Don’t give up!

Or did Winston Churchill not say on October 29, 1941, as the then Prime Minister of Great Britain (as the UK was once known),  “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. He was visiting Harrow School to hear the traditional songs he had sung there as a youth, as well as to speak to the students. These were the encouraging words he spoke when he was invited to give a speech to the students.

DSC_0036 Every so often someone gets in touch because they are discouraged by the reality that something didn’t quite come out the way they envisaged it should. Often this is due to over expectation as a result of their imagination or seeing myself or others they are watching at work in a video. All too often this surrounds joint making and especially dovetails. The most important thing to know is that experience comes through experiencing the response the tools have in separating fibres from the wood in the form of shavings. This is true of saws, planes, scrapers and chisels—cutting-edge tools if you will. You can only gain this understanding when you stand back from a cut and examine what you did and you are willing to be brutally honest with yourself. Two things stand out for me from yesterday and I want to share them here to help you to understand. DSC_0715

Yesterday I heard on the radio that people who were counting their calories failed to account for every calorie they took into their bodies either because they couldn’t be bothered, couldn’t find out the information or didn’t want to face the reality that they ate more than they were allowing themselves. Of the survey 95% of participants underestimated their intake by around 15-25%. In other words they didn’t really want to face up to the reality that they were indeed overeating. DSC_0385 Sometimes we fail to keep in check that which leads to the perfect joint. We fail to sharpen up when we should, change direction to optimise a cut, change tools, use a knifewall, create a step-down or whatever. Often we give too heavy a blow, which inevitably moves the knifewall, we rush the work through over enthusiasm or we rush the work because we are impatient. The list can go on. I remember a point in my life when all of that changed. It came after about 5 years of watching and working with other men who seemed contented to simply be working and never anxious to see the end result alone but also, enjoying the process, seemed almost to want to prolong it. Another 10 years on and I reached yet another point when I looked deeply into the wood and the fibres as if I was always searching for the unknown beyond each cut. These stages and phases are trig points in my life when I recall changes of improvement. All in all they were times if you will when I just relaxed into my work and became, well, less anxious to arrive and more anxious to actually become what was once known as an ‘improver‘—someone resigned to always be a solution to better what already existed. DSC_0614

Becoming sensitive to the wood, the tools and then your physical body becomes key to this new phase. Learning to listen in a world filled with distractions and noise becomes ever important to allowing development to take place. Remember that we have never lived in a period with more distractions than there are today. Most distractions may have nothing to do with us but we do allow them to happen for whatever reason. Remember that sensitivity is key to becoming a good craftsman. Sensitivity is accuracy and these two words interchange constantly second by second. With this in mind sensitivity tells you when the tool is dull and accuracy tells you when to sharpen. Sensitivity tells you you are being to heavy in spirit and that that reflects in  your application of the tool to the work. This affects everything you make and the results reflect it. Developing sensitivity is a conscious decision to change, to turn on the receptors and then to respond to what we feel in the complexity of our working. We feel the chisel twist slightly and the saw starts to deviate even a hair. What we allow is up to us but craftsmanship becomes established to a point where we are in some ways less affected by change but then more affected by our response. DSC_0188 Instead of reacting we then become responsive to the work. Response actually become more a correspondence if you will. A co-response between the work and the worker, the tool and the wood. This corresponding is in essence an agreement between the various elements resulting in a settled way of working and then into a level of working that feels always to be right. When we sidestep any element where patience and skill should be taking place the result is always less than we want and we indeed disallow ourselves the satisfaction of peaceful working. It shows, of course, and we know it. It’s at this point we should step away from the work, take a walk and a few deep breaths and face the reality of who we are and what we did. Don’t fail yourself by dishonesty. You know, blaming the wood, the tools, the fact that you are tired and so on. One tap too many in the crossgrain cut of tail recess means a gap caused by grain compression. You can’t put the wood back but you can say to yourself, “I was wrong there.”  DSC_0126

