Don’t Be ‘That’ Student


After more than 10 years of teaching woodworking classes, I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff, from a guy who slammed his tools to the floor when he couldn’t cut a tenon to a woman who was so rich and odd that she tried to buy all my tools off my bench. Oh, and a guy who almost died from a heart attack.

More typical, of course, is to have a class where one student does everything he can to ruin the experience for everyone.

As I get set to take my first woodworking class in more than five years at David Savage’s shop, I thought you might want to hear about how I plan to get the most out of my week on the other side of the bench.

1. Take notes. Draw pictures. Review.
I couldn’t have made it through college without taking notes, and woodworking classes are no different. When I take a class, I dedicate an entire notebook to the enterprise and write down everything. I draw pictures of all the setups with dimensions. And I write down anything clever or profound that the instructor says.

Even more important, I review my notes before the next day’s class. The notes show me how I got to that particular point and where I am going.

Taking notes helps you and the entire class. When a student asks me four times how to do an operation, I fall behind in teaching other students.

2. Socialize – to a Point
I’ve seen woodworking classes where people have made new best friends and even forged new business plans. And that’s the highest reward of a class.

I’ve also seen classes fall into chaos when two chatterboxes put the brakes on the entire classroom by getting distracted by their new relationship.

Some classes have times when you have to wait on a tool to do a certain operation. Socialize then, at mealtimes and after class. You are paying about $20/hour (plus expenses) for the instruction. Make the most of it.


3. Open Your Own School
Every class has at least one “special” student – someone lacking social skills, personal hygiene or self-control. The most difficult classes have three or four of the specials – and they feed off one another.

If you have to comment on or challenge many operations of the instructor, maybe you aren’t cut out for a class. Asking questions is necessary – but if you go off the reservation and off-topic, your fellow students will sharpen their knives. Yes, I have experienced open revolt against a few students.

If you have left-field questions, save them for after class or offer to take the instructor out for a drink.

4. Don’t Make the Class Something it Isn’t
Many students approach me before a class and say something like: “Hey, I know we are building a tool chest, but I’d like to build a chest of drawers instead. Can you help me along?”

The instructor should say, “Nope.” But really it’s not a question that should even be asked. Most classes are strapped for time. Diverting the class isn’t fair to the rest of the students.

5. Don’t Ask the Instructor to Do the Work
Some students are there only for the trophy – the finished project. And so they are eager to let the instructor or assistants do their work for them. True, there are times the instructor has to do an operation for all the students to take a shortcut (such as milling stock). But if you don’t cut the wood, your fingers aren’t learning squat.

I would rather try and fail than watch and succeed.


6. On Borrowing & Loaning Tools
I’m always happy to let students and fellow instructors try my tools. After all, it’s a great way to test different brands or tools you are curious about.

Even so, always ask before you borrow. And always return the tool immediately after a few minutes of work.

Some students think that borrowing my block plane grants them carte blanche all week – with a sharpening service, too.

7. How to Become the Instructor’s Friend
Some students try to befriend the instructor – that’s cool, even instructors need friends. But there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way can throw a class off the rails.

Wrong way: Chat up the instructor at every moment, sucking up all the time between demonstrations and preventing the instructor from checking the work of all of the students.

Right way: Step in to help without being asked. If a fellow student is falling behind, offer to help them by sharpening a plane or a chisel. Or if the fellow student seems confused, explain the operation to help them along. Offer to help move heavy materials for the class. And almost finally….


8. Buy Doughnuts
Sugar, lard and cream filling improve everyone’s woodworking. Believe it.

Finally, shower every morning, use deodorant and brush your teeth. Or take a class in slopping barns.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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33 Responses to Don’t Be ‘That’ Student

  1. hgordon4 says:

    All true…
    Sad that it has to be said…
    Stuff their parents should have taught them…
    And in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Oooooh…. donuts…”

  2. diceloader says:

    Substitute “Student” with “Employee” and you have the potential to improve most people’s lives …

  3. Kev Alviti says:

    So true! I’ve been on many courses where I could have planed another students head off!

  4. travisrknapp says:

    I hope that was never me. Not sure I get the “sausage party” picture?

