We are in the middle of prepping hundreds of parts for a July 11-15 stick chair class in partnership with The Chairmaker’s Toolbox, and I am setting aside my aversion to plastic for this one moment.
As Megan Fitzpatrick and I prepare the parts – straightening the grain, octagonalizing the bits and sometimes tapering them, I sort through them. I group the parts by color and grain. And I wrap each bundle of parts into packets with a minimal amount of stretch-wrap plastic.
There are packets of legs, short sticks, long sticks and stretchers. When all the stock prep is over, I’ll group all the packets into 10 chair kits that are matched for color and grain.
It takes a lot of extra work, but I do this for two reasons. One, it makes for better chairs. Two, even the nicest people in the world become total dork-holes when it comes to picking parts willy-nilly from a big communal pile of parts during a woodworking class.
Inevitably, one or two people end up with all the exceptional boards. And the slow students, who need all the help they can get, end up with the dregs.
To combat this problem, I started picking and grouping wood for students years ago to avoid this “Lord of the Firs” approach to distributing parts. And I have stuck to this philosophy to this day.
Why am I telling you this? If you ever find yourself facing a pile of parts in a classroom, please be kind. Don’t be a hoggy-dog and take all the best parts for yourself. Someone is watching. And they are judging you.
If you are taking a woodworking class this summer, here’s a little tip that might make you feel better about your performance during the class.
If you follow a lot of instructors, schools on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (like I do), you’ll see a lot of posts that exclaim, “These students are KILLING it.” Or “These students are amazing! Hardworking! Insanely Talented! Oblong!”
I’ve taken enough classes and taught enough classes to tell you that this piffle is either:
- Unconditional positive regard (that is undeserved).
- Marketing for the school/instructor.
Woodworking in a classroom environment is both tense and fun. In my experience, everyone struggles a bit – that’s what happens when you learn stuff. There are always failures in a class – a mis-cut, a broken part, a brain fart.
If you struggle in woodworking classes (I sure do, both as a student and an instructor), then you are perfectly normal. All those social media posts are just the gauzy, filtered unreality that clogs our phones and likely contributes to a lot of self-esteem problems.
Bottom line: If you make it through a class without locking yourself in the bathroom while sobbing, throwing your tools against the wall, or making a through-mortise in your hand, then you have succeeded. (All these things have happened in classes.)
But I will say in all honesty that every student in my classes has indeed KILLED IT (as long as “it” is a tree).
— Christopher Schwarz
35 thoughts on “Hard Truths About Classes”
I remember Bob Van Dyke saying “It’s a boxed lunch, not a buffet” as he handed out the stock for classes.
That is the way to do it. (Bob is funny on occasion.)
I have not taken a woodworking class since 7th grade shop class 53 years ago. Working with wood now that I am retired I pay the mortised hand price of learning. I finally have the patience to put the projects together. It gets really sad and funny.
Always go in w/the mindset of “you’re there to learn” anything more is just a bonus!
Thanks for your honesty.
Thank you, good solution!
I look forward to crying in the renovated bathrooms. That’ll be a treat.
Fantastic assessment of of what happens in classes. Perfect.
But you forgot that one student who makes the instructor want to lock themselves in the bathroom and cry. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Rick.
Excellent post and so consistent with my experiences in taking classes. Thanks for speaking out on this.
A friend of mine, Sam Sprouse, who did his apprenticeship at the Thomas Chippendale School, and is owner of The Charleston Woodworking School in Charleston, SC, frequently says, “Sixty percent of woodworking is fixing your mistakes!” While I doubt he is talking about himself to that extent, it does make the rest of us feel a little better, especially after the scars have healed!
Once more it becomes apparent why I enjoy your writing, humor, empathy, and wood knowledge.
I’d say you’re killing it, but that might get me killed
I teach a class in making small Shaker boxes and since they are small, I can afford to assure that everyone can use the “good stuff” by providing more than enough stock to choose from. I also throw in a few stinkers as an object lesson in how to pick out good stock. I have also found it’s a good idea to make at least one box along with the students. That box has served as a consolation prize more than once when things have gone sideways.
Count me among the panicked students. Going from hubris to humility several times a day in any class (and most any project) I undertake. What incredible patience the good instructors have in picking the students up time after time.
Fifty years ago an instructor for a job-related training class told me “This is three days of controlled chaos. Everyone has a different level of competence. If you can take back one or two good solid pieces of knowledge that you’ll use and build on, something that becomes one of your standard tool, this class is a success. If you try to learn everything I teach here, usually you’ll retain nothing. That’s just the way it is.” Boy, did that help.
Excellent words of observation, Chris! I have been woodworking and woodturning for years, and have taken many hands-on workshops, including one from you several years ago. This summer I took a week long workshop at Arrowmont with Michael Cullen. In the workshop I did so many firsts. First bandsaw box. First use of Milk Paint. First hand carving of textured decoration. With so much that was new to me, I knew not to pressure myself and be too picky about the quality of my work. I’ve learned that for me I need to relax and focus on learning and practicing the techniques during hands-on sessions, and that has helped me learn more and increase my enjoyment of the experience. Completion is not the primary objective for me. But with multiple smaller projects in this workshop, I was able to completely finish one piece! This is the FIRST time I’ve completely finished a piece during a class! And I attribute a significant measure of credit for my ability to do that to the wonderful camaraderie there was between all of my classmates, Michael, and his assistant. Such a wonderfully positive experience. By the way, the class I took with you several years ago was also a wonderful experience where I learned a lot about making your own hand tools. Thanks for your patient understanding and for your insight!
