Some Things I Hate About Knowledge

When I built my first woodworking project as an adult, I didn’t have a single subscription to a woodworking magazine and the only woodworking book I owned was a tattered Graham Blackburn tome, “Illustrated Basic Carpentry,” from 1976. What I knew about joinery, glue and finishes could fit in a teaspoon (with room left over for sugar).

I didn’t know enough to be apprehensive about designing a sitting bench. Or that my joinery choices (dowels) were laughable. Or that I wasn’t supposed to put an oil varnish over a water-base stain. Or that I needed more than one sharpening stone to get a keen edge on my block plane.

Of course, the project came out just fine. I sit on it every day in our kitchen as I work out the groceries I need for dinner. Hundreds of guests have sat on it as our dinner parties inevitably moved to the kitchen. Its finish is well worn by nearly 30 years of use, but it is rock solid.

I could build a nicer bench, but this guy serves as a reminder not to act too smart. Or to make things too technical. And that ignorance – coupled with strong desire – can go a long way.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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50 Responses to Some Things I Hate About Knowledge

  1. Scott says:

    Thanks Chris, I needed that. Sometimes simple is best. Don’t overthink!

  2. Doug Wing says:

    First thing I made was a coffee table. I had a piece of Oak from a tree that my grandfather and I had cut down. I made the table using a circular saw and lots of sandpaper. I knew nothing of joinery so I screwed all the boards to a piece of plywood to make the top. After 10 years I had learned that things like a router and round-over bits existed so to prevent my third child from splitting his head on the sharp corners (as my first two had) I sanded it down, rounded the corners and refinished it. I remember dragging a sheet of paper across the wet finish to make it smooth. Now 40 years later my oldest son has it. There is great satisfaction in making.

  3. Jeff says:

    So I’m curious about the brick.

  4. Michael Edelman says:

    Blackburn was my entry into woodworking. I still have a simple nailed wood box that was the first project in one of his books. (And I think I’m going to build that bench!)

  5. Peter McKinlay says:

    Yes. I have a hall table from the same school of non-thought.

    I do at times, wish I could erase a great deal of the superfluous junk my brain has picked up in just 29 years.

  6. Jim Dillon says:

    A nugget of wisdom I retained from the science fiction author Robert Sheckley: usually, not-knowing is much more interesting than knowing.

  7. Jim Blank says:

    I have a picture frame on the wall in my shop from when I was I think about 14.
    Ripped out of some left over 1x material, the grade stamp still on the one piece, I
    stained right over it. The picture is a puzzle with all kinds of different beer cans.
    Things have not changed, I still like wood and beer!

  8. Justim says:

    My Title would have been “Thing’s I HATE about Some knowledge”…… Often I get “Paralysis by Analysis” do to not starting till I know “everything I should know” for the project…..

  9. jdfidler says:

    My first piece was a similar bench. I went fancy and used drywall screws with plugs covering them. It’s still on of my favorite pieces I’ve made.

  10. Ron Harper says:

    Yep, very well said Sir. Many if us have a need to make things way too complicated.

  11. Paul Sutcliffe says:

    “Ignorance – Coupled With Strong Desire” – Suggested title for next book. Definitely quote of the day

  12. Barry MacDonald says:

    Kind of like social media. We follow others to be in the know” and “knowledgeable of current trends” but, wind up feeling depressed and woefully insufficient. Sure my potato bin is nice but its nothing compared to Nancy Hiller’s oak side board. My clamp rack works, but not as clever as April Wilkerson’s storage units. Compared to Greg Klassen, my life sucks. Maybe without all this knowledge of what other people are doing, I could find happiness living my own life and even learn to appreciate my little potatoe bin.

    • tsstahl says:

      Appreciate the well kept potatoes. Can’t ask for more than that. 🙂

      To paraphrase something I heard ages ago, a Cadillac and Citation will both get you to the restaurant; the person in the Citation can usually afford to pick up the check.

  13. seanhughto says:

    “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s there are few.”

  14. dpcrow says:

    Oh boy, this is true. I find it all too easy to veer off into the theoretical, chasing down every possible option, solving every possible problem before picking up a piece of wood. Substituting meticulous cautious progress, for hands-on skill building practical problem solving. YouTube can be almost as great a hindrance as a help. I start the day thinking I’ll find a quick design for a kids step stool, then hours later, I’m wringing my hands over how to spot fake Jojoba oil.

  15. Ken says:

    I have a primitive jelly cupboard that has been in my family for at least a hundred years. 15” wide heart pine boards, built entirely with butt joints and cut tails.. it’s still sound and in use. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

  16. Chris Poplin says:

    I read this post sitting next to a table from the same school. It is built entirely of one-by pine shelving held together by Elmer’s wood glue and drywall screws. There is no consideration for wood movement, because we didn’t learn about that in wood shop. But that table has been successfully holding things off the floor for about 30 years now.
    Meanwhile, now that I know the “right” way to build things, I can’t get anything going because I “need” all these things I don’t have to do the work “properly.” Then the othet day I went out and built a little project out of pallet wood and drywall screws. It’s ugly, but it was so much fun using the tools, I don’t care!

  17. Rachael Boyd says:

    I will be teaching a class making a bench like that in two weeks. using just hand tools and no power tools. I love the simple stuff.

