Woodworking Is The Sport—Practice, Practise, Practice

Craft Can Have Different Meaning

Some times we lose sight of the meaning of craft. To some, perhaps most, it’s now become more a pastime—something you do when there is nothing to watch or you have nothing else to do. Schools have also succumbed to become somewhat dismissive of true craft to substitute what we once had with a much lowered expectation because it doesn’t fit parental/teachers expectations in terms of what is now called ‘good or future prospects’; dumbing down craft work for children should have never happened. There is always a place for true craft whether academic or not. I know that mostly they can’t, but I so wish that teachers could understand craftsmanship and artisanry. If they could they might be able to steer the truly gifted in a more positive direction in that just a few kids might find their true calling. Craft is the art of work. We should never lose sight of that!



Dynamic Power in Woodworking

A craft like mine demands heightening levels of focussed energy. By that I mean every sense, those beyond the main five, engage behind the scenes to connect my entire being to the minutest details of my work. It’s not just what I see or hear but what’s deeper inside the fibres of the wood and deeper inside me too. When men said the wood speaks to them, in times past, this is what they meant. It wasn’t necessarily audible at all, it was in any sense more metaphysical; an echo without the bounce of resonance but resonance all the same. Without focusing all of my senses it’s impossible to achieve the levels of accuracy I see as essential throughout my work. That does not mean that I am consciously directing my senses, just that the demand I have sensitises every neuron so that I can indeed carry out my work to the levels I insist on.  I think that that is why I have never really wanted substitutes for my own abilities. That’s why in general I avoid always running to machines for every cut. Apart from the invasion of dust and noise, there is the invasion of skilled work. As it is with any art, athletic sport, or whatever, I must constantly exercise my body and mind to my craft. Without total engagement, muscle and sinew, thought and more, sensitivity atrophies. You cannot establish skill without exercising every aspect of your being. It’s no different for us than it is sports athletes and artists, as crafting artisans, we must begin at some point to exercise our whole being on a more than regular basis.


Competitive Sport

I’m competitive, but not at all a sporting person as in sportsman. By that I mean I’m self high-demand and pit my body against the task but that’s in work. So that said, I’m not at all talking about sport, I could no more watch any kind of competitive sport for more than a minute without switching off. Now I might well climb a crag alone, run long distances alone, such like that, but mostly sports leave me cold, but put me behind a plane, give me a saw to transform and a class to teach and I’m right there in the zone, for hours. I can work with my hands for 12 hours straight with a 1/2 hour break and maybe an apple or an orange and two trips to the toilet. I’ve always been that way. In my 50’s, my prime years, I mostly worked in the workshop before sunrise and well after dark. It was my job to provide for my family and it was my job to make certain my boys had skills to work with their hands. With 159,000 hours under my belt with and average of a week off a year, I find myself still in fairly good shape.

Practice and Practise

To keep ahead of the game, to work efficiently, I have to keep my body fit and lean. Why? Because my work demands muscle, strength, accuracy. There is a synergy I generally do not withdraw from but for a few days in a year. Though I walk and run each day, these contribute very little to the strengths I need in my actual work. The muscle development for walking and running do not equip me for bracing for saw thrusts, planing and holding my body in position for minutes on end until a cut is completed. Think heart beat and breath, breathing and pulse. Think stamina for endurance. Running and walking for a few miles a day keeps my mind alert in a different way. What keeps me alert and active the most though will always be my work and my will to work. In my view, woodworking with hand tools demands some of the highest levels of self-discipline and engagement and should never be seen as a passive spectator pastime. In my work at the bench, I no longer practise to establish skill at all. By this, I mean sharpening a saw or planing a board achieves for me a guaranteed outcome. I never sharpen a saw badly any more, so the practise of sharpening a saw is no longer something I need to develop. It’s a foregone conclusion that the practise of saw sharpening is now the maintenance of skill and though I need to maintain saw sharpening and maintain my skill levels, my muscle tone, dexterity and sensitivity are already irrevocably in place. The only way I might lose them is if I don’t do them. They are all in good and excellent shape. They don’t improve, so it is not to practise saw sharpening in the way of personal training in any way but simply the practise of saw sharpening.

