How the Pros Do it


When you read advertisements for woodworking classes, books and magazines, one of the selling points sounds something like this: “You’ll learn to work just like the pros do, with plenty of tips and articles from pros on how they build stuff in a professional woodworking shop.”

It sounds compelling. I should know. I’m sure I used that bit to help promote Popular Woodworking. Professionals work fast. They have to be practical. And they do woodworking every day.

Amateurs, on the other hand, can work at their own pace. They can try antiquated or oddball techniques. And they do it at night and perhaps weekends.

My point: Professional techniques might not suit the amateur shop.

During the last year or so, I have tried to become a better teacher of amateurs. Instead of teaching a technique that gets things done quickly (but requires a lot of skill), I have tried to teach techniques that get things done well with a minimal amount of skill and a few more steps.

One example: Dovetails.

When I cut dovetails, I put the saw next to my knife line and cut down to the baseline as fast as I can manage. I have been cutting dovetails for 20 years now. I should be able to work without much in the way of guidelines or tricks.

But if you started cutting dovetails this Monday, the advice in the previous paragraph isn’t helpful. It is, in fact, frustrating and arrogant.

So the way I teach cutting dovetails is not the way I cut dovetails in my shop. It sounds duplicitous, but the results from my first-time dovetailers have convinced me it is a better way to go.

So sawing a pin is a multi-step process.

1. From the rear corner of the board, nibble a kerf along your knife line until you reach the corner near you.

2. Make one or two “cleansing strokes” to clear your nibbling into a kerf into which you can saw smoothly.

3. Saw down the face of the board only, dropping the handle of the saw gradually and never letting the saw leave the kerf on the end grain. Stop when your saw touches the baseline.

4. Remove the saw and clear the sawdust from its gullets.

5. Reinsert the saw and saw quickly forward. Let the two kerfs guide you down until your saw’s teeth touch the baseline at the front and rear of the board.

Whew. That’s a lot to explain. But it works. I also explain to students that someday they might leave this technique behind. And then I show them how I cut a tail or a pin as a demonstration.

I’ll admit that I feel guilty on some level. Perhaps I should pull a Mother Superior on them and just expect better. Show them how it’s done and expect them to work that way.

Here is what keeps me on my current teaching trajectory. Students say this during every class:  “These are the best dovetails I’ve ever cut.”

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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18 Responses to How the Pros Do it

  1. jeffvanek says:

    A video would have been a nice addition to this post

  2. You shouldn’t feel guilty about this. I’m a first-time woodworker, and I know I have a lot to learn. Having a sure way to get to what I want to do (which is “build something” at the end of the day) is the way to go. It doesn’t mean it’s “too easy”, it can still be a challenge for people who are new to this.
    And I’m a firm believer that, if you keep working the wood, if your love for this art stick with you, sooner or later, you’ll get to the better techniques, the professional one, in a very natural way.

  3. yazoonian says:

    Helping a beginner get results they can be proud of only leads to them continuing in the craft. Why would anyone want that?

    I too would look forward to a video demonstration. Think I get what you are saying, but a couple of pics/quick video never hurts. You can even leave the pink tutu off for this one.

  4. Clint Hoxie says:

    Using a successful technique that “takes longer” but yields good results is immeasurably more satisfying … AND QUICKER … than using a “fast” technique that requires 20 minutes of thinking about what to do to repair the bad job, fussing with the repair for another 10 minutes, followed by starting over with another piece of lumber because good enough isn’t good enough.

  5. carpenterman says:

    two points:
    1: you are not perfidious, when you are up front about what you are doing and explain why.

    2: In a much older post of yours you explained in great detail a similar technique on how to cut square through a large beam. Early in my life I learned how to do it professionally, even though I was never able to cut a straight line, hence my investment in a chop-saw. Some day I had to cut through a 6×6 that did not fit into the chop-saw (no not for a workbench), so I tried your technique and cut, for the first time in my life, a square cut with a handsaw. I was so elated I called my wife into the shop to show it off. I use handsaws regularly now, be course I gained the confidence to cut straight.

    3:How many people has Mother Superior reached? It’s all in the fruit!

