Answering the Unasked Qs


Hello Paul

I have pretty much zero experience with woodwork, and I am at a bit of a loss where to begin.
So, what do I need to become a woodworker?
With kind regards
It’s a question that at one time would never have been asked. Prior to the 1980s almost all boys in the western world learned woodworking as part of the general school curriculum, beginning for boys at around 13 years old. DSC_0602This initiation was a rite of passage into the adult world of working; an equipping for future possibilities whether that be actual occupationally or for general home repair and indeed home making and maintenance. Back then schools had weekly, three-hour classes in the workshop spanning two to three years in ever-progressive levels. Back then craft classes were non gender specific until around that age. After around 13 the class split and boys accessed metalwork and woodwork and girls accessed something called home economics or domestic science. All areas were significant to life ahead if parents didn’t or couldn’t teach their children these life supporting skills in the home. My mother, a full time dressmaker from age 13, gave me the basics of sewing, housework, cooking and working within the family community. She encouraged my woodworking passion from an early age but never neglected the areas essential to a well balanced lifestyle.

Picnic table or startup workbench? He who frames the issue determines the outcome. It’s not really an either or but both.
Whether many or indeed any gained quantifiable skill in any of the above listed departments remains questionable, but in woodworking and metalworking, I think most boys did use what they learned to better evaluate whether one or the other was for them a calling. It was here, in the hallowed walls of the woodworking workshop, that we learned all the names and uses of a range of hand tools. It was pure, unalloyed and unsullied by robotics, machines and computers. There is no doubt in my mind that woodworking the way I learned it was the very best thing that happened to me. I learned so much from Mr Hope who always responded kindly to sensible and sensitive questions. He taught me to use the wood lathe where I turned rolling pins and legs for stools. P1210339I learned to square my billets for making a framed stool and weave seagrass seats with crisscrossed stranding. Woodworking and metalworking workshops were both the making of the boy and the stepping stone to an apprenticeship. Classes were constantly filled and in any secondary level school, be that secondary, comprehensive or grammar school, thousands of boys throughout Great Britain went through courses that equipped them with the basics I am talking about that they used throughout their adult life at some level. That’s no longer the case today of course yet what’s happened is many thousands of adult men and women are asking the question, So, what do I need to become a woodworker? . Sad though that might be, what a great time we live in when we can reach out to all to even out the disparity that once cut half the population out of the workshops of wood and metalworking. I recall holding up a mortise gauge to a recent classful of students to name it. The answer came back, “A hammer.” For the main part, despite the brief transition from gender specificity to non-gender status, woodworking has become so diminished in western schools it is almost non existent. Perhaps in light of that reality that they are no longer taught by skilled artisans as in my day that is the very best thing.DSC_0258
In the mid 90s this question started cropping up in my world as a crafting artisan. At craft shows, exhibitions and then, and subsequent to that, resulting from the malaise, even dedicated woodworking shows I would encounter serious people looking for a change. The UK and the US are very different entities when it comes to working wood and the question in the UK is very much, “What do I need to become a woodworker?”, whereas in the USA it was more, “How can I learn woodworking the way you do it?” No matter. The reality is that people were and are looking for an answer to the unvoiced question so here we are voicing the question to bring new clarity.
P1250819I asked Mark (above) to send me this question via email. Mark works for us as our office manager and the only experience of woodworking he’s had in his 30 years of life is to make the spatula we created for the experiment video how-to some of you contributed to a few weeks ago. We gave him the video, the few hand tools and the wood. The rest was to to see if indeed the video would work as a serious training vehicle for someone with zero experience. Could someone actually create a spatula with no further input from those experienced woodworkers around him? It worked. P1250821The reason I asked Mark to email the question was because it is one of those questions that’s rarely if ever asked but I know people ask themselves the question when they consider this as a possibility for them. Of course the hardest question to answer is the one that’s never asked. It doesn’t at all mean that the questions aren’t there, but that they are unvoiced.
I plan to try to answer this in view of the successes we’ve gained in training hundreds of thousands of woodworkers worldwide over the past decades. These people comprise individuals of all ages who attended my hands-on workshops and now a massive audience of people following our work online We calculate that we now reach around 1.5 million enthusiasts every month who are genuinely interested in woodworking at every skill level from raw beginner to the most advanced. Amidst the steady decline in the amount of woodworkers receiving quality instruction to gain competency, I’ve seen a new generation of real woodworkers emerge from the flawed thinking of schools, political strategies and economic and cultural shifts. The result has been a stronger, more resilient breed of woodworker. One that is slowly emerging as, well, a successor. In one sense it’s been a sort of survival of the fittest; the evolutionary revolutionary. He, she finds solace in just a few square meters of workspace at the end of the lean-to in the garden, a garage or in a rotting shed. A dozen hand tools and workbench made from an old kitchen table seem the most unlikely of anchors for the hours of well-spent immunisation against the malaise of the age. Hours just disappear to become minutes or even seconds. When the thought was that hand tools would soon be obsolete relics belonging to past generations, a small but inspired generation of individuals began to discover that hand tool woodworking answered the deep, deep roots of creativity they never knew existed. For some it seems indeed a primitive pastime, for others, the majority, it’s the total absorption they need for healing to take place in a word filled with dis-ease—an immersive therapy of simplicity if you will. So I choose a less complicated approach to identify the need and prescribe the antidote to the question, “What do YOU need to become a woodworker?
This is the preamble or perhaps more a prelude to the new series I’ve began for you to reason out for yourself or give to others to better understand why and what it is to become a modern-day woodworker reaching back into the past for the treasures we need in the future of woodworking. I hope to show what I think it takes to develop true competency. I hope you enjoy it.

