How to get started in woodworking Part II

Hi Paul,

I really enjoy watching your Youtube series, its amazing to watch a true master of his craft at work. Im amazed at the possibilities of woodwork, from making everyday items to building complete workshops. It looks really daunting but I would love to learn the basics and build on from there, hopefully fulfilling a goal of being able to build my own home for my family.

I was wondering if you had any advice to help a beginner get into woodworking, or could point me in the right direction of where best to learn these skills and how best to make a career out of carpentry.

I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Establishing who you want to become
First off I think it’s important you try to define what it is you are really seeking. Without this the spectrum’s too broad and you will miss the bullseye. I am guessing that you are living in the USA where the term carpentry is used more generally for all woodworking but also often to define construction work. In other countries carpentry as a job describer can cover every type of woodworking possibility and it does work to be more generic rather than specialised.  Becoming a carpenter is different than doing carpentry as woodworking at home because one becomes the means by which you earn your living, the means by which you are known or identified and, perhaps wrongly, it places you in a strata of society. The term can mean many things to different people. In other words, generally at least, and in the USA mostly, becoming or being a carpenter means you work in or on house or building construction of all types, in most cases that’s cutting and nailing dimensional lumber as components together and to compete in such a market you pretty well MUST be able to compete within a highly competitive arena. That means you will be using machine-only methods. Go onto almost any construction site and you will be unlikely to find many hand tools but lots of machines, air compressor tools and so on. I think it’s here that you alone must ask and answer whether the definition of a carpenter as it fits within your culture is what you really want to do for a living. Personally the work itself would suit me as I like construction having built two US homes but it’s not for me today. I suspect that to be the case for most of you reading this. Now that doesn’t at all mean you will be working on rough work always cobbled together with air nailers and such. There is a lot of work that requires high levels of competence, skill, knowledge and fine work. Mostly though the work will come from machines in some form or other whether you call them power tools, tools or whatever else.
 Most of you visiting me here are not looking to become construction carpenters.
In the UK woodworkers working in construction can be called carpenters, but the term tends to be used a little differently. Because there really is not the stick-frame type construction work typical to the USA, carpentry takes on a different dimension. I think this is also the case around the world. In the UK we have carpenters on construction sites and doing restorative work on historic buildings and such. Because of the periodic changes to building over the centuries, installing components such as pre-hung frames, roof trusses as well as performing shuttering for concrete work and so on, the work can be simple and complex depending on the need. The term joiner and joinery involved more joinery and perhaps more refined carpentry work and can translate into furniture work, but generally the terms are not necessarily interchangeable so a man may be apt in both classes or categories of woodworking but having trained as a joiner and qualified as such would prefer to be called a joiner and not a carpenter. The same would be true of a cabinetmaker. Tell someone in the US that you are a cabinet maker and that means you generally build kitchens. A cabinetmaker in the UK is a fully fledged furnituremaker and generally never crosses the line to be known as a carpenter. A bench joiner usually builds projects for final installation in homes, offices and other commercial buildings in a workshop and at a workbench. It doesn’t necessarily mean he uses only hand methods or any hand methods at all but that his task is to build according to a plan. The components are joinered and rely on well designed joinery for holding the components together as a unit. They typically build at the bench and may get involved with the installation if the work demands their attention as the designer or builder.
A UK cabinet maker would not necessarily refer to him or her self as a woodworker because, like carpenter, the  word is too generic and doesn’t really identify the area of expertise they might be known and recognised by or for.
Woodworking should never be exclusive
Ok, rather than create realms of snobbery, I want people to try to identify what kind of woodworker they want to be or become. This means looking constructively at what kind of woodworking they really want to do. Don’t be like a careers advisor who thinks becoming a woodworker means construction only. I have built timber framed buildings and restored some of the finest antiques. Built canoes and a cello with my son. I have built many a set of kitchen cabinets and pieces for the The Cabinet Room of the White House and two of my own homes. At one period I made complex shuttering for concrete work and found that quite fascinating, so who am I and what am I known as? Well, I am a furnituremaker primarily because I have always made furniture. I am a woodworker in many a sphere because  my skills are sufficiently developed to be transferable. It took a few years to get to this point but now I like being able to choose. So, my advice? Think boat builder and violin maker. Guitar building luthier, furniture maker, box maker, coffin maker and chair bodger. Think how big and how small, how wide the scope and how refined. These things will help you define your future and your future goals.
All the various crafts become simple in their complexities when you see that to master the craft they all start with the same basics but that starts an ongoing development through self discipline for the rest of your life. Our world has changed in as much as every culture had it’s own period when hand work of every kind was carried out by craftsmen and women working within their own environment in a way that never depleted the worlds natural resources until the localness of one group became what we today call entrepreneurialist and industrialist. Primarily this meant mostly greed and carelessness, where people no longer grew their own food and were responsible locally within a community they lived in and cared about. People today are taught that minority craftsman groups opposing industrial growth and development in past periods were short sighted and in-turning, but this is a doctrine fostered to maintain economic growth through political and economic sovereignty we at one time recognised as pure greed. Through the centuries history has repeated itself time and time again. The rich get rich and the poor get poorer and then there is middle ground where until recent years the majority dwell on a treadmill existence, unless we see the issues, make a few key decisions to make conscious change.
You want to make income
Though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with money and earning money to pay our bills, something does go wrong when we pursue making money to somehow live under an illusion that wealth alone is its own reward. I have found this simple truth has helped me; working with your hands doesn’t make you less than the man who knows no hand work but works only with his mind. I work with my hands but have never considered myself a manual labourer in the sense of living some diminished or lesser form of life. Woodworking transcends many other working environments and elevates me, but not above anyone else.