  6. miathet says:

    After doing a lot of technical teaching in my life this is when you make the transition from demonstrator to teacher. In my experience, the amazing part of this is when you reflect you realize that you know more than before and are much capable about the subject and are open to new ideas. The other option is the cranky teacher who hasn’t changed a thing in 20 years.

    I suspect that once you adopted this approach that there were a lot of happier students and more satisfaction in teaching. There was for me.

    The approach of start here and this is my optimal strategy is great all around as people can choose there own level of success and not feel stuck if they can’t do optimal.

  7. paul6000000 says:

    It was your demonstrations of sawing, planing and layout on The Woodwright’s Shop that got me over the initial hand skills hurdle. Whenever anyone asks me about hand tool work, I point them to those three episodes. As Clint Hoxie says above, slow is fine because it’s the mistakes that really hold up a project.

  8. There was a time in education when the sole focus of the teacher was to impart content, and let the student sink or swim. They were exposed to all the material, and with luck retained 60% of it. That was Mother Superior’s classroom.

    Latterly, an approach frequently referred to as “Teaching for Success” has taken the fore. Teachers present the information in such a way as to encourage and ensure success. This is more student-centred in nature, and typically ends up with more successful students. They may have been exposed to only 80% of the material, but succeeded well in nearly all of it.

    As for using different (saw) strokes by different folks, everyone knows you have to walk before you run – so focus on teaching them to walk.

    Bottom line: A successful student is an engaged and successful student. Nothing will drive a student away from school (or woodworking) faster than failure from the start.

    Keep it up, Chris, and the Heck with Mother Superior.

  9. Mike Baggett says:

    The hands learn much more slowly than the head.

  10. Kevin says:

    Those wanting more instruction should look into the “Shaker Side Table” DVD from LAP (or from Lie-Nielsen). It really should be called, “How to do hand tool operations using a small table as an example” but I imagine that would be too long to fit on the cover.
    Seriously, I cut dovetails, mortises, tenons etc. how the DVD says, and they’ve never fit better.
    Special bonus: Chris likes the phrase “dead-nuts flat” and as such it can be used as a drinking game.

    • Thanks Kevin. I’ve been looking for just that kind of instructional video. Based on your recommendation, I’m buying “Shaker Side Table”.

    • JW says:

      Is there any plan to make the DVD library available as digital downloads? Taking a small screen device down to the shop is easier than convincing the SO to let a workbench into the living room (as tempting as that is).

  11. Mike Siemsen says:

    It is always good to see how others teach something. I just taught a course on joints. As it typical I had a group of beginners that didn’t have sharp tools and didn’t quite know how to use them, probably why they were seeking instruction! I find I usually need to teach basic sharpening, then I teach how to use a chisel and a saw. Then I can show them how a dovetail is cut. It is fun to see the improvement in only 3 or 4 joints.

  12. whintor says:

    Well done! To teach a skill, it is necessary to be able to “deconstruct” the process into single steps each of which can be copied by the learner.
    How many times have we seen an “expert” rattle off a skill, and then say, “You do it – it’s that easy”. This is the basis of some TV game shows.
    A video is an excellent addition to this. The learner can then refresh as required. As always, practice makes perfect.
    Keep up the good work.

  13. splelchecker says:

    Hi Chris

    See, this is what makes you a great writer / teacher of wood workers.

    The “pro” thing has always left me cold. Sounds too much like relentless sales jobs, and not where my interests lie. But taking a newbie along from limited skills to more advanced – well, that’s pretty cool.

    Analogy: my late Aikido / judo sensei used to focus on training champions. He trained a lot of them, very successfully. One day, though, he realized that his process for training champions was negative. It involved gradually eliminating everyone who was not a champion or champion-material.

    He switched his teaching focus. After this point, he sought ways to improve the teaching of Aikido and judo to people with very limited skills and experience (that would be me, among many others). This opened up these wonderful arts not just to the elite who might practice hours every day, but to sedentary Mr. Anyman, who might get to class once a week.

    I saw Karl throw a judo champ using one finger. Pretty cool – a lot of subtlety was involved. Even better, he then taught it to a green belt in five minutes so she could do the same thing. That’s amazing!

    Your approach opens the joys of woodworking to a great many people, who might otherwise be put off it. Please keep it up. Cheers.


    ps, Roubo bench almost done…


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