People take woodworking classes for a lot of deeply personal and disturbingly wack-doodle reasons. I’ve had students take a class because they want to change their whole life, and others who paid the same money simply to escape their life for two days.
For most of my life, I couldn’t afford to take woodworking classes, and then I found myself in the odd position of teaching them.
As a result I have a skewed take. On the one hand, hands-on classes are perhaps the best way to learn. On the other hand, I can’t believe how much they cost students. (In fact, they are still difficult for me to afford.)
This dichotomy got me thinking. If I could take only two woodworking classes, what would they be? I struggled with the question until I allowed myself three woodworking classes.
If you take only one woodworking class, I think it should be a sharpening course. Sharpening is the gateway skill to learning handwork, carving, turning and many other corners of the craft. And, with a good teacher, it isn’t hard to learn.
Find a teacher who doesn’t sell sharpening equipment (those classes can be a mini Amway convention. If you see a fog machine when you first enter the bench room, run for your life). Find someone who sharpens more than just chisels – edge tools come in all shapes. And try to find out how gizmo-heavy the class is. Sharpening is not about the equipment. It’s about understanding its principles and executing them with the stuff you own (or can afford).
Build a Workbench
A good workbench makes everything easier. But building one can take a year of your life – a year that could be spent making furniture instead. So instead, take a one-week class where you build a workbench using the heavy-duty machinery that makes it a breeze. You probably don’t need a shaper to make furniture, but a shaper sure makes building a bench easier. Take advantage of the school’s equipment and expertise.
Even if you are a hand-tool purist, I recommend you hold your nose and do the deed so you can get on with the good part – designing and making furniture.
Chairmaking or Whatever
Years ago I tried to teach myself chairmaking with books alone and failed. I know that it’s possible to make a chair without taking a class, but chairmaking classes (like sharpening classes) short-circuit the process in a radical fashion. I took my first chair class in 2003 and have taken several more since, even though they are difficult to afford.
If you hate the idea of building chairs (and some people do), then pick a single skill that represents your highest goal – marquetry, bowl-turning, French polishing or whatever – and find someone who knows the magic tricks. There are indeed magic tricks to most woodworking processes, and the good instructors are willing to share them (bad instructors are happy to watch you struggle).
But most of all, make sure you don’t also buy a time-share condominium as part of that package of sharpening stones and flattening plates being hawked by your sharpening teacher. And don’t enroll in the “Waterstone of the Month Club,” either.
— Christopher Schwarz
23 thoughts on “The 3 Best Woodworking Classes”
Wait, what, there’s a “Waterstone of the Month” club?? My life seems so empty up to this point!
One of the best discussions I’ve ever had with a (end of a 2-week) woodworking class instructor (let’s call him Garrett Hack, since that’s his name) went something like… “What other classes are you looking into taking?” and the answer… “None, I’m going to take the lessons learned here with the goal of practicing them in my own shop until they are effortless, and then just expand on them for as long as I can create things. I really want to spend as much time as I can just building and building to enjoy the processes more and more.” He responded “That’s a great answer to that question and I couldn’t agree more.” It’s still not effortless, but it is truly enjoyable.
I’m a professional violist, and took woodworking lessons with my luthier (violin maker). We agreed on an hourly rate similar to music lessons. Ended up making the most expensive cutting board ever, but he taught me the basics of using the machinery, hand planes, and design. Then lived vicariously through me when he helped me pick out the machinery for my shop.
I have taken 2 chair making classes, and you are correct, it makes the near impossible easy to understand. I never would have dared to make a chair, but now it’s all I want to build (that and an officers strong trunk!).
I’ve found certain online or video tutorials to be a helpful way of splitting the difference between expensive in-person classes and learning alone. I lived down the street from Roy Underhill’s school for years, but it didn’t get me any closer to having the money to walk in the door.
Richard Maguire has five or so online video projects, and three of them are sharpening, building a workbench, and building a chair. All of them can be done in a weekend, and reward repeated viewings.
Richard’s video courses are the best! I highly recommend them.
I try to keep the cost of my classes under $200.00 for 8 to 16 hrs of class time. I am more interested in sharing my knowledge so hand worked wooden furniture will still be made in the traditional way.
When will “Make a Chair from a Tree” by Jennie Alexander, et al, be coming out?
Ah, sharpening. Probably the most discussed and argued about woodworking technique on woodworking forums … ever. Every once in a while, when the subject comes up, I like to throw in ‘A Lesson in Sharpening’, a hoary old chestnut I wrote a couple of decades ago to amuse people. It can be found at the following link, assuming URLs work here. Regards, Richard.