  1. To anyone who thinks that joinery, or cabinetmaking, or for that matter even simple house framing using nails and dimensional lumber is “working with your hands not your mind”, I simply ask a few questions . . . . for example:

    — how do you draw a reliable and perfect right triangle across a known width?
    (anyone who cuts a 45 degree miter knows this and can do it without a miter square if required)

    — builders use squares . . . where did the first square come from? And how can you be sure something is square . . . if you don’t have a manufactured one that you trust ?
    (anyone who’s needed to lay out something large, or who wants to make their own try square rather than buy one, knows 3-4-5 is a Pythagorean triple)

    — if you need to bisect a line of unknown length, and all you have is a compass, can you figure it out?
    (make a circle on both ends of the line, as long as the radius is greater than half the length of the line, they will intersect, and the line between the intersection and the original line bisects it, forming a right angle. . . . when marking panels, faster and more precise than a ruler)

    Sadly I detested geometry and algebra when I was in school . . . these are all things I’ve learned as a 40-something adult while building with wood.

    I’m not usually sniffy when I use this response. I’m cheerful. And if it strikes up a conversation I’ll send the person to the US Library of Congress website to get “American Housecarpenter” (R.G. Hatfield, 1852) and tell them to read the first chapter . . . .

    It’s not unique to the US but Americans in particular suffer from a temporal provincialism; we believe so blindly in “progress” that we think ourselves more literate, more educated, than our forebears.

    Progress is good. I like plumbing, and I certainly like air conditioning. But there is a lot of evidence to suggest that many of the “manual laborers” prior to the 20th century knew more about maths and geometry in particular than most college graduates of the 1990’s who “work with their minds” . . . . certainly true of the more thoughtful “carpenters” of today.

  2. Paul’s deffinitions of English terms runs parralale to Australian termology. Not that supriseing when you put countrys history into the equation. What I have noticed, particuly n America, is every job has now got some fancy titled attached. Eg, seen a doco’ on it, and a parking bay attendent dicribed her self as a car courator etc.
    I hope no one takes offence to this note. there was none intentioned, just adding to the topic paul blogged. cheers to all

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