Don’t be Mr. Weiner

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It’s easy to think that there aren’t any secrets left in woodworking. But I don’t think that’s true.

While a lot of the basic hand and machine skills are widely discussed and disseminated (thank you, Internet), a good deal of specialized and advanced knowledge is still frustratingly obscured. Here’s one small example.

When I was a junior editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine I was assigned to work with a prominent furniture-maker to help him develop his article ideas and get them into print. Standard stuff. I won’t use his name because I was raised right.

During a visit to his shop I noticed he had a lot of complex moulders and hollows and rounds planes. At that time, there were maybe four articles written about these planes that I could find. I was personally desperate to learn more, so I assumed that our readers would be as well.

The guy refused to write an article or even demonstrate how to use the tools.

“That,” he said, “is what makes my furniture special. I’m not going to show others how to do it.”

I think there’s a 50/50 chance that the guy actually had no idea how to use the planes and was embarrassed that he had them up on the wall. And if that was the case, then I totally forgive him for being human.

But if he really did know how to use them, then he’s no friend to the craft.

Most woodworking (even the complex stuff) is pretty simple once someone shows you the tricks that break the process down into logical and predictable steps. So I bristle when someone throws up a stone wall. That usually means the process really is exceedingly simple.

My search for an author who could explain hollows and rounds didn’t end that day. It ended several years later when I met Matt Bickford at a woodworking show. At the time he was thinking about becoming a full-time planemaker. He showed me two tricks at his pink-painted workbench that day, and I knew I had found the answer.

My years-long search eventually ended in us publishing “Mouldings in Practice” by Matt. It is one of our books I am most proud of because it is the first real text on making mouldings by hand. It makes the process incredibly simple. And it flips the bird to that furniture-maker I encountered many years ago.

Bottom line: If you know something, say something.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to Don’t be Mr. Weiner

  1. cmhawkins says:

    Aside from being the right thing to do, you reap what you sow During my time as an industrial scientist I was very open with what I knew. What I got back was comradery, corrections / additions to what I thought I knew and insight from others about things I knew little about.

    Especially important were my discussions with folks who stood in front of the machines all day. Some folks with lots of education believe the primary workforce isn’t as bright or motivated as scientists or engineers. Most laborers don’t know the chemical reactions occurring or the physics behind the processes, but the years spent running their machines gave them insight into nuances of the products and processes that a visitor to the factory would never see. Because I treated them with respect and shared with them as much as they wanted to know, they gave me insights into many important aspects of the products we made and the processes to make them.

  2. drewstout says:

    I never hide the methods I use to build. If someone wants to see the nitty gritty details I show them and explain how it goes together. As a result, I’ve been blessed with some of those people reciprocating and showing me a thing or two. Life doesn’t have to be a zero sum game if you don’t want it to be.

    Now, if there’s a specialized niche and someone wants to make learning easier by spending time collecting and concentrating the information into a book, video or class, I have no problem paying for it. The free online information I can find is like the free samples at Costco: it’s enough to whet the appetite but not enough to feed me.

  3. woddawg says:

    If your furniture maker DID know how to use the tools of his trade, he most likely had someone show HIM how to use them. Hoarding that knowledge and not passing it on, as you say, doesn’t help the craft. It does put him in the selfish and shallow crowd. I hope you and Mr. Sellers continue sharing.

    LB

  4. I think being humble is incredibly important in this craft. You must admit to yourself that there is always something new to learn. And, if you don’t share with others they will be unlikely to share with you.

  5. raney says:

    I dont know about this. My secret garden gnome carving process is never seeing the light of day.

  6. I find that wood workers fall into two camps – those that are prepared to share their knowledge and techniques and those that won’t share anything. For the life of me, I am not sure why this is.

  7. Kinderhook88 says:

    The same is true in all the trades, I’m afraid. I’ve been in construction for two decades. I was fortunate to cut my teeth in a learning environment, but its rare. I’ve found woodworkers much more open about sharing than any other trade.

  8. I find that the more secretive someone is, the less they know.

  9. woodworkerme says:

    I think if you know a trade then you are required to past that on. I have taught building maintenance to many of my helpers. I have been doing it for 40 years so I have seen it all, and fixed it. if not for people sharing there woodworking skills I may never have done a table top with maple tiger stripe. I kept getting tare out till someone said move the chirp breaker. so if you know share.

  10. carpenterman says:

    Well said!
    I believe this principle to be true for any trade. Except magicians perhaps.

  11. beshriver says:

    Challenge accepted…I’m writing a book…you asked for it, now you’ll have to read it. I’m sure it will be cringeworthy

  12. Niels Cosman says:

    Sharing information and techniques with others, whether teaching or being taught, is one of the most fulfilling activities in life.
    I would feel sorry for these saps, except I feel my good will would be wasted on their black little hearts (Raney).

  13. toolnut says:

    I would agree with everything everyone has said with one caveat, if it’s patented or patentable then you don’t have to share. Examples, Coca Cola recipe and closer to home Don Williams makes his Tordonshell and I seem to remember reading he applied for a patent. I don’t believe he has to share his exact recipe with anyone if he chooses not to. So, if Raney has applied for a patent on his gnome carvings, he gets a pass.

  14. misterlinn says:

    I’ve got some closely guarded secret techniques which I invented. Recently, I found them plagiarised by a Mr Hayward and published in a book of his. How on EARTH did he find out?

  15. Reblogged this on The Madcap Woodwright and commented:
    Interesting topic. One that deserves more discussion in my view. Great comments too.

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