Izzy Learns Sawing Techniques

In the beginning it is good to practise hand sawing with the different saws. Every saw cuts differently and therefore the strokes feel different even in saws made by the same maker and of the same size and type. I have been working with Izzy, who cut her first dovetail this week, found the initial exercises a struggle, but she developed awareness to many elements she had never needed before and she got it. Her finding sawing difficult, and we used Western saws that can indeed be difficult in the early days, made me aware that perseverance is an element we rarely think about. In her case she ended up successfully working with the power of western saws; once you get it you get it and it’s yours for life. Oh, before pull stroke saw advocators jump in, I won’t advocate hard-point teeth saws as throwaway tools. Aside from being disposable tools, they have their own issues too!

So off Izzy went as have thousands who’ve stood by my bench over the decades. The saw judders, skips up, grabs and slips sideways, away from her line. It’s not as easy as I made it look but she knows it can be done because I showed her it could. With each joint, she was disappointed. On the third, I suggested she might lower her expectations and relax into it. On the forth, there was a good outcome. This means her next practise will be a small dovetailed tray; for four corners will give her the practise she needs and from now on she will master dovetailing.

Practise Makes Permanent

So the body must be exercised, disciplined, worked and worked steadily to perform. The mind working three-dimensionally releases  the brain chemistry and thoughts develop to change spectators used to merely watching to become actual doers that can no longer only spectate but enter the realms they may once have feared. The fear of failure often stops us from actually trying something new or different. The fear or perhaps doubt is perceived but not real. Bad past experiences do hold us back. No one wants to fail, no one! Perseverance creates a path through the rough. You must practise to develop skilled workmanship and improve performance. Unfortunately, we have dumbed down perseverance and the need of it by over-rewarding and false self-esteem. We can often be cheered on to achieve when we fail to put in the effort. On the other hand, we never want to withhold encouragement from those who indeed have low levels of self-esteem.

With the mind releasing its chemistry, and that starts within seconds of offering the saw to the wood; any tool that is we begin to apply ourselves via our other senses to the challenge of working our body. At first, our body feels awkward. It is as if its too heavy. Moments seems somewhat sluggish, unsynchronised to the point of stubborn. This is to be expected all the more if we have done no craftwork before or for long periods. I feel like this if I take a month out. How much more a natural consideration when your mind and body has never done such things before. Lower your expectations and raise your aspirations. The will to achieve is 99% of a successful outcome.
It’s a funny thing that people will run for hours in a week but not put practice into handwork. They immediately want an outcome to match an experienced craftsman. When I’m working, after a time, I feel my arms ache and my body often locks on a fixed, awkward angle for a long time. My knuckles may well turn white and so too my fingertips to expedite my intent as if nothing else in the world matters.

I Want Skill and  Exercise and Not Substitutes

There is no other way to work what I want so it’s a must for me to keep in good shape. Sometimes the intenseness must be relieved. I must tell my body to stop, to unwind the spring and break away for a minute. I must renew a breathing rhythm, but I also know that without contracted breathing I would not have the accuracy I want. So I know that throughout my body, every ounce of muscle and sinew takes its place to expend itself for the good of even the smallest cuts I make. It’s all about engaging power and then releasing it to the small tips of the saw teeth. We extend and contract our muscles but not to lift heavy weights or run faster  to beat other weights and speeds, but to use the exact amount of energy each cut needs. Sawing, planing, those tasks with repeat strokes over extended periods are measured by our sensitivity. The woods, even in the same species and the same piece of wood, are always different in terms of density and consistency. We adjust our working of the tools according to what we sense. This all relies on our sensitivity and our responding to what we receive.

The Senses Give Us Wellbeing No Robot or A.I can

When we understand that all the senses, the five obvious ones and the other 20 or so hidden ones, are given for the single reason of gathering information and that all of that information is to inform us to make decisions, we realise we must engage with that information to make constant adjustments. These are adjustments in pressure, direction, alignments for our arms, legs, shoulders, eyes, backs, feet. Our whole body becomes the carriage for the tools we are working, the extension of who we are and indeed our intent. Therefore it is not mere mechanical rigidity but the remarkable ability of the body to flex in agility to perform tasks in the most sophisticated ways that no robot or artificial intelligence can.

