We Are Equally Crappy

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Your innate intelligence, your achievements in the corporate world and the number of degrees you have earned at university won’t help you much at the bench when you start woodworking.

To be sure, some people have some natural dexterity (I didn’t) that helps them take the first steps in the craft. But after teaching a lot of beginners during the last 10 years, I have found there is only one way to get good at woodworking: Do a lot of woodworking.

As David Savage says: “You need to build a shed-load of furniture.”

This simple fact is sometimes hard to accept for people who are used to being a star pupil or an outstanding employee. I’ve had CEOs, attorneys, surgeons, PhDs and one high-ranking politician get quite frustrated when they cut dovetails and their results look no better (or even worse) than the elevator repairman at the bench next to theirs.

When anyone (regardless of their position in society) gets frustrated because they have failed in a class, I try to trace their steps to disaster. Did you do this? This? How about this?

Many of them lie, but their work tells the truth. Their chisel was dull and too wide. They didn’t mark the waste. They used a coping saw to remove the half pin. They used their own cockamamie marking system instead of the traditional “marriage mark” that I begged them to use.

How they respond to this failure determines if they will learn anything or not. You cannot buy a tool to get you out of these weeds. You cannot simply say, “But I’m a doctor,” and have the door opened for you. You have to admit: I stink, and I need to know the steps to become good.

Those steps aren’t usually found in books, I’m afraid. A book can tell you how to saw, but those instructions are meaningless until you are sawing. With some people I had to literally take them by the hands and guide their strokes so they could feel it. That’s humiliating for some, I know. But you cannot download this. It is uploaded through your fingers.

The way forward is, I’m afraid, to destroy your sense of self. Become a small child on the first day of school and do what exactly what you are told. Gradually, you will match the letters to sounds, the vibrations to results, the patterns into words and the wood into furniture.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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34 Responses to We Are Equally Crappy

  1. Richard King says:

    What, pray, is a (sic) “marriage mark”?

    • The better name for a cabinetmaker’s triangle.

      • WarrenP says:

        Marriage Mark. That’s fantastic. I learn so many useful, and even more just-plain-awesome things when I read this blog.

        In zen practice they call this the Beginners Mind, and its exactly what’s blocking me from spending more time in the shop and learning more skills. I need a bit more zen than I’ve currently got.

      • nevynxxx says:

        Ah! I may gett better google results from that. I feel a blog post on that subject needs to go on the list though 😉

  2. hgordon4 says:

    Ego, ego, ego. I actually like working with my hands in large part because of the humility-inducing perspective it provides. I’m a professional, and a business owner. And, as you say Chris, none of that means anything when I’m in my shop (except POSSIBLY that I have applicable project management skills).
    One of my favorites:
    A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “This is you,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

  3. xxxmike says:

    Google certainly doesn’t know 🙂
    Come on Chris – what’s a “marriage mark:?

    • xxxmike says:

      Google certainly doesn’t know 🙂
      Come on Chris – what’s a “marriage mark:?
      Equally (or more, even) important is what’s that on the workbench?

  4. kendewitt608 says:

    As a craftsman I took a dovetail class with in New Hampshire told me, after 5 or 6 hundred of these it gets easier !

  5. waltamb says:

    Yes sir Chris,

    I often say:
    Confidence cannot be bought or taught, confidence is caught.

    You chase after it you read, watch, listen and learn.
    Then it is your turn to go for it.
    Each attempt at perfection gets you closer and that is the only way to be confident in anything.

    Thanks again Chris.

  6. seawolfe2013 says:

    Your post is so, so true. Over the last 20 or 25 years of building my own home (it will or will not be done someday) and lots of cabinets, I am struct by, “why did I do it that way?” when I look closely at something or go to repair something that I did so long ago. Probably in the future, my future self will look back at what I did today and say, “Why did I do it that way?” yet again. Today chisels feel comfortable in the hand, I have finally figured out how to use planes in addition to a block plane (still learning), and sawing is getting less awkward. I am always learning. That is the attraction of woodworking and spending time in the shop, there is always more to learn. After all, I am only an egg.

  7. Frank Vucolo says:

    Chris,

    What you describe in the later part of the post is something I have found a necessary part of advancing in this craft: tacit knowledge.

    You don’t get it in books, magazines videos or from websites.

    It is why I think everyone, regardless of skill level, should take classes and seminars that place them in the presence of great craftsmen.

    • raney says:

      And this – tacit vs. explicit knowledge – is the great bane of society that is my own personal white whale. When we are so data driven and efficiency-smitten we are immensely prone to naïveté. and when ‘metrics’ hold sway over any and all real world results, we are heading for a major correction.

      Explicit vs tacit, for anyone not up on the terminology (and god knows I wish i wasn’t) is simple: it’s the difference between studying reproduction and having sex. The first does nothing to prepare you for the second other than giving you a better lexicon.

      “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” -YB

  8. Scott Taylor says:

    Ego is the bane of success…

  9. simonjhillier says:

    Great post Chris.

    I tend to find the higher up / more qualified / important a person is has an inversely propionate ability to take instructions. Also the male of the species tends to have a “I know what I’m doing” ego which is not good to be able to soak up new lessons.

  10. stevevoigt says:

    I nominate this for the best post you’ve ever written. And that’s a damned high bar to clear.