Over expectation is a common problem with modern-day woodworkers generally, I have seen. It is a little naive to think that we should always be able to reach perfection after a few saw strokes or swipes with the plane. Here I want to talk about muscle memory through an experience I had yesterday. Yesterday I drove the 100 miles in my car to Derby to help my son move house. We hired a van and I drove. Immediately I jumped into the cab the van stalled three times because the clutch was much sharper than the clutch in my car and of course the gearing was different too. Experience told me there was going to be a learning curve and I need to get it right quickly because I would be in 9 o’clock traffic in a few minutes. I practiced half a dozen times in the parking lot and we were on our way. I actually drove only 30 miles throughout the day, but I stopped and started, reversed and drove forwards dozens and dozens of times each time I went from one house to the next. By noon I was fully familiar with the van with no hesitation or flawed clutch work. At 5pm I returned the van and got into my own car. I stalled the car twice before I re-familiarised myself with my own clutch in a car I have been driving for over a year. This made me all the more aware that I take for granted thousands of things that I do in any given day in my work that I do not explain to people following me even though I try with all that is in me to express what I am doing in my video woodworking presentations. Many things we do take time to learn. Understanding the very nature of different woods takes time to develop and of course experience builds as we work with those different woods. DSC_0582

Learning patience is different for everyone. Punching  keyboards doesn’t make us sensitive to wood and tools and the atmosphere f the workshop. I have noticed also that most woodworkers can’t stand quiet. Those that work in other shops around me ALWAYs have a radio on whether when they have a router or a tablesaw or planer going for hours in a given day and yet I have proven time and time again that we judge the thickness of shavings and the depth of cut of a hand plane by sound more than sight and feel. This is not a good thing at all. It means we are unused to silence and actually become addicted not to music but to noise. Thus we deprive ourselves of silence, yes, but worse, we deprive ourselves of the important connection we need for our work. Again we deprive ourselves of corresponding with our work and deny the senses the sensitivity needed to expedite good work. In the machine shop it’s of course less necessary because every cut is dialled in. In the hand work we do it’s an essential element.


  1. Very important stuff, and well written.
    A good realisation that teaching [what to do] and [to feel what you are doing]
    should be part of the same instruction.

    I think that feeling and listening are equally important in machine work.
    Not for the end result, but for safety.
    Often before things go wrong, you will hear the machine complaining.

    1. Whereas I agree, and we do feel for how we present the wood to or into the machine, say for surface planing, edge jointing and so on, the two are not one and the same thing even if the task may be the same. So too for presenting a router to the wood and the jig. Whereas it does take a level of sensitivity to guarantee the outcome, mostly, and as you rightly point out, with machining wood you are automatically and primarily concerned about personal safety, the safety of others around you, the safety of your materials and a safe outcome. Not the same at all in hand tool work. So generally, as my audience is not usually a machine audience, I tend to leave out machine safety in my descriptions for that reason.

