Be Fox Mulder, Not Cotton Mather


My favorite T-shirt. I used to wear this to the first day of class when I taught at woodworking schools.

The best thing I can say about graduate school is that it taught me to think.

When someone presents an idea to you that is the opposite of everything you’ve read before and everything you believe is true, how do you react? Most people reject the new information like a kidney grafted to the place where the liver should be.

I used to be like that until I started reading Noam Chomsky’s criticisms of how mass media works.

Here’s the dime-store paperback version: Look for information that doesn’t match the conventional wisdom. This new information may not be correct either, but you should examine it closely because it will teach you something.

Here’s how this plays out in the workshop.

In 2007, we re-published Joseph Moxon’s “The Art of Joinery” – the first English language book on woodworking – with some commentary from me. In the book, Moxon discusses “traversing” a board with a fore plane to clean it up and remove twist. I demonstrated this operation in the book and readers on the discussion forums howled.

Sadly, posts on the forums expire, so digging up the discussion is difficult. But here’s the gist:

  1. “Traversing” doesn’t really mean working across the grain.
  2. You never work across the grain with a plane. You work “with the grain,” that’s why we have this expression in our language.
  3. Moxon wasn’t a woodworker so he’s wrong.
  4. You interpreted Moxon wrong.
  5. You are wrong.
  6. Please die.

Ten years later, it seems funny that this conversation ever happened. That’s because enough people (the Fox Mulders of the world) tried Moxon’s techniques and were able to discredit the Cotton Mathers.

After 20 years in this business, I’ve seen this happen time and again.

  1. A.J. Roubo’s workbench from Plate 11 is for carpentry. Not furniture making.
  2. The bark side of a board cups and the heart side bows? Ridiculous.
  3. You have to finish both faces of a board or it will warp.
  4. You have to alternate growth rings in a panel glue-up or the panel will warp.
  5. Hide glue is outdated.
  6. Paint is for covering poor workmanship only.
  7. Nails are for carpentry, not fine furniture.
  8. Workbenches need a tail vise.

I could go on and on. And it would soon sound like I’m giving you a list of things to believe, or not to believe. All I really want to say is my favorite Russian paradox: “Disobey me.” And I’d like add one more bit of information to that: There is a way out of the paradox, but you have to find it for yourself.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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34 Responses to Be Fox Mulder, Not Cotton Mather

  1. It is always easier to pass along something heard then to try it yourself. But you gain more in the trying than the listening. Alas, this is one of the downsides of life being so short…

  2. Modern media does make me sick. So does FB filtering, etc. Same thing with flame wars. I must be on a path to becoming an old curmudgeon.

  3. I’ve learned that only people that have an excess of money or an excess of time care about the ‘correctness’ of such things when it comes to creating things.

    When you’re poor in money or time, you relish the opportunity to get things done. Learning alternate ways of doing things is a golden opportunity and is basically the lifeblood of the poor.

  4. meanmna says:

    So, are there ANY “universal truths” in woodworking? In other words, outside of “try for yourself” what type of advise could a beginning woodworker count on getting that is less likely to be objected to, much less discredited?

    • tsstahl says:

      Make what your SO wants. Shop time is supposed to be happy time. Doesn’t matter what medium your shop centers around. 🙂

    • Buy a book (any book) on the craft. Use it to build things. Then build something else. The next step is up to you.

      After dealing with so many different woodworkers all over the planet, I simply refuse to say something “doesn’t work” without trying it. I’ve seen people work on the wrong side of the lathe with the work spinning away from them (their entire careers) and tun out beautiful work. I’ve seen wood that was treated by a Native American process that has ceased to move and will not split. I’ve seen people cut dovetails with a hacksaw. I learned an old New England trick for reducing the warping of wide boards that I simply cannot explain.

      You can find “universal truths” anywhere you want on the Internet if that makes you more comfortable and gives you a framework to operate in. It’s just not my thing.

    • There are a few – my truths would be: 1) understand what grain and moisture mean to wood – these determine a great deal what will stay together 2) sharp tools make impossible possible (or more probable) 3) skills make the impossible possible 4) practice makes skills 4) there is always another way 5) you own your project (so if it is working for you, excellent; if not change it).

  5. Ruben "Rube" Villanueva says:

    You can’t have a Fox Mulder without a Dana Scully, but most folks Alex Kroychek it. They know it works but keep the truth from everyone. That’s why we have the folks at LAP (fka TLG) to help us out.

  6. tsstahl says:

    I have to concur about the second #5. Hide glue is outdated; I’m too stupid to use it correctly.

  7. I have a friend, Tom, who lives in Wisconsin. I get to see him a couple of time a year, and each time I get some stunning revelation about woodworking that just turns my head sideways. How about…”It dosen’t matter is you plane with the grain, or against the grain, as long as you have your Stanley sharp and chipbreaker set up correctly”. And Tom will demonstrate this, and my head will be sideways. How about…”It dosen’t matter if you back bevel your chisels – if fact it can be quite helpful in some cuts. So you can use the ruler trick when sharpening.” Again head is sideways. So find your Toms, watch, learn, and experiment for yourself.

