Obsessions With the Tools or the Craft

There are only a few times that I want to throw myself off a bridge. Here is the No. 1 thing that has made me crazy during the last 20 years of writing, teaching and doing woodworking.

A guy calls me and starts asking questions – detailed questions – about the tools he needs to get started in the craft. I answer his questions, which take (sometimes) hours to thoroughly answer. He comes back with more questions. I answer. Questions. Answers. On and on.

Time passes.

He then asks me how best to sell all his woodworking gear because now he is deep into golf, guitars or cars.

This has happened dozens of times to me.

I’m not trying to poop on people who obsess only about the tools of our craft. OK, I am. The tools are secondary. Heck, that’s not even right. They are tertiary to the things we build and the materials we use.

Yes, it’s OK to get obsessed with the tools. But get over that – quickly – and move on.

Yes, it’s OK to get obsessed with the material. Again, get over that and move on.

After 20 years of building stuff, I am singularly obsessed with the skills. I get the material. I get the tools. But there is no end to the skills you can acquire to apply the tools to the material to produce something really beautiful. Something with grace, which transcends both the materials and the simple tools you used. Something that transcends even you.

When I teach woodworking classes, I often talk about the “signal to noise” ratio in the writings about woodworking. Almost everything – even what I write – is almost pure noise. Let’s compare this tool to that tool. This sharpening process to that. Diamonds to waterstones. Yawn.

Signal is rare.

Signal is about what people cannot describe easily in words, photos or video. Signal is the way we move our hands that is different from the way that less-experienced people move their hands.

Signal is that small bit of information you personally rescue from the cacophony of drivel.

— Christopher Schwarz, who is done dispensing drivel for the day.

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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45 Responses to Obsessions With the Tools or the Craft

  1. Eric R says:

    Well put.

  2. James McCoy says:

    I think some people place too much emphasis on the destination and so are easily bored and frequently lost. Bless you for all your patience and understanding. There are many of us out here who you are helping to navigate a rewarding and fulfilling journey. Though we may not get to speak to you directly, we thank you.

    Although they may be obsessions, I like to think that I have a healthy fascination for the tools, a deep appreciation of the materials, and a love affair with the results, especially the process of getting there. You speak my language.

    I’m a little more than half way through MIP and I’m enjoying it as much as you said we would. Seems like LAP is batting a thousand! Keep them coming. If there is one thing I’m obsessed with it is good books.

  3. Ryan Bishop says:

    Chris, if you were putting out any more signal, my computer would explode. Please include a disclaimer on your blog.

  4. But seriously- where do I sell my tools? Just kidding… I can easily say that I am obsessed with buying tools at this stage- but I do use them and experience “flow” while doing so. That’s what has me obsessed with woodworking in general. Time and everything else just melts away.

  5. Rob Drown says:

    We look forward to tomorrows noise. You put youserf into your writing & woodworking and we appreciate your struggle and honesty. Your signal comes through to each based on their filter.

  6. Beautifully written, Chris. As an old radio operator, I have to smile about folks swiping a technical term like “signal to noise ratio,” but it happens to be a metaphor that really works. I agree as well that any work that we do should contain within itself the seeds of self transcendence. I’ll stop now before I go on to sound like a bad parody of “Kung Fu,” Grasshopper.

  7. dieborn says:

    There are people who obsess about telling people the “right way” to do the craft and complaining about and criticising those who disagree with them on the internet as well. (Yeah I’ve just checked out Wood Central for the first time after reading your previous blog post.)

    Think about the things that could be created or skills further honed, opportunities now lost because, shock horror, someone was “wrong” on the Internet!

    Speaking of which, I’m off out to do some work.

  8. robert says:

    agreed.

  9. TJIC says:

    Nice.

    My own path into (and out of) failure was similar, but a bit different – I obsessed about tools, and kept trying to do real work with the tools I’d acquired, but I could never actually USE the tools. For almost a decade I thoughtlessly piled up STUFF but could never get over the hump to CREATE…until I realized that the missing element was a workbench. The problem I’d been having was that whenever I tried to actually accomplish something, I didn’t know how to hold stuff still.

    This is so stunningly obvious in retrospect that I feel embarrassed to say it out loud, but I’d been trying to work on a 2×6 and plywood utility bench with a machinists vice at one end (the same kind my dad and every other handy guy in the neighborhood had had).

    Chris, your books made me realize (like a slap to the face) what I’d been doing wrong. So I went and built a traditional style bench (not perfect, not of the best, but good enough

    http://tjic.com/archive/bench_final_7_s.jpg

    http://365bowls.com/?p=49

    )

    …and once I did that, the barriers fell. Now I could ** DO ** stuff.