  2. I recently finished my first table, a small table to be used as a plant stand, using only hand tools. I made so many mistakes, some from bad planning, some from lack of attention, and still others from sheer ignorance. I actually had to glue a tenon back onto a piece of wood when I spaced out and made a full cut that should only have been about a quarter inch deep, and two of the skirts are glued together in the middle because I cut a board short and didn’t have enough wood to do it over (plus, it was a lot of work the first time I prepared a rough cut board and I was not enthusiastic about doing it again). I learned so much, though. The first few mortises I chiseled out were not quite square with the edge of the board, meaning the joinery wasn’t quite square either. By the end of the project, I was chopping fairly square mortises without any sort of jig to keep it straight. My saw lines went from crooked and slanted to pretty straight, though there’s plenty of room for improvement. My confidence improved and my efficiency improved. And I learned a whole lot about sharpening different tools, the importance of keeping them sharp, and feeling when it was time to sharpen up. When designing the table, I didn’t know you couldn’t join a tabletop to the frame, which I had planned to do with mortise and tenon. I had to redesign for this and now I can include this in my initial design process. And when drilling pilot holes for some screws to attach buttons to hold the top, I got a little impatient and drilled one all the way through. I know every little imperfection in this table and the lesson each one taught, and still when I step back and look at it, it looks like a quality piece of furniture (even not being quite finely made). I expect it will be around beyond my lifetime, as long as that glue lasts at least. And in a few years, when I expect my skills will be much improved, I will be able to look at it and think about how much I had learned and how each of those mistakes was a teacher to me as much as any person. And if the glue fails and the whole thing falls apart sometime, I will just think “thank goodness I learned the lessons that will prevent this from happening again” and then making something else from the newly available boards.
    People may be impatient, but it seems to me that a reaction against impatience is one of the main attractions to hand tool woodworking. It is skilled work that requires time, effort, and practice to gain competency. I appreciate my flawed table and look forward to watching the quality of my work improve as I learn and practice the skills, and gain the qualities, that will give me a lifetime of creative endeavors. And thank you, Paul, for providing so many of the lessons that allowed me to begin this journey. I’m doing a lot on my own, but it never would have happened without you.

  3. I have encountered the term “being in the present moment” several times, one time specifically from a philosophy course. There was great deal of weight placed upon it in terms of importance and many of the underlying factors that steer us from a true path you have mentioned. It can be hard being honest with yourself, it can also make life a lot easier through a clear solution.

  4. It’s interesting to think about all the distractions that we put by ourselves and how that becomes normal and even feels uncomfortable when those distractions are not there. I’ve always had my music going while I’m working in my shop however for the past few months I’ve preferred to have the silence. I’ve never really thought about there being any connection to wanting to hear what the tools are doing as well as feel. All I know is I don’t notice that there is no music and I lose hours in that little Shop.

  5. Great and timely posting. I work in my basement where it is quiet, I hear everything and feel the wood with my hands then check against a ruler, then make a mental note to the feel on my hand, hoping that one day I will just feel for flatness rather than a straight edge. Similarly, I am trying to eye twist w/o the use of winding sticks. I didn’t think it was possible until I started to watch this Chinese woodworker who like you have been doing it mostly by hand for 40+ years and does online demos.

    I like to think of him as the Chinese version of Paul Sellers; or Paul Sellers as the English version of him. One difference is that he has and is accepting apprentices. This Chinese woodworker stated that “getting a piece of rough lumber square on 6 sides is the most important and essential aspect of woodworking.”

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on the importance of squaring up a piece of lumber compared to other aspects?

    1. Whereas most of the time I can and do look for initial twist in a section of wood, ultimately the winding sticks exaggerate the twist by the amount the width of the wood can be divided into the length of the winding sticks. It is easy for people to romanticise about someone and the way they work so everyone should guard against that because experience tells me that crafting artisans 50 years ago were as ordinary then as they still are today. Crafting artisans of two and three centuries ago on the other hand, well, what can I say.
      I can say that in the early stages of development squaring wood is not always so simple a task, but once you have practiced to the point of mastering the tools, it becomes as simple as riding a bike. To a Windsor chair maker the task of squaring stock is unnecessary of course and so too the violin maker and the boatbuilder and then many other crafts too. These crafts do of course use math and geometry that relies on 90 degrees to achieve their various strategies from, but then many woodworking crafts take their reference from little more than sight and feel. I like that. So there we are…freedom!
      Oh, and I too take in one or two apprentices each year for a year to further their development and sometimes I take two in a year. I have done this for the past 30 years.

      1. In the Olympics some are blessed with physiques, and with proper training do extraordinary things. Some blessing are tallness, hand size, leg length, quick vs slow twitch muscles, these are easy to see with just our eyes. Some might be tactile, spacial awareness, sensory coordination, memory, logic, these are hard to see with just our eyes. I guess I am a believer that all worth while goals seem out of reach until I get there. Perhaps that is also a romantic ideal.

        Thanks for your input on squareness. There is an old Chinese saying that can be loosely translated as “to each master is his own method.” I am glad to be able to learn from both of you.