  11. Joe says:

    Hurrah for you, happy Labor Day

  12. Brian says:

    Easily one of the best “how to” blog posts I’ve ever read. Leave your ego at the door along with the names on the side of your tools. Minnesota Fats didn’t hustle people with a broomstick on his very first game on the table. It took years of practice. Well said sir. Im in my humble garage shop everyday. The result ? I’m a 20 year overnight sensation to my friends whose careers run from chemist, CEO of New England operations of a global corporation, to engineer, to a division director of a federal branch of civil service. I’m just a draft beer tech that solves problems in pubs and taverns with beer issues. But I work with my hands in my garage shop everyday. If parts are in clamps, I’m dovetailing or chopping a mortise or sharpening a plane or chisel. It’s like the old joke of “how do I get to Carnegie Hall ? Practice man, practice…”

  13. waltamb says:

    I’ve know some nice people with so many degrees they could be a Thermometer but… could not even tie their own shoes.

  14. Eric R says:

    One of your better posts.

  15. paul6000000 says:

    I enjoyed something Peter Follansbee said on his latest Woodwright’s Shop appearance.

    “Foresight comes from experience. Experience comes from lack of foresight.”

  16. “With some people I had to literally take them by the hands and guide their strokes so they could feel it” I do the same thing when I teach canoeing!! I can totally relate to the entire post here!!

  17. jleaycraft says:

    I too agree about the importance of this post. I buy books and DVD’s. I’ve bought the tools, BUT nothing is comparable to actually doing woodwork. Returning after a 50 yr. hiatus means my skills are poor and I must relearn them. Hands on instruction and actually making mistakes and learning is magnitudes above virtual woodworking. I just completed a KD Nicholson. The joints aren’t pretty, the top has gaps where it joins the frame, but it is solid. I learned from every mistake; I intend to go to the next step and build on it starting small and getting larger. It is by doing I will improve.

    ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?’, – Robt. Browning

  18. Jim Maher says:

    I remind myself of this idea each time I try something new. I even sometimes remind myself when I’m doing something I’m not really adept at (which, really, is everything).

    Slow and careful and exactly what I’m told gets an acceptable result. Second one is a bit better, since I’m still careful and obedient, and now have hope. Third is faster, and just as good, ’cause now I’m practiced.

    Fourth is crap, ’cause I went and started to believe I knew what I was doing! Usually, I try to figure out how to fix it (hey, I can just glue a sliver of wood in here) and mess it up further, and get despondent and throw everything on the bench and walk away and not come back for two weeks.

    But every once in a while I put everything away, leave, and come back the next day and start again.

    My guess is I’ll never get the hundreds of repetitions I’ll need to get good and justifiably confident. I’m just gonna have to settle for incremental improvements that no one can see but me.

  19. josef1henri says:

    Chris, this is a wonderful article you have written. I have taught blacksmithing some, and it is always frustrating to me to watch student’s beginning attempts. But I was reminded recently just how important practice and repetition is. I had shoulder surgery last spring and couldn’t hammer with my left hand, so once I could use my left to hold things I had to learn to hammer with my right. It was an eye opener. I was a child again. Everything about using that hammer was new and strange and it gave me an appreciation for how your body learns.

  20. Mike Siemsen says:

    So many don’t want to start at the beginning, they want to swim in the deep end of the pool and they don’t know how to tie the knot to hold their swimsuit on. There are those who strive for perfection when what they need to strive for is improvement, try to do better than the last time rather than frustrate yourself with the pursuit of perfection.
    The more I read about woodworking the better I get at reading. Practice, but practice proper technique, get some lessons so you do not practice doing something incorrectly. Build a good solid foundation of skills rather than a tool box full of tools you don’t know how to use, you cannot buy your way in. Learn to sharpen, learn about the material, how it acts and wants to be worked.
    One of the great things about woodworking is that no matter how badly your project turns out you will get a nice warm feeling when you burn it. Enjoy yourself!

  21. You can’t buy skill.

    Outstanding post Chris. In your top ten for sure.

  22. Deniseg says:

    I’m working on my first shed load now. I may need 2 sheds!

    • miniaturepanjandrum says:

      Last week the Royal Festival Hall saw the first performance of a new symphony by one of the world’s leading modern composers, Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson….

  23. John Lhotka says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. Your message also rings true for my daytime profession, forestry (at night I turn to working wood instead of growing it). One leaves school with knowledge of forest science, but understanding of the discipline’s art and practice is only gained through study of experiences from many beautiful and down-right tough days in the forest.

  24. Frank says:

    These type of posts drew me initially to your blogs, Chris! Was just starting to miss them, then you gave us this remarkable one, which we can all associate with!!
    My problem with “downloading sufficient technique through my finger tips in order to become a proficient woodworker” (I’ll remember that one), is that I’m so darn scared of making mistakes, I work ever so painfully slowly and meticulously. You should have seen me with my rising dovetailed Roubo bench! Took ages. I have a pet hate for having to do something over, perhaps because I have such limited time available to pursue this interest of mine. Still, I’m savoring every shaving and chip I make.
    Frank
    Cape Town

  25. I’m just glad you didn’t hold my hands.

  26. gdblake says:

    Hands on training is the best way to learn most stuff. It also helps to have the proper tools with which to develop skill. I started woodworking 45 years ago and hit a plateau in my skill level about 30 years ago. Then a friend showed me what sharp really meant and how to actually get it. With truly sharp tools my skill development took a major leap forward. Then about 5 more years past and thanks to Lie-Nielsen and a bunch of other people better tools became available. I found that with those better tools my work got more refined and my skills increased even more. Good tools don’t guarantee you’ll become a great woodworker, but crappy, poorly sharpened tools can sure make it harder to get there. I learner that from experience.

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