  8. lscarmic says:

    I was pretty impressed that Shannon at was able to make his chisels sharper using the wrong side of the diamond plate, so there’s another for the list.

  9. mdhenninger says:

    At least they were courteous in #6…?…

  10. That one… The last #2 with the cupping. Seems to me that would be somewhere in the biophysics department, and if not countered somehow over a certain amount of time – it IS in fact a universal truth, that a face sawn board will cup (edges on the barkside will rise) …more or less as certain as the sun setting, since drying the wood will shrink as much as it can with the growthrings intact before cracking. Longer intact growth rings equals more radial shrinkage. Of course you can drown it in a lake for 75 years, crossboard it and weigh it down, but usually you really don’t have the time for that. Boiling might be another option, but then again… Would really love to hear how people get around this issue.

    • richmondp says:

      I’m with you travlncarpntr, mostly. Flat sawn wood tends to cup if it is not in equilibrium moisture content with its environment. Which way it moves depends on which way the moisture is flowing, in or out of the wood. It’s usually moving out, since wood starts out wringing wet. But you can imagine a case in which an air dried board is flattened in spring time Tucson, and then moved to winter time Seattle, in which case moisture might move back into the board, causing the board to move opposite to the way it would move if the moisture were moving in the other direction. I agree that modern furniture makers, using well dried wood (i.e,, in equilibrium moisture content), producing for stable indoor environments, don’t need to worry about it much, although I don’t see why they wouldn’t, if it doesn’t cost them anything more than a glance at the end grain. Others, such as boat builders, or exterior door makers, or furniture makers exporting from one climate extreme to another, might want to pay more attention.

      • There is one very good reason not to alternate growth rings in a furniture component: appearance.

        When I assemble a panel that will be visible, appearance is always my first consideration. Grain direction second. Heart/bark side the third.

        Just my 2 cents.

      • richmondp says:

        Good point, below, from Lost Art Press, concerning appearance.

  11. kv41 says:

    Thank you, Chris. This hold true for so many things in life.

  12. jonathanszczepanski says:

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

  13. mjstauss says:

    Thank you for this! The amount of ego-driven authoritative knowledge in woodworking can get tiresome. I often remember that back when I had zero knowledge of woodworking my first hand-cut dados were in plywood and I used an enormous stanley sharptooth to saw the walls and a 1/2″ chisel to clean them out. They’re actually pretty tight fitting dados, and looking back I have no idea how I did it! I remind myself that if I see someone doing something similar today I should fight back the instinct to tell them they’re doing it wrong.

  14. Increase Mather told her dad
    “I roundly disagree with you
    You’re vocal style’s to preachy
    All the yokels mock your teaching.”
    But Cotton, he was just so oblivious
    To all their cutting pleas

    Soon the townfolk took to it,
    In every pew they looked to him
    For guidance just like eyeless lambs
    Awaiting that ol’ kabob stand
    The skeptics formed
    The nation’s born
    They want to have it, Cotton’s dream
    But Increase had them mounted
    And they burned on open fires
    So the word spread just like smallpox
    In the Sudan

    The gentry cried:
    “Give it a day!”

  15. richmondp says:

    I’m not generally a fan of messaging on my T-shirts, but I’d buy your favorite T-shirt in a heart beat. Actually (oops), make that a copy of your favorite T-shirt. Love it.

  16. alanws says:

    “The bark side of a board cups and the heart side bows? Ridiculous.”
    It is ridiculous as written. Both sides cup: bark side becomes more concave as it dries and heart more convex. Bowing is along the length.

  17. jpassacantando says:

    Great post! What you are talking about here is the bane of every thinking person: DOGMA. And further, the process by which once useful doctrine invariably becomes dogma. One of the greatest modern military strategists, Colonel John Boyd, inventor of the OODA loop for military strategy, hated dogma so much he would not deign to articulate his powerful theories as doctrine for the military to adopt, knowing that surely they would be turned into counterproductive dogma.

    Or as one of the great Taoist Chinese sages reportedly said, “When I see your dogma in the road I run it over with my Karma.


  18. Scroungewood studio says:

    Well said, as a 42 year old, returning to finally finish my bachelor’s degree. I am constantly finding out that the things that I thought I knew I don’t. It’s not an easy process but if you open your mind to new ideas you may be surprised by the outcome.

  19. skywalker011 says:

    Actually, your pretty cool.

  20. Damien says:

    I think it isn’t about: abducted by aliens vs promoting vaccination

  21. tenonsite says:

    I love the Russian paradox, but I don’t think I will or maybe I won’t.

  22. Ryan Starkey says:

    Nice contrast. (Mulder/Mather) I remember reading about traversing from you, not sure in print or blog, but I do remember my first thought being “You’re NOT supposed to do that”, but I tried it and it works. I’ve been doing it for years now. People need to talk less and try more. (Including myself)

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