  6. Hi Paul,
    Well said. It reminds me of my Father’s and Grand Father’s admonition to “let the tool do the work.” It took some time for me to fully appreciate what this meant. The day I had that aha! moment the work not only became much easier, but oh so much more enjoyable. Productivity went up, my speed and accuracy increased and I was not as tired at the end of the day. I had been working on my nerves, so to speak, instead of enjoying the process.

  7. Mr. Sellers. If I may comment on your teaching method. I spent over 25 years developing training materials in the nuclear industry. I was involved in root cause analysis, human factors, job task analysis, and the study of industrial and nuclear accidents. All these efforts were aimed at training highly skilled people, like senior reactor operators. I was on the ground floor of using computers to capture the knowledge of ” the only living expert” type of people. That being said, I feel qualified to state that the teaching methods displayed in your videos, are at the absolute pinnacle of the art of conveying information and technique. And, it is an art.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to pass on your experience. Our staff, myself and everyone involved has received no formal training in any aspect of our work except that we do employ two experienced and trained editors to make what we do look good. The content is never scripted though. What I can say though is this, all of those creating the film carry a genuine burden to transmit the skills and knowledge to others in the best way possible.

    2. I want to second this comment. For the last 10 years, I have worked at a major university in the USA developing online courses with faculty from various disciplines. I have not encountered anyone, regardless of discipline, that does as good a job as “educators” as you and your team. Your instruction is clear and thorough, and it has made a profound difference in my woodworking and life. Thanks to you and your team and keep it coming!

  8. And, I forgot to add……. Your camera crew is absolutely first rate! I knew frustration when I was tasked with video capturing hand work done by highly skilled people performing delicate maintenance operations on…..shall we say….highly secret stuff…. Kudos to Phil!

  9. My most favorite Churchill quote is: “If you’re going through hell keep going.”

  10. Posts like these are just as important as posts about wood and tools, I think. For me, working with myself, with my own impatience and frustration, is sometimes just as challenging as working with the wood. There are times when I think that I’ve done everything right, when I am convinced that I have been as careful as careful and yet still I don’t get the product I imagined. It is in these moments when I need the most encouragement, when I’ve done the best I know how and don’t know what went wrong or how to fix it next time. When I feel this way, I read posts like this one and pull myself up with the belief that I will improve with practice. Paul, without posts like these I probably would have given up long ago–or turned to power tools. So, thank you for these posts.

    One separate thing: how much grip do you put on a chisel? Does it vary with the task? Does it tend to be more of a light grip or more of a death grip? I ask because I cannot seem to make the bottom and top of mortise holes (that is, the two outer ends) flat and perpendicular to the surrounding sides. Also, when Paul chops mortises he achieves an even slope down as he progresses with the cut. I seem to produce steps. I am thinking that my grip of the chisel might be to blame, but maybe I’m wrong. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. I am considerably less experienced than Paul, just a new novice even, but I can tell you what has worked for me and what I’ve gleaned from my work so far. To try to straighten the top and bottom wall of your mortise, try holding the chisen lower, on the iron instead of the handle even. I am able to get a better feel for how straight my cutting edge is this way, but your mileage may vary (ymmv). Just watch that your finger doesn’t get pinched when the chisel goes into the wood. As for steps, I get this too but haven’t worried about it since nobody will see it. My guess is it’s a combination of the type of wood, angle of the cutting edge, how thick a chunk of wood you are trying to chisel out each go ’round, and how deep you go between each step. That and there might be an element of difference between a new mortise chopper and someone who has chopped hundreds if not thousands. Just my thoughts, someone might come along and correct me, saying they are all wrong, but thought I’d try to help.

