I learned my trade from my father in Hungary. It was a pretty rough going because after I start apprenticing with my father, I had no more father, I just had a master. The first time I made a drawer he threw it in the corner. He told me, “That’s no good. You gotta be a lot better than that”. Once I learn how, then he told me, “It has to be a lot faster”, because the good craftsman not only do things well, but do it with a speed.
This quote is from the DVD Dovetail a Drawer, available from Lie-Nielsen
For a multitude of reasons, very few of us have a story even remotely similar to Frank’s. Apprenticeships of this nature are very rare, and few of us have fathers that are at a high level of skill to teach us. Far too many of us are Google apprentices.
By that I mean that we search for woodworking nuggets and try to add them to our woodworking from an international cesspool of woodworking knowledge/anti-knowledge. The problem is that while even if every answer Google gave you was correct, they still would lack the context of your shop, and your workflow.
For example, toothing a bench top. I’ve never tried this, but it comes from a respected source, and I would love to test it. I even bought a plane specifically for toothing, but my current bench is made of soft wood, and is wondrously grippy. With such a soft wood, I suspect that the toothing wouldn’t really add anything, and the toothed ridges would be so fragile they would simply break off. My last bench was maple and working on it was like walking on ice. Hey Brad? Be a good fellow and tooth my bench and get back to me on how it works will you? That’s a good fellow.
What I am saying is that a toothing plane has very little value in my shop.
So if Google or the forums is not a good teacher what should we do?
I really think the best thing ever would be to have a highly skilled woodworker with at fully equipped shop, that would let you work along side them, but for most of us that is a pipe dream that will never ever come true.
For the rest of us, I think the best compromise we can find is to sort through all the mess of opinions on the web and from all of that, pick a master to diligently follow. Edit – Not because they know everything. Simply because you have to start somewhere.
Pick someone you respect, one that has a proven track record of work history, especially one that shares your woodworking interests. Finally, find someone that has well documented their work so you can get an exhaustive view of their shop life, their work flow, and techniques. Edit – Someone accomplished in works, and prolific in sharing what they have learned from their works.
Pick one, and strive to follow them as closely as you can. If they use wooden planes, learn to use wood planes. If they use a bench that is pinky high, build yours pinky high. If their bench is nipple high, well…. ya, give’er a try… chances are it will work with whatever other techniques they do. Pinky high techniques will not work with nipple high benches, and nipple high techniques will seem ludicrous on a pinky high bench. Edit – Once you are well established, you will easily see a good idea that will fit your work flow. As a beginner any hair brained idea can lead you astray.
Don’t mix and match. DO NOT MIX AND MATCH! And for heaven’s sake, avoid the recommendations of other beginners even/especially if they seem to make more sense than those of more experienced woodworkers. Edit – See edit above. This is a lesson I’ve learned over the past 10 or so years. Many of those years wasted chasing contradicting techniques.
Choose your master wisely because it will be a large investment of time and money, but so is buying tools that won’t work with your workflow.
There are not many choices that you will be able to find. I personally, would fall short on pretty much all of the criteria, but if you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, it should pretty obvious who I have chosen to follow. If this is your first time, I pretty clearly laid it out HERE, so there is really no need to rehash it.
From there, take whatever classes you can get your hands on, and apply whatever you can that fits to the base of what you have learned from your adopted master.
Do your level best to not get distracted. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing, and as you learn you will find others that will supplement fairly seamlessly to what you already have learned.
These days there are three guys that through all the white noise out there I strive to listen to. They don’t all agree on every topic, but they do for lack of a better term, “harmonize” nicely.
Chris Schwarz obviously is the first. (Resisting the urge to break into a Barry White solo…)
Frank Klausz is the second because while he is not as prolific Edit – prolific in his teaching, his down to earth and simple opinion Edit – based on his accomplishments, cuts through all the mumbo jumbo. His father said do better, so he did better. His father said be faster, so he got faster. There is no discussion about talent or natural aptitude, and I suspect that while we see him as a woodworking god, really he is just an average guy that chose to develop his hand skills. Skills that first felt foreign, diligently practiced into second nature movements, in hopes of avoiding the wrath of an impatient master. The first time I watched his videos I thought they didn’t apply because he was so matter of fact with what you as a beginner should do, that he must have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner. Now I can see that he hasn’t forgotten a thing. In my words I’d say “we can’t, because we won’t”.
Thirdly is Konrad Sauer. Konrad is more than a pretty face, in pretty boots with long flowing hair. Konrad to me is an extension of what I’ve learned from Frank. There is almost no limit to what we can teach our hands to do. Perfection is not flawlessness. Perfection is the opposite of compromise. And no matter how skilled you get, to achieve your very best work, it will still be a little terrifying. If you don’t follow Konrad on Instagram you should.
That’s how we do!
Edit – It may seem like I’m selling myself short by narrowing who I chose to learn from. I think there are two ways to look at this. I have a limited time on this earth to learn what I’m going to learn about woodworking, so I can choose to learn almost nothing about everything in woodworking, or I can learn as much as I can about a few things in woodworking. If that means I’m selling myself short so be it. One of us is the reining Dovetail World Champion, and the rest of you are not… I’m laughing as I type this. It just never gets old, Well at least not to me. I’m such a dork! Ha, ha, ha.
And now to help the non Barry White fans get my attempt at humor…
For the rest of us, here is a great chance to watch one of the great tenors of our time die a little with every lyric he sings.