my time as a woodworker I’ve developed a litmus test.

woodworking educator litmus testThe longer I woodwork, the harder it is to find others who have information in their brains that I can steal in enough quantity to get that learning high that started this woodworking addiction. I’m talking about that endorphin rush, the imagination explosion, the wealth of possibilities opening up before your eyes every time you picked up the latest magazine edition or found an ancient, derelict woodworking textbook in the library. The same jump-up-and-down-excitement you felt in kindergarten when you learn two graham crackers, a marshmallo, and an M&M made four parts, and now you got to eat the mini s’more! When you’re a woodworking kindergartener, this whole woodworking realm is mind-blowing.

Plus, information is everywhere and there are lots of really good communicators willing to share. It’s as if you’re at a woodworking rave and someone’s making it rain in the form of books, magazines, videos and DVD’s that practically spoon-feed us knowledge.

Then after a few years, you realize you have to do lots of review of the previous year’s education in those mediums before learning and getting your next fix. You’ve reached third grade as a woodworker and repetition is abundant. There’s enough new stuff to keep that high going, but maybe not at the level of the first hit. That killer rave of old is beginning to look like Barney surrounded by a bunch of cult-minded kindergarteners. (Side note: my career as a teacher of beginner woodworking  is based on being that theoretical ‘Barney’)

At this stage in our education, there is still a wealth of teachers out there who are awesome communicators. It’s their forte. The communication is the most important skill they’ve developed.

In all seriousness, it doesn’t take a lot of mathematical knowledge to teach elementary-school level addition and subtraction. Nor does teaching people how to cut a dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joint. But it does require a huge amount of communication skill because learning styles can vary wildly. You need a multitude of ways to explain the same information and to verify understanding based upon student needs. Which is why one teacher is effective at teaching multiple subjects to the same students in elementary school – their expertise is more communication and less about higher-level information. But things change from middle school on up.

To continue this public-school-level analogy: You start seeing a mass of dropouts of students in the middle and early high school level. I’d guesstimate in the realm of 90 percent. And that’s perfectly OK. There is no need to progress farther than the level that makes you happy. Most fulfilled woodworkers are what gamers would call a “casual” – and that’s just fine. This is just a hobby, an activity for the most of us. Enroll back in “school” when you want, then drop out again to get back to actually making stuff.

The reason for these drop outs is that by the time you reach the high-school level, three things happen. The fix you used to get participating in education has dropped off to the point of withdrawal inducement (boredom), and as a student you begin to focus your learning effort in the direction that earns the most satisfaction, be it carpentry, turning, joinery, carving, intarsia, etc… So you’re spending more time exploring the actual building than learning.

The information being presented has also specialized enough that teachers need to segment themselves by subject. Granted, the English teacher probably has a basic grasp of physics but at this level, you really should have a physics teacher teaching physics. There’s a need for a depth instead of breadth. And the educator has to start demanding the communication part of the equation start moving to the student side of responsibilities: students need to start working harder to understand because there are fewer ways of explaining more complex subjects.

Continue down this path to the level where you’re a doctoral student studying frontal lobe nano surgery: There’s likely only a handful of people in the country able to teach you. And given that they themselves have spent a lifetime acquiring these unique skills, what is the likelihood they’ll have developed the communication skills of that first kindergarten teacher? (To be sure, some have.)

I’m beginning to realize the best resource to “graduate” to high-level woodworking education is quiet “geezers” and “geezerettes” – people who stepped out of the educational world to work, and work hard, refining their skills and knowledge over time. Because this entailed long hours in the lab (workshop) they usually haven’t built much in the way of teaching skills. They tend to gloss over crucial information simply because it’s so second-nature to them, they don’t think of it. The responsibility for communication of that knowledge then falls completely on the student. But these people are out there – I encourage you to make the effort and introduce yourself to them, if only for the selfish reason of a knowledge high.