When we see that it is through our self discipline, personal training and mental and physical development in relation to the way we work the wood that we are indeed ably taking control, we no longer feel threatened. It is a most wonderful reality that A.I. and robots will never substitute for the creative art of craft that I speak of. These two imposters of industry are merely brute beasts, the same as the lie is to truth as the merely stands in truth’s stead!


  1. agree that A I and robots are brute beasts, but not in a bad way. In fact ‘brute force’ is a technical term used in computer science. Most AI algorithms are classified as such, as opposed to the algorithm for integer division. They are tools we can use to assist our creative craftsmanship. A table saw is a robot that works for the woodworker without getting in the way for example…

    1. I didn’t in any way suggest that robots and AI were necessarily bad, just that they can be imposters when companies use them in place of our human dexterity to pretend something is or has hand made integrity. I have always disagreed that machines are just rendered innocuous by somehow referring to them as ‘just tools’, you know, what gets the job done. They are highly dangerous, invasive, and cause a wide range of health and safety issues. I have used them for five decades and whereas robots and AI will take people out of the danger zone and the monotony of repetitive work, they are machines governed solely by mechanisms and they will not add much to enhance creative craftsmanship. A tool for me is always the extension of a human hand and not a machine, no matter how small the machine is. If I choose to use a robot to write my blog and make my videos it will not create from its own initiative but only what it is programmed to think. Many people involved with the delivery if AI and robots are indeed programmed to think a certain way. We should also remember that many things the sciences have given us over the decades have been good but now we are unable to undo what they gave us 50, 70 and 90 years ago. Can we dredge the oceans to remove the miracle product of the 1930s and 40s to remove the plastic pollution on a worldwide scale because they really could not predict the way consumerism would take what they made. In many ways the technologies of this modern age is polluting the streets with zombies walking around with their heads down bumping into one another while they think they are staying in touch with the world through two thumbs on a glass screen. There is a price to this. Can we afford it? I have known people who were highly paid to go to work and watch over gauges on the hour every hour and could then do what they wanted as long as they were within the same room area with gauges. They were bored for 8 hours day in day out. I saw them go down and down in wellbeing and health. One of them followed me into woodworking and he is the happiest man alive. Did he bring his robots with him. Nope! Not a machine in sight.

      1. that is really true. I remember reading the results of a study in the journal Science a few years ago – companies are constantly trying to change their processes so they can be performed by less qualified/skilled people. They found that it was harder to get a job if you had a PhD than if you had a masters degree, and so on. Given that this is a constant institutional economic force, and one that is detrimental to humanity as illustrated by the really good examples you list above, what can we do? Create some sort of fellowship of artisans that promotes and recognizes mastery of human skills… I feel that you are on the cusp of starting something greater than woodworking here, Paul, and we are so glad to be part of it. Now I go down to my basement to cut those splay mortises laid out w my exacto knife and work the cheeks w my brand new router planer 🙂

  2. So true that practice is not something that can be ignored.

    I have been working off and on with wood for years, but only in the last couple with any real intent to improve myself with hand tools. For 43 years I was a Tool and Die maker. Started right out of high school and found I was good at it. Very good at it. Working with metal making powder compaction tooling on everything from broken down, out of spec machines to high end machines working to .0001″ daily.

    Now that I am retired and have sold my company I have to constantly tell myself that here is a new skill that must be learned and it will take time and much practice. Each time I have a new small victory, like finally being able to plane a board square and parallel on all sides, it allows me another day of not berating myself for being so bad at this. It’s hard, after doing something daily that came so naturally, that I am basically starting over to learn this new way of working.

    And now that hand tools have become a major, (not only though), part of this new craft for me it is such a sense of pride when something comes together that is truly from your own hands. Loving every minute of it.

    Thank you, Paul and crew, for making so much wonderful content available for all of us.

  3. So pleased to see the phrase “Practice makes permanent” used, instead of the often used “practise make perfect”… Bad practise makes anything but perfect!

    Thanks for everything,

    1. Many years ago I did a training course with Telecom Australia. In one lesson we were taught to terminate wires. It was a relatively simple task , but I always remember the Instructors words.
      ” Take your time to do it correctly, practice will make you faster, but if you learn to do it wrong no amount of practice will make you do it right”

  4. The practice and training to gain better results or reach the same objective with less effort is the parallel between sports and woodworking I accept.
    But woodworking as an end in itself? Sawing for the sake of sawing? I don’t think so.