  5. npc29 says:

    #9 don’t try to be the instructor

    Having taken many classes trying to learn this craft, with questionable success, I find these individuals raise my blood almost as fast as the jackass that “borrows” tools then looks suprised when you come in need of it.

    If I wanted to learn how you do things I would take a class from you and not have sought out the instruction from the person I paid for. You may have a cool trick or divergent way of completing a task that is historically more accurate, but keep it contained in your forum absorbing meat-bucket.

    I’m sure you’re a nice person, but I don’t want to be interrupted by your brain spasm of insight; again, I didn’t pay to be taught be you and you can ruin your Woodworking Guild’s follow along builds instead of my class!

    So Chris, what size and TPI jigsaw blades should I bring to CVSW for the bench build in August?

  6. martingreen1511 says:

    And always be wary of students with “Shifty” eyes

  7. beshriver says:

    for the most part, even with my brash sense of humor, I’m far to polite to be that guy. That being said, if you (or anyone else) were fool enough to let me borrow your Andrew Lunn saw, you would never see it again…well okay, i wouldn’t steal it, but i would think about it, which is almost the same thing.

  8. waltamb says:

    So true, thanks for writing this.
    Often time it can be hard to be a student in a class if you have tried and/or done woodworking for a long time.
    I want to learn new thing, new approaches but sometimes past experiences can at time arm you with a skill set powerful enough to challenge any instructor. But it is imperative that as a student we remain silent, listen, take notes, try the methods being taught and speak only when spoken to.
    I really appreciate you sharing things like this Chris.

  9. Sergeant82d says:

    Awesome timing of this post – I fly out today for my first woodworking class; I’ll be spending the week in Canada with Rob Cosman. While I had already planned on the notebook and showers, I appreciate the reminders for the rest of the list.

  10. shopsweeper says:

    I’m not sure why I was singled out here on so many of these. True, you didn’t use my name, but just that annoying Minister does weekly – I know that you are talking about me. 🙂

    … You did forget: The Freelance Standup Comic (me), The Junior Instructor (#9 in above comments), The Self-appointed Hall Monitor, and The Tool Showoff.

    The Tool Showoff is not really disruptive at all, I just get really jealous of her/him.

    • You should talk. You brought the biggest mallet ever made to the bench class at MASW five(?) years ago.


      And you were a huge help all week in calming the waters….

      • shopsweeper says:

        Despite being worn down and scarred, we will be back at FORP2. And the mallet is not looking that great either.

  11. Rachael Boyd says:

    thank god I haven’t had any students like that. I do however keep my classes small 5 students max.

  12. Rick says:

    Jesus Schwarz, you’re more demanding than Follansbee–

  13. toolnut says:

    Great post. (And it doesn’t only happen in woodworking classes). Maybe the reading of this post could be the first item the class completes for every class you teach. It couldn’t hurt.

  14. 61chrysler says:

    Wierd student story- While I was instructing a group of photo students in the methods of loading film into developing canisters (totally dark) a woman started screaming. When the lights came on, she was crawling on the floor convinced she was crawling on the ceiling.

  15. So is it OK to pull out your fancy phone to take a quick video of a couple of famous woodworker gents bucking a log? The guy in the red suspenders did say “roll tape!”

  16. nateharold says:

    On taking notes: I cut dovetails about twice a year. I use my scratchy notes from your William Ng duthc toolchest class – works great.

    Also, my mom has always said I’m special. Now I wonder what she meant.

  17. Brian says:

    NOW you tell me to shower…

  18. wilburpan says:

    My favorite move: the student that asks the instructor a super-esoteric hyper-detailed question about the topic being taught. The instructor answers the question. The student nods approvingly, as if the instructor had passed a test of some sort.

    • When Your Servant is Your Master.

      — The Police

    • Bob Jones says:

      When I give free demos my answers to these questions only lead to more questions. I generally just grin and nod after two – at least they feel like they won and they walk away. Then people who really want to learn will stop being distracted by their nonsense.

  19. Grasshopper become one with the tool do not be a tool

  20. On borrowing tools, don’t return it to the owner and say, “it broke.” Say, ” I’m sorry, I broke it.” It wouldn’t hurt to offer a condolence beer.

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