    And because I had spent the previous decade acquiring tools (all the handplanes I needed, chisels, etc.), I was able to jump right in.

    So:

    yes, tool collecting without skill is stupid

    …but tool collecting with a bench in hand is a lot less likely to end in despair and a big tool sale.

  10. yaakov says:

    Well put! yaakov…

  11. I can appreciate both. I seem to learn in the noise but long to live in the signal. The noise deepens my experience of the signal.

  12. GregM says:

    Chris, you are talking here about avocational woodworkers; hobbyists; part-timers who do this for pleasure and a break from the pressures of the rest of life. If someone’s primary interest is the simply the tools, or simply the wood, or simply the sharpening process, then that’s OK. You are quite entitled to be judgemental of those who waste your time, but remember that not all of us whose path crosses yours are on the same journey to the same destination.

  13. Erik Tosten says:

    Nicely put. Signal to Noise I like it.

  14. Sean says:

    I think it’s a matter, as in most things human, of following what I’ll call the “delight.” If what delights a person is acquiring things, then buying tools may be an end in itself. If what delights a person is collecting rarities, gathering tools or coveted pieces of wood may become ends in themselves. If a person is delighted by acquring skills, learning to plane or saw or cut dovetails may be ends in themselves. A person who delights in making things, however, will view these threshold matters as distant seconds. If creating does not delight you, will not create much. If creating does delight you, the implements and materials that allow you to create will no doubt delight you too, but they will always be simply means to the ultimate goal.

  15. pat says:

    Years and years ago craftsmen created many beautiful pieces of furniture, that are still here. They didn’t have the tools they had the craft.

    • David Pickett says:

      They had the incentive, as well. If they didn’t turn the work out and sell it, they went hungry. That’s a strong incentive to make even quite basic tools do a job.

  16. You are dead on Chris. After getting my first SB Type 11 #4, I focused on getting the tools I needed to do decent work. One day I woke up and realized that I had crossed the threshold of “enough” tools to do decent work. Still, I marched on, acquiring and rehabbing vintage tools. Yes I was curious about different makers and comparing the performance differences. But when I did get around to putting steel to wood, my results were less than satisfying.

    I could, for example, rehab the heck out of a plane, but my handcut dovetails needed a lot of work.

    Finally, I realized that to progress as a woodworker I had to focus just as diligently on learning and practicing woodworking techniques as I did on acquiring my tools. At first, it was hard because when I rehab a tool, I can easily see excellent results whereas when I cut a rabbet with a saw it still looked sloppy.

    At first. Getting the right tools helped (shoulder plane, hand router). Then, as I practiced, I started to notice improvements. My joinery became tighter. That gives me hope that with more learning and more practice, I can one day reach a level that I’m satisfied with.

    I’ve also noticed that having fettled the daylights out of my vintage tools that I’m liberated to focus on the work and reap the benefits of my rehab labors. So on my latest project, I didn’t wonder whether my toolkit was sufficient, or whether my plane irons were sharp enough, or whether my backsaw needed 5 degrees more fleam. Instead, I concentrated on making straight cuts, shooting edges to fit snugly, and adding design elements to add visual interest.

    Yes there are a few more tools I’d like to add, mostly joinery planes, but I’ve shifted my focus to books and dvds and actually getting into my shop to practice the techniques I’m learning from them.

  17. Jay Oyster says:

    Let us see . . .buying lots of tools, and then turning around and selling most of them . . . . now who does that remind me of? Hmmmm. Let me think . . .

  18. Dave Jeske says:

    Chris,
    Thank you for the signal here. Anything that gets you to stop and really think for a moment has some attribute of signal to it. Sometimes it is just a matter of tuning in.

  19. Julien Hardy says:

    Makes me think of Krenov when he speaks about the why instead of the how.

  20. Harlan Janes says:

    Poor or wasteful signal to noise ratios apply to many of life’s endeavors. Consider TV “news”. Consider CNBC. And much of the miscellaneous stuff that finds its way to my inbox. Obviously lostartpress.com has more a more favorable ratio since it addresses important subjects of our time like sheep liposuction.

  21. Trevor Angell says:

    There is something authentically spiritual about skill. My appreciation of wood, use of tools, application of design – all these things are, for me, primarily spiritual.

    Can’t stop the signal.

  22. Kerry says:

    Its all signal (even the noise)… then you die. Whatever level they’re on, enjoy your distractions fully. :-)

  23. Mark says:

    Wait… so what’s the best bench plane?