  11. Having spent most of my woodworking life in commercial workshops I have leant to get the job done ASAP with the radio blaring in the background. Yes there is a feel to working with machines, so I know when to pull my fingers out the way when it goes wrong. That’s why I can still count to ten.
    Returning more to hand woodwork now days the biggest thing I’ve had to learn is to Slow Down. I find doing that I can feel what the plane or chisel is doing and what the wood feels like, with a far more pleasing, satisfying and relaxing result.
    In resent years I have been on a philosophy course which teaches how to Notice and to be present to what is happening and respond, not react, to events. All of this can be easily applied to hand woodwork and just like leaning to drive a different car becomes natural. Practise, practise, practise, until it becomes your Practice.

    1. On a manual transmission vehicle (stick shift in the US) the drive from the engine to the transmission (gear box) is controlled by a mechanism called a clutch plate. This in turn is controlled by the extreme left hand pedal called the clutch pedal. Automatic vehicles don’t have this pedal, just the brake pedal and accelerator (gas pedal in the US). Depending on design and adjustment, each clutch pedal will engage differently and therefore the driver needs to experience a particular clutch pedal a few times before getting used to it.

    2. It’s a tiny bag that girls carry around – too small to be of much use and always has to match ‘the outfit’. It’s also what makes your engine usable 😛

  12. Thank you once again Mr. Sellers. This post has helped tremendously with my attitude and frustrations with woodworking. Not only does your information display your remarkable talent, but it also shows your passion for teaching others and in the true form of a craftsman…passing the education on for it to continue for years to come. Once again…thank you for your help!

  13. One thing I learned very quickly with using hand tools instead of power tools, is I made less mistakes because their is more thought and foresight involved. You will make less mistakes. Speed comes with experience and time. Depending on what I’m doing I like to have the radio on, but if I’m in the middle of something stressful or thinking hard, the radio is off. It’s just noise then. I read an article a while back about how the Shaolin Monks do everything with complete concentration. How a simple task like sweeping becomes a type of mediation to them. I feel the same way when I’m working wood. The way the wood cuts, the sound of the wood when it’s cut with a chisel, the sound of a sharp plane iron, the way the tool starts to feel when it’s telling you it’s dull. It’s part of a harmony.

  14. I was inspired to take up wood working after watching your videos. Everything I’ve tried so far has turned out like a bag of crap! I see you plane wood with that gentle swoosh noise and no discernable effort. I got on fine with some pine but when I got spruce boards… I stopped dead on the knots. I ripped the wood with big chunks of tear out. The grain seemed to change direction every few inches (even on the edges?) And even when I tried to shellac the finished article it was patchy and had runs. Everything I’ve heard says shellac is very forgiving – but it it had a grudge against me. Thankfully, as an ex paratrooper I have a resilient nature and everytime I got stuck I just tried something different. I ended up using a cabinet scraper to clean up the tear out and sandpaper and a better technique sorted the shellac. In short I learned as much from my problems as I did from all the perfect demonstrations on youtube. So yes never give up. Life and woodwork doesn’t always go smoothly but you can learn more from adversity than easy sailing.

  15. I’m not certain that Sir Winston said “…ever…” six times. He did follow the exhortation with a reference to matters great or small. I have always taken that to heart, that our characters are revealed in how we manage the small matters.
    With a pending order for wood for winding sticks, I intend to include the 1/8″ (3mm) spaced horizontal lines that indicated by how much the wood may be twisted. A small detail that may make the tools more useful.
    That’s because Paul Sellers has consistently pounded home the importance of “small matters”.
    Oh, “pounded home”! I feel another paraphrased Churchill quote coming on.

  16. This post reminds me a lot of ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.’ I enjoy working with wood and in fact other materials because it is a sensory experience. The smells, the textures, the pleasant sound of a good cut with a sharp tool vs the labour that comes from your laziness on the lapping bench. It is a holistic and sometimes almost spiritual experience crafting something, especially when you have the recipient in mind and are testing yourself.

    You’ve touched perfectly on the need for patience and I think I will keep returning here to remind myself that each day is just a footstep along the path and all i can hope for is that i place it in the right direction.

    Thank you for sharing this (even if I’m slow to find it!!)

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