In the Beginning, Exercise Restraints

I am always surprised how many people I meet have high expectations in their being able to achieve high standards when it comes to more manual types of work yet without ever really having been exposed too much to such labours. I suppose there’s a thinking that if you are intelligent there is an automatic allotment of ability that goes with mental agility whereby the more intelligent will automatically be capable of manual dexterity yielding a skilled outcome. Thinking along the lines that intelligence paves the way to achieving high levels of dexterity and skill is something we should of course consider, but there are other ingredients I know as dispositions that feed our individual development of skill. Ingredients like early exposure, perseverance and sensitivity, a desire to learn, having a made-up mind to that end. In other words just a passing whim might not quite cut it. You know, “Oh that’s quite interesting.” Mostly it’s the difference between a passive sort of passing interest and being driven. And whereas being driven can be key to establishing something that may not yet exist, there are as I said support elements that help to guarantee good results.

The ability to listen but then, importantly, respond, means we are sympathetically processing any and all truly relevant information to sift through the excesses and understand what is in fact said to us. Having been through five decades trying everything on the table I have now concluded that hand tools were the the right thing for me right from the beginning. They were to me the more wonderful inventions of three centuries and that they still hold within them the power for everyone to work wood connectedly, controllably and without the excesses.  When we want what’s being offered and we receive it with both hands is when we see how it applies to our lives. Not everyone feels as I do and that’s just fine. I’m just here to say that hand tool woodworking works and that it works exceptionally well. So we see that it’s important to comprehend knowledge and to own mastery by the doing of it. Whereas reading of things can indeed stimulate and inspire,  nothing can come close to the doing of it three dimensionally. Owning patience is an important element too, patience is the vehicle through which we plan out the steps to achieving the difficult things in difficult circumstances. Whether skilled workmanship is a measure of intelligence or not I have no idea. None of us like to be considered unintelligent, I do know that. I also know that for some people some things do seem more automatic to them than to others. I am learning that early exposure to working manually often sets the pace for learning patiently and so often sets you apart in adulthood learning. Does that mean it’s too late for most? Not at all. In my view it is more to do with losing the elasticity of a youthful brain and mind. The body, brain and mind become set in their ways the more we age. if that is so, we want to make sure we establish good patterns early on because they stay with us throughout life.With the right guidance and the right exercises we will develop whatever we need to improve. Without exposure to rote practice, skill is rarely achieved.  This means that we must be self disciplined that’s all. When we discipline ourselves in craft we release that chemistry in the brain to become increasingly more creative. With that comes the ability to flex to skill, design and creativity.

Digging ditches and sweeping floors

In my young years, when the snob boss who never worked a working day in his very rich and privileged life, I was sent to help Michael dig a ditch in heavy clay. I was a willing and diligent worker and we worked just a short distance apart. Michael was a man of few words but a man of precise action. After an hour of digging Michael had excavated three times as much as I had without breaking a sweat. Steady, rhythmic, small spade loads paid  dividends. On my end I was sweating away and taking full dirt loads with every bite. Michael, a patient Irishman, soberly watched as I made the mental comparisons as to the different progressions. I of course thought that my clay must be harder. Thicker! “I can hold back a little until you catch me up if you like. Then it won’t look so bad if the bossman comes around?” Being young and respectful I wasn’t altogether sure what the answer was. Michael gave me one of his toothless grins and said watch. He took the blade of the spade, known here as a  graft or grafter, and showed me the edge that met the soil. It was thin and shiny and it was sharp. “The rusty surfaces slows the spade.” he said. “You must clean off the rust and then keep it from rusting by drying and cleaning it when you put it away.” I never heard of such a thing. “You must file the cutting edge every now and then and never drive it at  rock. That way it will stay sharper longer. Now watch.” First he cut both side of the cut area a spade width about half the way deep of what he called “the spit”. That’s the depth of the shovel from the step to the cutting edge, twisting it to face inwards to the cut for each side. He then sliced down the width of it but instead of my six inches he took just two inches followed by a second two inches and then followed by a third. He lifted each one above the ditch with ease in the fraction of the time I took for mine. I changed my ways instantly and we worked in union with one another. After a while a developed my own rhythm. So it is with wisdom. Wisdom becomes a rhythm.

I swept the shop when told. I was stopped within two minutes and the man who taught me woodworking started coughing loudly. That should have been the hint. After a few minutes I was surrounded by clouds of dust. George stopped me and said, “Look around you, Paul. See the chaos you are causing.” He got some water and sprinkled it on the floor. It stopped the dust. He said, “You must earn to sweep in such a way that there are no more clouds of dust. The water will help you to get started, but eventually, when you have learned how to sweep, you will no longer need them.” I sweep at least half a dozen times a day and never cause any visible signs of dust. Thankfully machine work is minimised and I never use so-called power routers.

These two lessons seem simple enough. Most of my work is about chopping. Taking small yet precisely sized bites rhythmically, systematically and methodically is always key to good joinery. It’s about being sensitive. Sensitivity and accuracy result in carefulness and each of these terms can be used interchangeably. Mostly it is about respect. Getting the job done without these ingredients results in bruising and less production. and more mistakes. I have made many such mistakes as I have grown. Over zealous saw strokes, chisel chopping to hard, Placing tools down too harshly. These all have adverse results in my work and I never feel good at the end of a section of work. I step back, remember Michael, think of George and return to my work. I focus and the results are good.