23 thoughts on “Answering the Unasked Qs”

  1. And now, after following, learning and creating with your help for three years, I look at a table saw as a primitive pastime. I’ll be in the garage with my children, teaching them to use a spokeshave and a coping saw.

  2. Thanks Paul.

    I am REALLY looking forward to this series!!

    Mark (no relation to Mark)

  3. I began high school in California in 1969. My father, a mechanical engineer, guided my elective choices that first year: one semester of typing (I was one of two boys in the class), one of wood working, and one of metal working. My father was a wise man. Among my friends in college, I was the only touch typist, and I could pound out papers in a fraction of the time it took my peers. It’s a skill that keeps on giving in today’s digital world. The basic wood and metal working skills I learned have been put to use countless times and laid the foundation for my hobbies today. I learned a healthy respect for rotating machinery early on…my wood shop teacher had three shortened fingers on his right hand courtesy of a shaper table accident long before in a commercial shop. I still have the chess board I made that year. Alas, my sister gave away the lamp base I made by turning down a bowling pin, and the tool tote and other basic projects are long gone. I too became a mechanical engineer, certainly in homage to my father, but also in response to the interest and curiosity at the mechanical world stimulated by what we used to call manual arts classes.

  4. Mark Wisecarver

    Another Mark here, but with a Wise Carver twist.
    Good article, well done.

    One thing that often gets missed, especially with Cook ware, is what types of wood should be used. I’ve caught Wood workers making Pipes and kitchen articles from woods that are known irritants. Everyone should make note of which trees are safe.

  5. Honestly, this is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. I truly believe that schools have done a great dis-service to their students by doing away with these types of programs (woodworking etc).

    To turn that around, though, it is a great opportunity, as well as a responsibility, for those of us who do know woodworking to teach those that don’t.

    Thanks for the article, Paul. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks Paul. I think you are spot on. I was one of those individuals who has moved into a highly specialized technical career and who inadvertently went from using my hands (bench chemist) to managing others who do it. Wood working filled a void that for 15 years had been forming and I couldn’t figure out why (I actually enjoyed working with my hands thought I didn’t realize it at the time). You are correct in that hand tool woodworking doesn’t take much space. I figure if I can have about 8 feet against a wall and about 3 feet behind me, I can do just about everything I need. I like the fact that I can do it as a hobby. Since I am not trying to make a living, I can dedicate much more time in making a piece than I could if I needed to earn a living. My only regret is that I didn’t figure this out 15 to 20 years ago. I grew up with Norm and just assumed you needed a good amount of space for power tools. Even though I watched Roy Underhill, it didn’t occur to me that those tools were something that could still be used today. I’m happy I have not figured it out. The hours do go by quickly in the shop.

  7. Mike Ballinger

    The biggest thing I found tricky was getting a plane in good working order. Then learning how to use it. It’s a wonderful feeling reaching for a tool and knowing how to use it competently. Now I find myself tuning into the material and changing my approach on the fly without having to think about it so much. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than aiming for fine woodworking.

    1. Mike – I’d agree with that completely. I suspect I’m amongst the last “generation” in the UK to get a bit of woodworking experience at school – but only in brief, and between the ages of 9-12 (then it just seemed to disappear off the curriculum).

      We certainly never got near a hand plane, and the Stanley #4 I received as a present in my youth sat as an object of unknown curiosity until, nearing my fourth decade, others gave their time to teach me.