  18. Jeff Simpson says:

    Yeah that is one ugly bench, but nowhere near as bad as the kitchen island I built before I knew the first thing about woodworking. It’s still there but I can hardly wait to replace it, and I wouldn’t share photos of it for love or money. But maybe for some nice figured white oak.

  19. David Ryle says:

    I don’t know why but it vaguely reminds me of a Nicholson bench! I remember when I thought bowing and cupping had dirty overtones and I struggled for a long time with “true” and “square”, but as they say practise makes perfect.

  20. Jon E says:

    One of my first projects was a sturdy bookshelf designed to hold two guitar amps and some books, made from home store pine boards. I didn’t know enough to know what I was doing was a little complicated, at least for my skill level. I essentially made it up as I went, using just a router and a skillsaw.

    It had three shelves — one for books and two for amps — the bottom most being angled to tilt the amp toward the player. All the shelves were dadoed, glued, screwed, and plugged (it’s a tad overbuilt).The bottom shelf, amp brace, etc. all used angled, stopped dados.

    There’s a ton I’d do differently now, but it’s one of my favorite projects for the same reason as yours. It reminds me the value of just doing — and also that sometimes not knowing something is supposed to be hard can make it less so. These days the amps sit elsewhere, so the shelf now serves a higher purpose: my oldest son’s bookshelf, with the bottom shelf being a perfect place for his many stuffed animals.

  21. Bob Glenn says:

    Sometimes I just have to tell myself to stop worrying and just cut the board!

  22. Joe says:

    Where I really lucked out in woodworking, I didn’t read too many blogs or watch too many different YouTube videos. Just you and Paul Sellers. I started making as soon as possible. About two years into hands on woodworking I started to branch out and was glad I didn’t do it sooner. Too many opinons and options.

    I actually took this approach form my firearms training. I started shooting at age 10 in 1978. No internet and I didn’t buy any books. It has been a constanty hobby all my life. It wasn’t until my late 30s I discovered blogs. Much of what was written was laughable and either not true, inconsequential, or just one way of doing so. Glad I had 28 years of enjoyable shooting (including training classes) under my belt before I discovered blogs. Not sure the blogs would have helped much and more likely just confused and make me enjoy it less.

  23. Anthony says:

    Really nice Dutch Oven.

  24. Markyourwaste says:

    That’s a Paul Sellars workbench prototype, surely!

  25. Jacque Wells says:

    As an Aussie friend used to say “Good onya. Good enough (by definition) is good enough.”

  26. Keith says:

    I’ve always said, “Never be ashamed of a project if it reflects the full capabilities of your skill level at the time. Learn from it and expand and improve on the next one.”

    • Joe says:

      It’s funny you mention that. My daughter needed a night stand in her bedroom. My wife wanted to go to IKEA to buy one. I balked and said that with even just 18 months of woodoworking under my belt I should be able to make something nicer than what we can get at IKEA. Well, with some other projects and interruptions, it’s taken me close to 2 years. There are quite a few times I wanted to chop the thing up with an ax due to my inexperience. I’ve learned a lot.

      I will eventually make another one and I know it will be better.

  27. Nick Stahlmann says:

    Is that going to be part of the garage sale or are you burning it?

  28. Steve hynds says:

    That’s a nice looking red casserole dish underneath.

  29. Dave says:

    To be honest, it looks pretty nice. Good size, nipped corners on the apron meet the legs, which might even have a little splay (hard to tell). And whatever finish problems have mellowed into classic warm pine. That kid must have had some inklings.

  30. That looks like a nice solid bench.

  31. Jason Weigle says:

    Reblogged this on Searching for Community and commented:
    A good reminder that not everything needs to be professionalized!

  32. Joe says:

    Some of the challenges I am now starting to face has to do with potential inheritied furniture. For example, my grandparents got married during the Great Depression. They needed to support 6 other family members on their income. They bought a kitchen table during that time. It wasn’t fancy but it was used nearly daily up until about 15 years ago. It’s nothing special per and not even a style I like but it has stood the test of time and still works fine. This piece will likely end up in our home. However, there are many other pieces like it. Not sure what I am going to do.

  33. PSP says:

    My mother was an antique dealer. Hundreds of pieces of 19th century furniture moved through our house growing up. At least 10 of them were nailed together for every one with dovetails.

  34. Ziggy Liloia says:

    Another way of saying ignorance is bliss, right?

  35. alexpacin says:

    Someone should write a book about everyday people building practical furniture out of necessity without the hindrance of “expertise” or navel gazing.

  36. kerry doyle says:

    The 1973 bookcases of lumber yard pine boards nailed together (I went fancy and set the nails) were assembled with no woodworking acumen but still function today. Back then the attitude was, “This is what I have; I will make it.”
    Today enough options present themselves that taking the next step in a project may be formidable

  37. Simon Stucki says:

    great story, and my first woodworking project as an adult was much uglier…. don’t have it any longer, would be a great reminder but way too painful…. 🙂

  38. Allen Rudolph says:

    I love these emails/posts. Very interesting and well told stories. Thank You.

  39. Barry MacDonald says:

    Exactly why Chester Cornett was so good; he didn’t know any better.

  40. It’s a lovely bench

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