  24. David Pickett says:

    Maybe there’s an element of shaky self confidence in some people. Most of us recognise that doing anything involves doing it badly to start with, then doing it a bit better, then doing it quite well, then, after weeks or months of practice, doing it well. Some folks want to go from novice to expert instantly, and loose all interest when they don’t. Having the confidence to do it badly for a while is not something everybody has, especially in a world full of instant gratification.

    Here’s the path to craftsmanship – fail miserably time and again until you start not to. You can’t hear the signals until you learn to tune out the noise.

  25. Lane says:

    Well said.

    To increase SNR, we have three (basic) choices: control the environment (reducing noise), filter noise or process (boost) signal. Blogs, magazines, webcasts are signal…noise is (mostly) on the receiver end.

    You keep boosting signal, Chris, we’ll take care of the noise.

  26. Bob Jones says:

    Check. My favorite part of the craft is what can be acomplished. I may not feel like I accomplish much at my full time job some days, but that night I can straighten a rough sawn board or make two boards fit together like they are one and then feel a bit better about the day.

  27. mike siemsen says:

    I have been asked on more than one occaision which tool/tools could I not do with out. I always point to my head and hold out my hands. (To be clear I do not point to the point on my head and I do not drive nails with my forehead). These are the tools I use the most. I find that most marketing is aimed at getting around using the head and hands in our craft, how and why are far more important than what we buy.

  28. Dan Miller says:

    Chris, This is why I continue to read what you write. I am impressed with the guy who knows every divot of every plane ever made and can identify each year , make and model of every tool you put in his/her hand. At the same time there is that intangible nature to the craft that transcends the rest, and while we may get caught up in the mundane, just the knowledge it’s there and we acknowledge that it has meaning shows were not all completely buried in the sand. (God I sound like an old Hippy)

  29. William Payne says:

    Thanks Chris…I needed that…

  30. Your demonstration of foundation skills on The Woodwright’s Shop changed everything for me. I’m so freaking greatful that you continue to expand, refine and share your perspective on things.

  31. Scribe says:

    I think some of the people who do this type of purchase-heavy stuff think that owning all of the best woodworking tools will somehow magically make them an expert woodworker. This thinking is doomed for failure. For example, if you gave me a Stradivarius violin, I wouldn’t sound like Jascha Heifetz.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that there is another type of person out there who does this: the poseur. Poseurs are defined as “a person who attempts to impress others by assuming or affecting a manner, degree of elegance, sentiment, etc., other than his or her true one.” In other words, the next-best thing to being an expert woodworker is looking, talking and acting like one. They want to rub elbows with Chris Schwarz and act like they’re peers. They always act mildly underwhelmed when they see that new project you’re proud of. Nothing is ever sharp enough to meet their standards of true sharpness. It goes without saying that they can’t use the nice tools that they own nor can they do any real woodworking. They get tired of woodworking when their act wears thin, so they sell the tools and move on to a new hobby where they do the same thing all over.

  32. Ray Schwanenberger says:

    Well said friend! A tool is only as good as the person using it. Beautiful material can be made to look horrible if not skillfully arranged. Don’t get me wrong I too am a tool “enthusiast”, but honing my skills and expanding my knowledge is what drives me.

  33. Brett says:

    So, how do I sell my skills?

  34. Jeb says:

    It’s amazing how unaware people are of the cost of other’s time. Wish there was a way we could pay you for the advice we want. It would be worth it. And it would get rid of the freeloaders.

  35. Andy says:

    Really, Really, Really Good. Now, anyone want to buy a set of golf clubs?

  36. woodgods says:

    We have one in Australia (Perth), Riding on the shoulders of giants is becoming prolific in the woodworking world.It seems tools we use are easier to obsess over than the actual craft.
    But we know who the real gods are.

  37. Graham Burbank says:

    Remember that the most important tools in your shop are found between your ears. To that end, the contents of my bookshelf are far more valuable than that of my toolbox.

  38. Art says:

    Chris, I hear you and I feel your pain. I work retail, in a model hobby shop. “What’s the fastest truck you’ve got?? My 5 year old wants fast”. “Ever driven one of these?” “Nope, but it’s gotta go fast!!!!”

    I approach woodworking like photography. You can have the best, but if you don’t know how to apply the skill to it, the result is gonna suck. Doesn’t matter that my shop is filled from swap meets and garage sales or the L-N catalog, the project is gonna suck regardless if I don’t know and learn how to apply steel to wood.

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