      I certainly wouldn’t say hand planes are my most used tool, but of all the items I own (powered or otherwise) there is just something about an old (but fettled and sharpened) plane that makes it a pleasure to pick up and use. It’s also rather useful for a great many jobs; I wish I’d known that two decades ago.

      1. Mike Ballinger

        Interesting to hear Gordon. Like you I caught the tail end of woodworking and metal working classes at a young age in school. I addition I did a small mechanics class where we pulled apart a lawn mower engine, put it back together and had to adjust the timing etc to get it running. All that was great learning. Like yourself we never went near hand planes in the woodworking class. My Dad owned a Stanley No.4 but I never learnt how to use it from him, but I did learn loads from him around construction and how to problem solve and think through a project. He taught me about physics in terms of using leverage, pivot points, countering forces etc. Most of that was applied when we’d build fences (he was a fencing contractor) and renovating the family home.

  8. I my seventies school days I did some woodwork and metalwork but in truth it was not very inspiring. I seem to remember all we made was a wooden spatula, a small box disguised as a book and a metal plasterers float with a plate metal handle that made it so uncomfortable it couldn’t be used.
    I was destined for an academic stream and the over-riding impression I had was the technical teachers couldn’t wait to see the back of us before they got on to more interesting work with their real students.
    It was my father, an engineer, who got me really interested in woodwork and metal work. He didn’t know much about woodwork but did find me old tools which I failed to master beyond creating a few guiders (box carts?). In fact I never really learned how to do it well until I discovered a certain Mr Paul Sellers.

  9. Yes it is sad for young people not a o get the chance to learn to use their hands to make something. I was one of the lucky ones that got to learn both woodworking and metal working at school. Even though these skills were pretty basic it has been the starting point for other skills learned over the last 40 years. Not sure if other countries have them, but here in Australia we have an organisation called Men’s Sheds. It’s a place were men can get together talk rubbish and learn skills from each other. It is an awesome programme to help men, often lonely and otherwise isolated., get together and share life skills. There are so many aging craftsmen taking their skills to the grave and programs such as this gives the opportunity for the skills to be passed on to another generation.

    1. Mike Ballinger

      Hi Gary,

      Mensheds started in Australia and it’s exploding all over the place now! In Ireland there’s a good few hundred set up which is saying something for such a small population. I’m young (1982) with a couple kids and live in an apartment. I found out about mensheds from someone on this forum who suggested I check it out for a place to work out of. It’s been great so far, I have to say I’m the only one in the group who is passionate about joinery and hand tool woodworking, but there’s a couple old boys there who really know their stuff which is great.

  10. Hi, I’m kind of glad that woodworking is emerging in this way, as an almost “novelty” hobby that has unlimited potential for progression, than the lessons at school which at the most are shared time with 30 other kids half of whom i) aren’t interested ii) downright dangerously immature. I remember doing woodworking at a working class comprehensive school, a few hours a week. The tools didn’t cut (nobody said anything about sharpness, and if they were sharp they were even more dangerous in wrong hands!), we spent more time getting tools out then putting them back again than any woodworking, and then it was an exercise of producing something shoddy (given the blunt tools), which inspired noone. It is only 30 years later that, thanks to you and other online educators, that we know what’s what.
    There is no substitute for self discovered enthusiasm for something new in life, and I think that the way things are available now, with youtube, blogs, online and hands on courses are great at catering to people with a vague initial interest to light their spark of enthusiasm – this is much more likely to produce passionate amateurs, some of whom will see it as their calling. So I for one do not lament that it is no longer taught in schools, there is limited time in schools that will never do it justice. And there will always be an element that will rebel against it if it is forcibly done in a school, such is life. On the other hand, an army of amateurs who can spread the word as well as demonstrate the joy is a much better advert.

    1. Mike Ballinger

      Tom I have to agree, my experience of woodworking in school wasn’t inspiring and likewise the concept of sharpness just wasn’t there. We did a lot of sanding!

      I did enjoy turning on a lathe though.

  11. In Sweden “Slöjd” is still mandatory in primary school once per week from the age of 9 to the age of 15, seven years. This is not only woodworking but also metalworking and textile working. 330 hours out of the totally required 6890 hours of teaching in primary school are used for slöjd. Curriculum:
    In Swedish only i’m afraid but maybe Google translate can do something about that?

    1. I read the English version but the content wasn’t too helpful. We often hear of Sloyd but seldom see fruits of it. Swedish style is Swedish and looks Swedish and it seems not to teach from a craftsman’s back ground but solely a teacher’s. That said, I still think it has value somewhere. I’d really like to see what’s made and what tools are used and indeed check the tools at the bench to see how sharp they are and what condition they are in. Here in the UK and from my experience living nearly 3 decades in the US the tools were always in bad, bad condition and capable of creating nothing but poor work. I’d be interested in looking into this more but my experience of teachers teaching from a teaching background has not been too inspiring thus far because in most cases they are D7T teachers trained to teach to curriculum and exam passing rather than true engineering and always promising success as having a good job and making money.