“Lord of the Firs.” That gave me my first real smile of the day. Thank you!
And now I have a picture of Chris running around the shop saying, “I have the scorp! I have the scorp!” 🙂
Thank you from one of the slow ones who struggles (in every class). I have been known to leave a turning class with tears of frustration to go comfort myself with ice cream. Instructors who can talk students down are awesome!
I aspire to become a better instructor, thank you for posting this kind of “inside baseball” content.
When I got to take a class from you (and others) I was surprised how tense I was the first day. It turns out I don’t have to be first/best, but I just can’t be last/worst. Ego pops up in the strangest ways.
When I got to take a class from you and others I was surprised just how tense I was on the first day. It turns out I don’t have to be first/best, but I do not want to be last/worst. Ego pops up in the strangest ways.
There are times when I miss teaching
(I spent ten odd years squeezing in (around a high tech job and having 3 kids) part time teaching a set of roughly 35 different seminars at various LVT stores in eastern Canada).
Then I remember “stock prep” which was always closely coupled with
“student unhappy with the stock they received” and its close cousin
“having enough reserve pieces that will be a good fit to the students material kit so that when the inevitable happens, one can still swap in a piece. ”
And then I don’t miss teaching nearly as much !!!
What I do miss?
The amazing students I met: some of whom still stay in touch years later.
Add me to the list of folks from the “Thanks for being a good teacher Chris” pool of comments BTW: It is a decade now (I think? roughly? ) since your Rosewood visit, and any time I touch a board I’m reminded of things from those classes.
Anyone who teaches woodworking classes and doesn’t do some sort of ‘pre-set’ set of stock really is begging for pain: so i’m a huge fan of “prep the stock and wrap it up”
But they are killing it! Even with their really crappy projects because they’re learning. I’ll have students who come up to me telling me that they did a crappy job and I’ll agree with them but I’ll tell them how wonderful it is because they’re learning a new skill set. It baffles them a little bit because they think that I’m contradicting myself but then I ask them how do you think everyone starts out? I remember you Chris, talking about how everyone starts off making crappy dovetails so hurry up and make a bunch of them and get them out of the way. I tell this to my students quite often.
I use painter’s tape to wrap up project pieces and buy it in bulk. Not the cheapest way but I don’t feel as guilty using it unlike plastic wrap.
In our city, plastic wrap is recyclable but painter’s tape is not.
Over here neither is, unless it is special shrink wrap with the correct stamps on it. Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking…
I was just admiring a chair I made in a class (no major screw ups), which could have been WAY better with just a little more care in choosing parts with color and grain in mind.
We had no choice in the matter
I like your honesty, I have taken a few woodworking classes to learn new and improve my skills so I do struggle in the classes and have felt the frustration that I was the only one not getting perfect the first time.
I’m signed up for a class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and am excited like a kid waiting for Christmas. As an adult, it’s hard to get that kind of feeling. I was planning to take a class there in the summer of 2020 from Meghan but we all know what happened that year.
When I was younger I took an instrument building class (simple plywood instruments that are still fun to make and play!). The instructor was an older (ok, no. Old) professor. You know the kind old gent that you would never dream of calling by his first name. First thing he says: I am Harry, please don’t do the Professor Liebers nonsense. It is way too long to say “Professor Liebers, there is hide glue on your nose”. Also when we say that it is lunch time now, or coffee break, do not say ‘oh, I’ll just quickly finish this’. Then you will saw a hole into your top plate and we all will be sad.
Two great comments. I’m still allergic to “I’ll just quickly…”
Oh, and if there are teachers from Germany reading this, the class used to count as one of the mandatory trainings that you need to do every now and then. It is in Osterrode / Harz, used to be available via the IAM. I think they still do the classes (the coinatructors took over after Harry died).
I often began my adult beginner classes with the admonition: I’ll show you what to do, and how to do it. Then you will make a mistake, and my job will be to show you how to fix it. Nothing terrible will happen, but yoru box might be a little smaller, or your table a little shorter.
Teaching woodworking is teaching resilience, among other things.
As a high school woodworking teacher, I often shocked my students with my appropriately faint praise. But after a while some of them would come to be able to recognize the difference between effort and hope; attention and expectation, and that is really, really satisfying.
Doing excellent woodworking is, let’s face it, really hard. And this pursuit of excellence is, for most of us lucky enough not to be trying to make a living making fine furniture, it’s own reward and delight.
Striving to do great work is striving to do better today then yesterday (so thank goodness I cut that mortise on the wrong face yesterday…
Did you get a new bandsaw?
We bought a second 14″ band saw. It’s a JET 14″ metal/woodcutting band saw – J-8201VS. Very heavy duty.
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