There are two types of woodworking classes…

There are certainly more than just two types of classes, but the two most common are “project classes” (build a chair, table, etc.) , and “technique classes” (learn to cut dovetails, etc.). Many classes combine a bit of each, and you learn some techniques as you build your project.

I’m teaching a class at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking  ( this July 8-12 called “From Woodworker to Craftsman” that may fit into a different category. It’s a class I’m pretty excited about, although it may not be immediately obvious why. There’s a fun project to build (a tool tote), but that isn’t really the focus of the class. And it’s not really a techniques class, either, although it’s got plenty of that as well (we’ll hand cut dovetails and mortise and tenon joints, deal with some curves, and more.

So what’s different about this class? I wanted to design a class where there was a little more emphasis on really improving skills, and developing a better sense of how to get the most out of your tools (and your body). This is obviously something I’ve been working on for quite some time now, and my most recent book – The Foundations of Better Woodworking – was a close look at this topic. This class puts it all into practice.

If you’re looking for more of a project based class, I’m also teaching a Slat-Back Chair class at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking ( This is a pretty intense week of building an exceptionally comfortable dining chair, and learning about chairs and how to make them. We’ll cover all kinds of chair related issues: curves, joinery with curves, angles and angled chair joinery, bent lamination, and much, much more.

Slat Back Chairs

Slat-Back Chairs

Bumping Up Against Your Limits

sawing aluminum as practice

Dovetail Practice – to a point

How do you get better? By learning more and doing more. At first, things either come naturally, or they require a lot of work to master. Eventually, you start to bump up against stuff that’s harder to overcome. And sometimes, after lots and lots of work, it feels like you’re coming up against the true limits to your talent.

For an athlete, that might mean that your body just doesn’t have the capacity to go faster, or respond quicker, or to jump higher. For a musician, it may be the inability to play a certain piece perfectly no matter how much you practice. And for a woodworker, it may be the inability to shape, join, smooth, or finish a project just the way you would like.

I will not in any way deny that there are limits to your ability, but those limits of are significantly further along than you might realize, though. Having trained extensively to be a classical musician, and then later on with a coach as a cyclist and runner, I’ve come to realize now that you can almost always push farther and improve more than you would ever think possible.

But most of us have other limits that are far more constraining than ultimate ability; we have families, jobs, and all kinds of other obligations and passions that prevent taking our skills all the way to their maximum. And this can be frustrating.

So how can you improve as much as possible in the limited time and with the limited energy you have available to you?

1) Take a class. It’s one of the fastest ways to give yourself a boost A good teacher or coach will find ways to push you well beyond what you think is possible.

2) Stop reading quite so much (or watching so many videos) and start making stuff. Sure, the stuff you read is important, but actually making things is far more important. Stop reading this right now if it means that you’ll go to your shop and make something. You may feel like you don’t know the right way to do something. Try to figure it out on your own. There really isn’t a “right way” to do anything. But figuring something out on your own is infinitely more valuable.

3) Get comfortable making mistakes. If you shy away from mistakes, you’ll also avoid challenges, and you can’t possibly get better without challenging yourself. Switch to cheaper wood if you’re uncomfortable messing up the good stuff.

4) Work on your weaknesses. It’s really tempting to just play to your strengths, and you shouldn’t neglect them, but you’ve got much more room for improvement with your shortcomings.

5) Be sure to balance out hard work on things you need to work on with “play” – stuff that’s just plain fun and fast to do. It will keep you fresher and more engaged. Oh. And it’s more fun.

6) Have tools that are good enough. You don’t need tools that are perfect. In fact, you’ll hold yourself back more by fussing your tools or your shop to perfection than you would by actually getting to work with tools that are simply fine. I’m not saying don’t learn how to sharpen well. But avoid the temptation to have the perfect tools or to make everything perfect before you attempt to use it.

7) Find places to practice. Even hack-sawing an aluminum bar can improve your dovetails if you work on your saw technique while you cut the bar (at least for a little while, until you get frustrated and just want to actually hack through the rest of it). You don’t have years to mess around; get practice anywhere you can.

8) Concentrate on the fundamentals. They makes everything else easier. Oddly enough, I know a good place to go for this: my newly released book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking.


Learning Curve

My learning curve as a woodworker is perhaps a bit unusual. I’m self-taught, more or less. Almost 30 years ago, I started my business with very little actual skill or knowledge, but lots of determination and chutzpah. And I learned a lot. I learned from reading, and I learned from looking at other work and trying to understand it. But most of all, I learned from making mistakes. Lots and lots of them. And I tried like crazy to learn from them. Along the way, I got some real boosts from other woodworkers I came into contact with. And I started to get pretty good.

Interestingly enough, the better I get, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. I’m a generalist as a woodworker. I haven’t done the same thing over and over, perfecting every motion, and learning every last insight. But each new design I create has forced me to learn more and more of what some of the specialists know.

There are plenty of resources available for this learning, but I have found it much easier to make use of these resources and actually learn something now that I have a solid foundation as a woodworker. Techniques and tools may be new, but the foundation makes it easier to both understand and get the feel of what is needed.