I saw a movie a while back by Sidney Poitier, “The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn,” where he played a reclusive savant carpenter/woodworker. Other than politeness this man had absolutely no social skills because he spent a lifetime developing and refining his work. The message of the movie was likely lost on me, but to this day I picture that character and think, that’s the person I want to learn from. This is a person who won’t be able to articulate knowledge well but through proximity, observation and questioning ,the finer details of the craft that currently escape me could be revealed. But it’ll require hard work on my part to learn em.

Thus my personal litmus test has evolved to focus my attention on the people I hope have the most information I can learn.

When I meet a fellow woodworker, or I’m driving down the road and I see that old saw hanging outside an open door, or when a club meets up at someone”s shop, I’ll walk up and introduce myself and make nice small talk. But in the back of my mind I’m on a hunt. I’m looking for the spot that shows where that person does most of their work. It could be a lathe, table saw, workbench, scroll saw, finishing table…it doesn’t matter. Could be a spot in the middle of a sumptuous warehouse filled with all the latest machinery or the back porch outside the kitchen. It just doesn’t matter. Once that spot is identified I then look for a single sharp, well used chisel within easy reach. You’d be surprised how few times you’ll find one.

That’s my litmus test – likely the least expensive most innocuous woodworking tool ever invented. Doesn’t matter the brand, age, size, number, metal, handle, or whatnot. Just that at least one is there and readily used. The handles are usually dented, the metal slightly tarnished from sweat and definitely worn down – but with a glistening sharp edge ready for action. This person might make designs I think are ugly, or be in a realm of the craft that holds no interest to me. This person might be morally questionable, rude or just smell bad.  But think about what that go-to chisel says: That the person routinely uses the most basic of tools shows an understanding of the strengths and limitations of this craft, its processes and the medium. And he or she has understood that for a very long time.

That chisel is the beacon on the knowledge table that ignites this mutt’s focus, figuratively shaking with anticipation, knowing a little nugget of goodness will be falling my way soon. That’s the person who has spent a lifetime gaining information and skill. That’s the person I need to pay attention to. That’s the person we need to seek out as an uneducated mass and take the communication responsibility onto ourselves. So we can learn as much as possible before they leave us for good and take that knowledge with them. The knowledge they posses is found nowhere else but in their actions and mind.

It’s judgmental and prejudicial, but that chisel is the litmus test that guides where to focus my learning effort. Though I’m always up to learn of a better one, so educate me on what inspires you to seek information from others in the comments below.

— Shawn Graham


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  • Kinderhook

    I meet these “secret masters” everywhere I go. I find them at hardware stores whilst I’m contemplating the poor selection of hand tools. “Where are the card scrapers?” I’ll say. “Or the mortising chisel?”. Mostly the employees have no idea what I’m talking about, but every now and then someone will scratch their head with me and a wonderful discussion will follow. I’m the kind of woodworking nerd that reads articles on adhesives with reckless enthusiasm. I know I’m in the presence of a kindred spirit if I say I’m a joiner and someone knows what I mean. I can always learn something from you, and you can always learn something from me. This is the legacy of woodcraft.

  • 7-Thumbs

    Seems you’ve written an eloquent treatise on why we really don’t need to spend time reading Popular Woodworking but should rather spend our time plying the back allies of woodworking to find the master craftsperson you describe. I found everything you wrote to be true with respect to my gardening addiction. I’ve learned more from people in garden clubs and old country (meaning Europe) nurserymen than I ever got out of a gardening book or magazine.

  • Wesley kabelman

    All i can say is WOW Shawn, wish i lived near Texas because i would be in the front row of that classroom.

  • Jim McCoy

    I would suggest another educator you should pay attention to – yourself. Challenge yourself by trying something you haven’t done before. Figure out a way to do it and try that. You’ll know how well you succeeded or failed. If you succeed great, try something else you haven’t done. Keep doing that until you fail because those are the best learning experiences, as long as you forget about it being a failure and concentrate on figuring out what you did wrong and apply that knowledge to your next try. Sure, occasionally you will need someone with more experience to explain or show you how to do it, but it is amazing how much you can learn from yourself if you’re willing to accept failure as a chance to really learn something. I bet most of the gurus you are talking about learned more from themselves than anyone else.

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