Back to School: Six Thoughts on Getting Started at Woodworking School
Across the world, students are heading back to school – and some of them are on their way to woodworking schools, like The Krenov School (my alma mater), North Bennet Street School, Center for Furniture Craftsmanship and many more. It was only a few years ago that I was gearing up for the same journey – and I have a little list of learning moments (i.e. screwups/mistakes/regrets) that I want to pass along, to those on their way to the halls of learning.
At the outset, let me say – these apply to anyone taking a woodworking course of any length. While a nine month intensive and a weekend workshop are certainly different, what you can do to improve your learning experience applies equally in both settings. Some of these will even help the autodidacts out there working alone in the garage.
- Spend where it counts. You’ve been given a list of tools to buy, just as I was. While you could easily go to a high-end retailer to buy your full outfit, that may well set you back quite a bit, or you might spend your money in the wrong places. My hard lesson here – I went to school with inexpensive chisels and a $200 router plane. The chisels got used (and then resharpened) every 20 minutes, the router plane came out twice in the nine months. Not to mention that the school had a number of communal tools, one of which was a router plane that was set up and sharpened better than mine.
I’m not saying you should buy the best of everything – again, that will set you back, and that student lifestyle probably isn’t going to support a high-end tool habit. Instead, find out where quality matters. I could’ve bought a good set of chisels, a fine shoulder plane, the best block plane, a few plane irons (for our Krenov planes) and a few miscellaneous items (hearing protection, scraper, screwdriver, square) and waited for class to begin before I splurged on that set of right- and left-handed bronze edge planes. You can also try out your instructor’s or classmate’s tools – one of the perks of woodworking school is the array of tools to try out (if you can sneak them off people’s benches quickly enough).
- Ask questions. This comes from my time as a middle school teacher, as well as a student. Going over the same question with each student in the room, when they all had that question earlier at the end of the lesson, is frustrating. Yes, people may think you didn’t arrive at the school a veritable Roy Underhill. But you’ll have a better chance getting there one day, and your teacher will appreciate the curiosity. This is classroom 101, but it applies just as much in a woodshop.
- Keep a journal & notes. This is my biggest regret – not keeping a day to day journal, and not taking good notes in lectures. The journaling is not for that juicy gossip and Bieber quotes – it’s more about keeping track of your time. Time flies when in the monastic walls of a woodworking school, and down the road, when someone asks “how long” or “when did you do…” you’ll have a good answer. This is actually a pretty good idea in any craft setting – it’s a function my Instagram page takes on nicely nowadays, with the added bonus that others can see my daily work and progress.
As far as notes – I couldn’t possibly have absorbed all the info that was thrown at me over the nine months I was at school. Years on, I still wish I had better notes, like when I forget Ejler’s shellac ratios or Laura’s chair geometry tips. Luckily, I had some friends (thanks Phoebe!) who took great notes and have been so nice as to send them along when I find myself lost. You may not be so lucky.
- It’s not a competition. This wasn’t a huge issue in my year, but everyone has moments of comparing themselves to others. Rushing through the exercise to be the first one done, or busting out your dovetails (so you can move on already) won’t train your muscle memory. If you’re in a woodworking school, you’re there because you wanted to buy the time to do it right, and learn the skills and techniques.
- Spend on materials. Woodworking materials are actually pretty cheap, as far as craft goes. You could be bronze-casting, or buying a bookshelf’s worth of $300 medical textbooks. While you should mock-up and prototype in cheap woods, it’s worth getting the good stuff for your final projects. That doesn’t mean you should make that cabinet with amboyna burl, but remember that you’ll likely have what you make for many years (don’t expect to sell your first pieces, or that you’ll want to after spending three months on them). Don’t learn to steambend with pine – spend on some white oak or air-dried ash. Don’t learn to carve on a 2×4 – see if you can get some clear basswood or mahogany. You’ll have plenty of time to pinch pennies when you graduate – the extra $50 in materials on a project will be rewarded with a better technique and cherishable results.
- There is no “one way” to do anything. Even at the most disciplined schools, every instructor has a different approach to the problems you encounter and the questions you’ll have. This is a boon, not because you can choose which answer suits you at the moment, but because you can start to learn how they form those solutions. As Nancy Hiller’s mentor once told her about woodworking, “It’s all problems.” Learning problem-solving in the context of a woodshop is the best skill you could walk away with. Try to figure out why they would solve something one way rather than another. One instructor may worry about staying true to your drawings, and the other may care more about the end function of the work.
They may also have basic differences in technique – pins or tails first (it’s pins first, by the way), or to strop a chisel or not. You’re in school – give both sides a shot. If one works for you, great – that doesn’t make the other way wrong, or not worth trying. You’ve got the time to do it now, so experiment and leave with an arsenal of ideas and techniques, even better if they challenge one another at times.
So there, I can get off my porch and stop yelling at the kids waiting for the bus. On a serious note, though – the nine months I spent at woodworking school were life-changing, and redirected me down the path that has led me here. While I couldn’t have asked for a better school experience, I still kick myself for the above mistakes. For now, I get to live vicariously, and watch the amazing work that students make over the course of their studies.
So, all you students – work hard, get some sleep, and sharpen your tools frequently!