This, of course, brings up two things. 1) My new book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking, was written with this very much in mind. The Foundations of Better WoodworkingLearning the foundational material not only helps you with the basic stuff, but it allows you to place everything else into the necessary and proper context. And 2) I’ve got a new round of classes posted to my web site. I’ve been teaching with this basic philosophy for years now, and different aspects of it show up in all of my classes.

Perfect practice makes perfect. So how do you practice perfectly?

If you can’t practice perfectly – and who can, when you’re just learning how to do something? – then there are two things you need to do. First, break down what you’re doing into easier, more fundamental tasks. And second, differentiate between practice and experimentation.

Break it down: If you can’t saw perfectly to a line, then work on your saw technique independently of cutting to a line. Having trouble with that? You can break it down even further. Make sure your grip on the saw is relaxed (like you’re holding a baby bird), that your wrist is straight, and that your forearm lines up perfectly with the back of the saw.

Good Position for hand sawing

Good body alignment for sawing makes it all easier

Make sure your stance is good, and your body is oriented correctly to allow your elbow to swing just past your hip. And practice the sawing motion with the power coming mostly from your shoulder. The saw stroke should be relaxed. It should sound relaxed. Long smooth strokes, with very little downward pressure. Let the saw do the cutting.

Once this is feels natural and you can get this feeling pretty much every time you pick up a saw (it shouldn’t take all that long), start in on the lines. But you can practice cutting to a line separately, too. Go to the bandsaw and practice there. It’s a great way to get comfortable with cutting exactly where you want to cut without having to think about all of the other body stuff. Then start to work on putting the saw technique and the lines together.

Try not to think about too many things when you’re learning something new; you can’t do it. Some of what you’re doing has to be turned into ‘muscle memory.’ The neural pathways have to be well established so your body can do the task right without expending much conscious thought. And that will allow you to think about the next element of the task; in this case, cutting to the line.

Practice vs. experimentation: You also need to learn to differentiate practice and experimentation. You’ll have to experiment with things – try out different grips, moving your body an inch this way or that, using more or less pressure. Pay careful attention to how things feel, and to what works and what doesn’t. You’re going to have to learn through experience just how much pressure to apply (not much), how to stand, how to get the saw started (even less pressure). so that you get the results you’re looking for. The key is to know what you’re looking for, so you can tell the difference.

More thoughts on this can be found in my new book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking. You can pre-order it here:

The Foundations of Better Woodworking

Pins First, or Tails First? It Doesn’t Matter.

Want to start a woodworking argument? Start talking about cutting pins first or tails first for dovetails. And the funny thing is, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying there aren’t reasons for choosing one approach over the other. But that’s not what’s going to determine your success or failure with dovetails. Of course, that’s not what we’re led to believe. “The best method,” “a new method,” or “so-and-so’s method” are supposed to make it easier. And so we try these new methods, or new tools, or whatever, in the hope of finally getting better.

Most of the time, searching around for the best method is just chasing around in circles. It doesn’t address what’s really keeping you from improving. In fact, it’s a serious distraction from working on what’s really important.

So what’s the secret? The same things that are important when cutting mortises and tenons; good saw and chisel technique, which in turn is based on proper body position and movement, and a strong concept of how the tools actually work with the wood. Also important are good layout and a really clear understanding of the lines. Beyond that, it’s just a set of instructions and a fair bit of practice.

These foundations of good work are the subject of my new book, which is currently at the printer, and expected to be out in early November (and first available at Woodworking in America). Or you can pre-order from:

The Foundations of Better Woodworking

The Foundations of Better Woodworking!

The Foundations of Better Woodworking

I got an advance copy of my new book yesterday evening! And pre-ordering is now available at:

I’ve been through the text and the proofs so many times in the last few months that I really couldn’t bring myself to do more than glance through the actual book. I saw enough to tell that it looks great – it’s beautifully laid out and well printed. I also discovered the first typo (a very insignificant one that I will not identify here). Finding this was actually a relief. The first typo is sort of like the first dent on a new car; it makes it a little easier to live with anything else that comes up. It’s amazing that any mistakes get through the multiple checks that go on in the editing process (especially with an ace text editor like Megan Fitzpatrick), but things inevitably do get through.

The book is my attempt to address a major lack of attention paid to many of the most basic things that woodworkers need to know. It often seems as if we woodworking writers and teachers forget that most woodworkers don’t know what we do, and don’t even think to mention these essentials. But years and years of teaching have demonstrated to me that students don’t come with this knowledge and these skills already in place and ready to use. It’s important to talk about how to actually use your body to plane, or saw, or even to work at the tablesaw. It’s equally important to understand just what’s going on when one of your tools interacts with a piece of wood. And just what you’re trying to accomplish during the layout process (and how best to accomplish it). There’s much more as well, and I’ll post about a bunch of these topics over the next few months.

October 1, 2012 – Check out Andy Brownell’s review of The Foundations of Better Woodworking at: