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Woodworking Role ModelsDon’t ya just hate those woodworkers who seemingly pick up and master new skills effortlessly? (A certain Village Carpenter and Heritage Woodworker come to my mind.)

This type of person is truly accomplished in a certain area of the craft then one day decides – seemingly on a whim –  they’re going to learn a whole different branch of it. Next thing you know, they’re incorporating master-level carvings, intarsia, inlays and what-not into their work. Envy for these folks wafts over you, and you justify your response by thinking they’re “naturally talented” or “gifted.”

Yep, that was me in the beginning. I’d see someone make something I wanted to learn. I’d buy the tools. Read the books. Watch the DVDs. Peruse YouTube. Make a few attempts. Start a fire. Burn the outcome. Curse my lack of talent. Spot something else I wanted to learn. Rinse and repeat.

I was the woodworking mutt who couldn’t stay focused due to the influx of stimuli constantly at the outskirts of my vision. (I was also a prime target for retailers.)

It wasn’t until I was sitting in an in-service school meeting on English as Second Language students (ESL) that my woodworking “problem” clicked.

You see, when students come to the U.S. from a country they are generally classified as ESL. It used to be these students were placed in an English-intensive curriculum to “get them up to speed” as quickly as possible. But research has shown that a majority of ESL students, even with tons of effort and work, never progress past the highest level they achieved in their native tongue. A 15-year-old 8th-grader from Narnia will still be at an overall 8th-grade level (or possibly step back a few grade levels) by the time he or she reaches graduation age. It’s a frustration for students that results in a high rate of drop out; it’s a frustration for schools having to reach an average passing grade.

But, if you encourage these students to continue to learn in their native language, something really cool happens. Not only does their foundation knowledge continue to improve, they tend to pick up English more quickly. Plus, there is the innate satisfaction of knowing they’re learning, whereas if they start from scratch in the new language, they know they’re going backward.

That’s what clicked in my head: ESL kids do better with their new subjects and new language because progress in their foundation skills is consistent; they have a stronger base to build on as they acquire new knowledge.

In my woodworking education, I was basically bouncing from one county’s elementary school to another, without building my foundation skills.

So sitting in that in-service meeting (ya, really paying attention), I prioritized the stuff I really wanted to learn. I chose joinery as my foundation “language,” then spent a few years focusing on becoming fluent in it. Yes, I built a bunch of different stuff, but during each project I focused on the joinery. I became more efficient, accurate and advanced. I took risks by executing more advanced designs as I looked for the best solution for every joint.

Then the more in-depth you go in a subject, the more you find the learning curve begins to steepen. It takes a little while in the beginning because you are just getting accustomed to the new subject – but once that bell curve turns downward, just hold on for the ride!

What I found shocking is how quickly I started to recognize that while each kingdom in this woodworking realm spoke it’s own dialect, the root language seemed to be the same.

While paring the shoulder and face of a large tenon, all of a sudden a little aspect of letter carving started to make sense. (Holding the chisel a certain way, creating a triangle foundation with palm and knuckle, increasing power via lower a approach angle across the blade, using leverage for accuracy via a pivoting off the bevel, paring with the grain.) Working that chisel, I could see and feel how it would be used to write. While working a Japanese scarf joint, double-bevel marquetry started making sense. When scooping out an ogee, grain reversal in bowl turning made more sense. The revelations just kept coming.

This is not to imply a person should dedicate his or her life to a monogamous relationship with only one aspect of woodworking. Eventually, that learning curve will start to flatten, and your eye might start to wander. In this realm, it’s perfectly OK to play the field – but you can always return to your first love and be accepted with open arms.

I tell novice woodworkers this when they ask, “where should I start?”: Think it through, decide what you want in both experience and product, then pick one aspect and go deep. It could be a skill such as joinery, or perhaps a form (boxes, bowls, tables). Make that choice your foundation language, and in the end you’ll be a much more proficient multi-lingual woodworker.

If like me you take this philosophy to heart, it will do one other thing: make you feel like a real jerk for envying the skills of others. Those who learn fast and produce such fantastic work aren’t any better or more talented. In fact, I don’t think talent comes into play at all in this craft of woodworking. When those “savants” picked up a new aspect of the hobby, they simply didn’t have to learn about grain direction, tool manipulation, muscle control or any of the other elementary stuff I still needed. They could skip grades and go straight to the unique knowledge of a new branch of learning. They had to learn less to understand more. And so on.

Those folks worked harder and better – and learned faster – because they had a better foundation. Knowledge builds and transfers, and because of that it can grow exponentially. Envy ignores the work they put into learning.

So what is – or will be – your first woodworking “language,” and why?

 — Shawn Graham



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Showing 4 comments
  • griffithpark

    This seems like a fundamentally useful idea.

    I’ll know more in a few months after mastering a modified version of Ron Herman’s “Joinery Challenge”.

  • Edward Clarke

    I’ve decided that the very first thing that I have to learn to do is to learn how to sharpen chisel and plane blades. If my tools aren’t in good, usable condition then any attempt to actually use the tools is doomed to failure. The second thing that I need to learn is how to pare and saw to a line.

    If I can do both of those then I can make dovetails and start building my way into other skills.


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