    Years ago I did cycling but did enjoy it less and lesser – until I rediscovered photography.
    Now I plan a trip to a location, put the camera in the pocket and ride one way to the location and an other way back. Therefore cycling is part of the experience.

    Another important point Mr. Sellers mentioned: imperfection. Allow to be imperfect. Woodworking with it’s iterative approach from coarse work eg. with the saw to fine work of eg. smoothing is a perfect way. If we make mistakes with the saw, then in most cases it can be fixed by planing down to the line. But it is more effort. Usually we learn with every stroke of the saw, with every shaving of the plane.
    Unfortunately Mr. Sellers personally can’t be in our workshop all the time we spend there. 😉
    So we have to take the potentially teachers we have always with us: the mistakes we make, the willingness to accept our imperfection, the honesty to accept an error as an error and the perseverance to try again and again.

    To end with the words from Samuel Beckett:
    Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

  5. In 1998, I attended the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America biannual conference in Asheville, North Carolina. At that conference, Williamsburg blacksmith Peter Ross gave a speech about machine mentality vs. hand mentality. It had a profound impact on me at the time, and still does to this day. Your essay above reflects many more facets about this same concept. Fortunately, the speech is online for those who are interested: https://happyhavenforge.wordpress.com/peter-ross-machine-mentality/

    Thank you for what you do for humanity. We all have hands, which are capable of so much. You’ve let the way in helping people see their abilities are being much more than they ever thought possible: in many cases from impossible to ABLE.

  6. “Lower your expectations, but increase your aspirations…” How did I live this long and not hear those words before today?

  7. I don’t know where I learned this, I do know it has stuck with me for as long as I can remember.
    “There is only one way to spell the word can’t and that is can try”. Two little letters make the world of difference in changing ones attitude to failure.

  8. This is a great post Paul – I am new to working with hand tools – You make it look so easy it is a bit frustrating when my results are sub-par, and of course near impossible these days to find someone local to guide me – So I watch Youtube and practice!

    Thanks so much for your videos and writings.

  9. I’m in the early stages of my workbench project and I realised I had to saw each end off four legs to square them (cut very rapidly in a car park from to get them home) and then there were 8 mortises, and four rails in total with two tenons each and I began to despair. Why so many joints – surely Mr Sellers there is a simpler design?

    What I realised as I went on with each leg was that I was actually getting better at it – by leg 4 I had already made 6 knifewalls, and sawed to them. The knifewalls were sharper, the saw cuts were getting more accurate. (Did a bit of end grain planing on the first cuts to ‘correct’ them a bit – another first). It began to dawn on me that this repetition was at least half the value of the exercise. I do want a workbench, ideally in 2018, but clearly I am gaining some skills and that is just as rewarding as the output – I’d now say I am a person who can saw wood reasonably well to a line. I did some practise mortises on some leg offcuts to prepare a bit for the real ones I will do this coming weekend. Now I can sharpen a chisel in about half the time I could at new year and I can use a plane (metal or wooden – there is no limit!) infinitely better than at any time in my life from planing the laminated timbers for the workbench top.

    Its good to have a reason to learn something new – I’ll never be an expert, or win an olympic medal at woodworking, but I’m having fun in the taking part.

  10. Great picture of the young fella…he looks impressed! I’d love to see video of you teaching some kids one day 🙂

  11. Paul,

    I have been much enjoying your videos and blogs: many thanks. Just used your mortise cutting jig for the first time: great idea delivering a much better result (I added some vertical lines to make sure I keep the chisel square at the ends of the mortise).

    As I get closer to retirement I have been getting rid of my “hobby” machines and acquiring rather better quality second hand tools (have just discovered the pure joy of an old Scottish no-name infill plane). However after a day in the workshop I always feel very stiff, sore and tired; also occasionally quite depressed as my increasing skills fail to match my increasing desire for skills. There seems no real training for planing except planing nor for sawing except sawing; perhaps because I am fairly new to this, but the focus required on the task is much greater than many office jobs.

    The main consolation is that with hand tools mistakes happen more slowly – leaving more time for correction. Which is perhaps where my skills are improving most quickly.


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