Nothing Special

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Sometimes I think this is important to say so that beginners can hear: It does not take much natural talent to become a highly skilled woodworker.

During the last 10 years I’ve taught a lot of students all over the world, and in almost every class there was at least one person who had more natural dexterity than I do. Though these particular students were all at the beginning of their journey in the craft, I could see that they could eclipse me in time if they simply stuck to it.

Likewise, there have only been two students I’d classify as hopeless. One in Connecticut; the other in Maine. That’s only two out of hundreds and hundreds.

Making stuff, really nice stuff, doesn’t require as much nimbleness as it does patience and perseverance. The basics – sharpening, sawing to a line, planing to a line and chopping – take time to seep into your hands. Once the basics are there, everything else gets easier. Turning, veneering, carving, hardware installation and fitting doors and drawers are all skills that build upon the basic set.

But mostly is has to do with the most profound and important piece of advice I ever heard from a student.

During a class in Texas, one of the students recounted how he made his workbench entirely by hand, including ripping 8’ planks for days and days to make the top lamination. One of the other students was simply amazed and asked him: “How did you do that?”

The student answered: “I just decided to commit to it. Once I committed, it was easy.”

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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23 Responses to Nothing Special

  1. Brian Hayner says:

    Hey Chris. I don’t know if you’ll get this or not or where it will land once I hit send and toss it into cyberspace. But I just wanted to take a second and say thanks. Thanks for all your time and effort you put into doing what you do. I JUST finished my Anarchists tool chest and couldn’t be more happy. I followed your book most of the time but deviated where I saw the need. “Disobey me” I believe was your only directive… It came out great and I couldn’t be more happy. It was a pleasure to meet your few years ago at a wood show in Saratoga Springs NY. Again, just one guys saying thanks for the work that you do that helps guys like me do what I do.

    Brian Hayner

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  2. Wesley Beal says:

    Something I’d add, after a few posts discussing a similar topic over on Greg Merritt’s blog (http://hillbillydaiku.com/), is simply put: don’t worry about being good at it.

    If you’re an amateur, a hobbyist trying to enjoy yourself, then focus on doing just that: enjoying yourself.

    I’m not waiting until I’m good at this to have fun doing it.

    Part of (and only part of) the fun is seeing yourself get better. There’s many other reasons people enjoy this. I like learning how the tools work, especially when it involves bringing an old tool back to life again. Others enjoy exploring different kinds of furniture that’s designed for it’s particular purpose, rather than the least common denominator of use that will achieve the largest market share, and sorta kinda do what most people need. Some just like the chance to work with their hands.

    Whatever it is for you, don’t ever forget to focus on that, and never let your current skill level get in the way of enjoying yourself.

  3. mpp12013 says:

    But it does take time. I had to make a set of dovetails 35 times before they were perfect . Michele

    Sent from my iPhone

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  4. Eric R says:

    I do it for me. and enjoy every minute of it.
    And, I’m one of those guys who met you (in Chicago at Jeff Millers) and were grateful for the tips you provided to help me get started.
    I really appreciate it.

  5. I really needed to see this today. I just put together the wonkiest saw bench the world has ever seen, after a few major mistakes that prevented me from even getting that far. But eventually, I will make one that is less wonky.

    • You “put together” a wonky saw bench? Heck, a lot of people would get frustrated half way through, saw screw it, and go watch TV. The very fact that you are willing to finish the project, mistakes and all, and learn from it makes you twice the woodworker as a lot of people I’ve known.

  6. greenebelly says:

    I would add that not setting unrealistic expectations is a biggie. No one decides ” Today, I’m going to build a car to rival Ferarri.” What ever you FINISH is great. See it through to the end and it will come. This fun stuff, remember?! That’s why there is a beer fridge, in the corner of the shop. 😉🤔

  7. domanicoj says:

    Great Advice and Great Post!! Thank you!

  8. Two “hopeless” students, one in Connecticut, one in Maine. Sounds like a New England problem to me. 🙂 Rick. (Connecticut)

    Sent from my iPad

  9. Justin Meehan says:

    Chris, Not sure if to ask this here or in the Forum … starting to build my own Anarchist tool chest so timing is perfect for this. How do you square the end grain on your large panels? Shoot them as one big panel somehow? Or do you shoot them smaller and try to glue up “perfectly” … this may sound amateur but still learning the “basics” you describe in this post. Thanks for the help!

  10. Somewhere in Connecticut and Maine are woodworkers wondering if they’re THAT woodworker. 😀 Seriously though, this is so spot on. Learning to do this kind of work is more like learning to drive than learning to paint. Do it lots, pay attention, and you’ll get it; no “Knack” is required.

  11. Yeung Chan had a beautiful way of putting a very closely related concept at the end of a class: We’re all climbing the same mountain. Some of us are higher up than others. If you only look at the higher-up climbers, you’ll miss realizing how far up you’ve come yourself. But the process is the same for all the climbers: put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over. Finally: once you get up high enough on the mountain, you come to understand it has no top.

  12. nwbwoodworks says:

    I think I know the guy you’re talking about in Maine… It was during the school box class. I remember the amount of time you spent setting up your tools for him to use and how he abused them.
    er… on second thought… It wasn’t me, was it!?!?!
    Cheers,
    Nick

  13. timothyvermillion says:

    I’ve been cutting alot of dovetails lately. As I do more and more I am sawing further away from the line because I’m afraid of risk. I figure I can pare my way to perfection. WRONG answer. Paring is way harder than sawing for me.
    I read one of your writings that said to saw to the line and take the risk. Now I know why. I keep running the thought through my mind that sawing to the line is like asking the girl out that you really want to ask. Not just the one that will say yes.

  14. ouidavincent says:

    This totally crazy thing happened….I started a “honey do” for our mudroom. 40 x 10. Six dovetails per side. Used my moxon vise. Took me 8 hours to cut and fit the joints using 3/8, 1/2, 3/4 and one inch chisels. Each cuts differently. I hadn’t appreciated that fact fully. I decided to wait until the next day to glue the carcase. It was then that I realized that if the end panel was longer I would have had the carcase for a tool chest. Something shifted in that moment. Maybe some of the aura of the “hardness” of hand tool work disappeared.

  15. Similar story as ouidavincent. I’ve been stuck on a couple design options for a mudroom bench. Didn’t want to make a mistake so I’ve done nothing. Read this post and decided the best way to get over it was to head down into the shop and start cutting wood. Thank you, Mr. Schwarz.

  16. oldret1sg says:

    Chris,

    Thanks for that. I seem to spend 90 percent of my agonizing and 10 percent doing the job. My wife has told me several times “Honey, its wood. It actually grows on trees” That has helped me get off the dime several times, and get the imperfect job done. Besides most of what I worry about never happens. It’s usually new stuff or procedures that come up to trip me up a bit, but I learn something new every time. Thanks again.

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