      1. Erik Lindskog

        If you run the curriculum and purpose through Google translate this is what you get:

        The making of objects and process the materials using the tools is a way for man to think and express themselves. Handicrafting is a form of creation that involves finding concrete solutions in craftsmanship and design based on needs in different situations. Carving involves manual and intellectual work of the association which develops creativity, and strengthen confidence in the ability to handle tasks of daily life. These skills are important for both individuals and communities development.

        The teaching of the subject slöjd will be aimed at students develop skills in various crafts and the ability to work with different materials and forms of expression. Students should be given opportunities to develop their skills in a process of thought, sensory perception and action together.

        The education should give students opportunities to develop ideas, consider different solutions, making objects and evaluate results. In this way, teaching help to arouse students’ curiosity to explore and experiment with different materials and to tackle challenges in creative ways.

        By teaching students should be given opportunities to develop knowledge of color, form, function and design and how this knowledge can be combined with conscious choices of materials and technology. Furthermore, the teaching to help students develop a familiarity with the concept that describes work processes, tools and crafts objects of aesthetic expression. Students should also be given the opportunity to develop knowledge on occupational health and safety issues and on how to choose and handle materials to promote sustainable development.

        The teaching will help students develop awareness of the aesthetic traditions and expressions, as well as understanding of crafts, craft and design from different cultures and periods.

        By teaching the subject crafts, students summarize given opportunities to develop their ability to
        • design and produce articles of different materials using appropriate tools, tools and handicraft techniques,
        • select and justify approaches in handicraft work based on the purpose of the work and on the basis of quality and environmental aspects,
        • analyze and evaluate work processes and results using craft specific concepts, and
        • interpret crafts objects aesthetic and cultural expression.

        Regarding the condition of the tools; I think this is very dependent on the teacher’s attitude. When I was in primary school in the 1970’es I was not impressed and I cannot remember ever using a plane in school, it was all sandpaper. But I still have and use a turned bowl and a poker that I made in school. My son, 11 years old, says he gets the tools sharpened by the teacher (on a Tormek) if they are dull. He has used both handsaws, chisels, gouges, knives, rasps files and a smoothing plane in school. But the drills are electric, no braces. I do not know anything about the quality of the tools.
        I do not think that the purpose of slöjd is to make woodworkers out of the students. If you really want to become a traditional cabinetmaker in Sweden you would study two or three years at Capellagården . This is actually the same school that James Krenov attended (though not the same location). Started by professor Carl Malmsten, the same professor that Krenov mentions in (at least one of) his books.

        1. Thank you Erik, you realise we have a long way to go in the rest of the world yet we had this only 50 years ago and it was in no way designed to make everyone a crafting artisan but part of the development of the mind and wellbeing of a child growing to maturity.

  12. Another great post, thank you for this. I was lucky to be abel to take Woodworking, Metalworking , and Mechanical Drawing all 4 years of my High School. I had ( 2 ) teacher’s all 4 years Mr. Curtis and Mr. Kahl whom were in my opinion great teachers and taught me a lot with working with different tools etc. The first semester all we did was make different joints on 3″ X 5″ piece of wood. If we passes making koints then we could continue to move on. My 1st project was book case with a decorative metal back. I made that for my parents and when my Mom passed in 2006 I got the cabinet back which house my wood working books and it is still in great shape. The finish was Linseed Oil and has held up well.

    I enjoyed Mechanical Engineering so I went on to College and have a degree in Architectural Engineering. During my HS years I helped my Father rebuild and add additions to our older home in which I learned an awful lot about Construction and laying Field Stone which was all split by hand. That was Summer job for me.

    Now my interests lie in working wood with Hand Tools although I have a complete power/ corded shop in which most have not been used in years.

    Thanks again Paul for what you do.


  13. David Anderson

    Thank you Paul, for all you do, but especially for promoting having shop classes in school again. I so remember my first shop teacher in the 7th grade. We called him “old Mr. Toner”. The first full week of class he had us scraping well worn workbenches with plane blades and various scrapers. Those bench tops were really beat up. There was something about holding that blade against the wood and his patient advice on how to make it work that has stood with me to this day. I’m 62 and a lifetime hobbyist wood worker. Mr. Toner’s shop class inspired me on so many levels to become the man I am today. Indispensable!

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