Several years ago, I took a chair making class with Jeff Miller at Marc Adams School of Woodworking. It was a long and challenging week but it was worth the time and money to learn from a skilled and experienced chairmaker. Since then, I have made three additional chairs. Chair making is not easy but it is rewarding looking at the finished product.
Were can I find such classes
If you’re in the Denver Area Red Rock Community College has all these are much much more. I couldn’t recommend them more
Well said. Now that I’m a 50 y/o cabinetmaker, you realize you still don’t know 1/8 there is to know about woodworking. Sharpening and workbench classes are the two most useful, but the price and location of classes is a challenge.
Under the “Whatever” category of “Chairmaking or Whatever” I would add a finishing class. You could build the best piece you ever have and then ruin it with a poor finish. It’s probably why i get anxiety attacks at that stage of the project. I’m never really sure how it’s going to turn out. I was hoping to head to Shangri la and take the class with DW but it looks like he’s winding down classes at the barn.
Would like to build taller wooden legs for furniture, where can I find a group during something similar to this… I live in the south.
I have a board stretcher I can sell you…coming Sunday to a Hilton near you.
We all have our preferences, but if you are mostly interested in handwork, I highly recommend taking a chairmaking class any way you can, even if your handwork focus ultimately focuses on casework or some other specialization. And while I respect why a lot of the major schools/teachers out there don’t include turning legs and stretchers in the classes, if you can find someone willing to include that part in the lessons, all the better!
Actually, thanks to this comments section, Chris pointed me toward someone in my area that did one-on-one instruction with me, once per week, until my first fanback was assembled. I struggle to think of a type of project that is more immersive in terms of learning key fundamentals of handwork because with a chair you do a little bit of everything:
– You learn about working with green wood and using differences in moisture content to your advantage
– Prepping your seat blank often involves a two or three piece glue up, so you get practice in jointing smaller lengths and thicknessing, and you’re probably going to do it with a jack plane given the scale
– You learn about the differences in using and maintaining bedded tools vs. non-bedded tools, primarily thanks to the heavy usage of drawknives and spokeshaves
– You get outside being locked into 90, 45, and 22.5 degrees for everything
– You learn the value of different types of bits for boring holes in different types of woods and at different angles
– You learn to trust your hands and eyes and rely less on jigs — don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with good jigs (I have several), and obviously in casework the cleaner each subsequent piece the easier everything goes — but there was something freeing about “chairmaker perfect” and realizing that the human hand and eye is quite capable if you trust it and practice
– Turning basics
– Carving basics (very, very basic, but if you’ve never wielded a carving tool in any fashion, practicing carving the gutter is still something new and still good experience)
– All the above involves a wide, and at times, very specialized/unique hand tools; the upshot of this is that you necessarily will be maintaining some of these during the work, and so you’ll have a chance to learn about honing carving tools, bevel down *and* bevel up curved blades, and more
– Steam bending
– Finishing has a lot of options — milk paint is common, but even on a milk painted chair, you will usually do something as an undercoat to unify the form (dyed shellac, van dyke crystals), then you’ll usually have layered colors and some kind of top coat ranging from shellac, to BLO, to hard wax, to hard wax oils, etc., so you can really run wild with learning a lot about making sample/test boards and using several different products for finishing
The only classes I ever took were at OCAS in the old Mortuary school UC had, my work has been morbid ever since.. They were pretty limited and I learned the basics building a shaker step stool, Hipplewhite side table and a shaker pencil post bed, I think I remember referencing and article in FWW written by C.Becksvoort in the late 80’s. After I got bored (ha!) there I went on to a Furniture design school in upstate NY…
Most of my life I couldn’t sharpen even a pocket knife. All woodworking was done for years using only power tools. When the hand tool bug hit me for some reason the tools wouldn’t cut at all:) So I bought Chris’s video on his sharpening methods, what a revelation! I’ve since switched to diamond because of less mess and I can sharpen on the work bench, but now days I resharpen a tool at the same condition I used to think the tool was sharp. Point is, good videos can be an excellent teaching method, but someday I’ll want to take a class on stick chairs. A chair is I fear to complex to trust to a book or video.
I think another valuable and important aspect of taking a class in every hands on class I have ever taken is, safety. Just a good dose of safety amongst friends and peers.
I was wondering who uses words like wackadoodle. Then I saw your name at the end. I learned most of what I know about woodworking from Norm Abrams and Roy Underhill. I started with a Shop Smith 10ER built in 1949, the year I was born. When I retire I might build a dream work bench. For now it’s a 5′ x 10′ sheet of particle board on saw horses.
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