  1. The mindset that Paul describes here is what sets him apart. Sure, he is a “master craftsman,” but I feel his work ethic is what has made him so successful, not his ability to build an attractive piece of furniture. Thank you Paul for these words of wisdom. I’m part of a much younger generation that as a whole demands everything immediately, be it fast food or the table we eat it on. I want to model you and do things the right way. You are a window into the good parts of the past without the bad. Keep it coming, I’ll be reading and watching.

  2. I try to catch myself when I start to feel rushed, or impatient to finish a project, and walk away. It is when I am not being patient that the “ham hands” come out and the results always show it. I’m an amateur and a hobbyist, so what’s the rush? I don’t even have a snobbish boss looking over my work to tell me to hurry up.

  3. I like the comparison between taking small bites in the clay and taking small bites in the wood.

    As for sawing, what is causing wavering of the blade?


    1. I’ve found pushing too hard in the cut, when I relax my body it saws straight, I focus not only on the cut but how I feel in it. I’m no master craftsman though.

  4. Rushing is not only the precursor to a lot of mistakes and poor quality, but also the cause of nearly all accidents. Think about it, all those times you hit yourself or cut your skin- were you thinking about being slow, considered, methodical i.e. not rushing at the time?

    1. Very true. I’ve been slowing down recently and it’s so enjoyable. I don’t think the project takes any longer though which is funny.

  5. I loved this article. I had a similar experience in one of my first jobs as a teenage dishwasher in a restaurant. Naturally I felt supremely confident – I was college bound and this seemed like a piece of cake. So on the first day the usual dishwasher guy comes in to show me the ropes. He loads the racks and puts them in the machine, the pans needed to be done by hand. After everything was clean, he restocks everything for the chefs. Most of the time he spent reading the newspaper.

    So I give it a try – disaster! Almost immediately, the dishes start backing up, I have large stack of dishes waiting in my small work area. I can never get to the pans so I take over two bins of a sink to put them in. The dishes trickle out of the machine so I have to make numerous trips to restock them as the chefs need them. I simply couldn’t work fast enough and didn’t know why.

    Eventually I learned the regular dishwasher’s secrets. He had developed many skills specific to the craft. For example, he could take an entire stack of plates, hold them vertically between his hands, and drop them into the slot in the racks with one fluid motion. He knew exactly how much food to wash off the dishes, letting the machine do the rest – I was essentially scouring them clean in the prewash. The silverware was done in a flat rack; when it came out he was able to simultaneously sort the forks, spoons, and knives using both hands at once, even flipping over pieces the needed to be ordered correctly with forefinger and thumb. He made huge stacks of dishes two feet high which he would restock all at once.

    I always remember this guy, this master of dishwashing. Even the seemingly simplest of jobs have room for skill.

  6. This post really hits home with me. I often need to be reminded of these things.

    Thank you for keeping me on course!


  7. Hi Paul
    I stumbled across your you tube videos a little while back and have to say I take my hat off to you as a tradesman. I progressed from the carpenter joiner apprenticeship, onto the sites then 20 years of running a building company. I’ve now returned to my roots as a one man band with a workshop full of labour saving devices……but guess what….I’ve dragged my rip saw, panel saw and all of my apprenticeship tools out of retirement and returned to that excitement and pride of hand crafting projects I did back in the day. Could I have earnt as good a living as I have, probably not, have I been fulfilled as a tradesman for the past 20 years, loved the industry but not really, am I going to fill my future years in my small workshop with pride….you bet your life I am. Thank you Paul for your poetic slant on our woodworking that ultimately comes from our heart that we may not always realise.

    1. Let the Tool Do the Work!

      I recall a similar incident from my youf when my father wandered into the garage/workshop to see me hammering a nail into a piece of wood. I cannot remember what I was doing but my father told me to, “Stop before you strangle that hammer”.

      My hand was too far up the shaft, I was gripping it like a vice and raising the hammer about 6 inches above the nail before using every bit of strength I had to whack the nail. My father took the hammer from me and showed me how to hold it (near the end of the shaft, just tight enough to ensure it did not slip out of the hand). He then explained that, by raising the hammer much higher (as high as possible while still maintaining full control) very little force is required and the ‘effort’ is devoted to bring the hammer squarely down on the nail head. It is the weight of the hammer head and gravity which does most of the work.

      His comment at the end was to “Let the tool do the work!”

      That comment applies to pretty much any and every tool.

      (I regretted failing to remember the advice before starting the first day of my three-month summer vacation job of building wooden packing cases by hammering in nails from dawn till dusk. My forgetfulness resulted in huge blisters on my hand and excruciating muscle pain in my forearm – neither of which had a chance to heal until after I went back to college. How, nearly half a century later, I never forget my father’s advice and I will never forget those blisters. I also have an aversion to nails which is close to a pathological hatred)

  8. It is good that there is someone who teaches and shows how it is done.
    In this world of unbridled competition, we must know how to see, hear and respect each other and their knowledge.
    In this country “seafront planted” there is a saying: “quickly and well just who.”
    I like the smell of the woods and the little artifacts I make as well as I like the precision that is needed to build such things.
    Thanks for the videos and the way you teach, mr. Paul Sellers.

  9. I was taught to dig ditches by a navy man. Why a sailor had to know has always been a mystery. The method is similar to what you described: Never dig deep. Need two feet? Make eight passes of 3 inches along the length of your trench. As much as the soil allows, keep neat walls. Learn to throw a wad, not a spray, even in loose soil.

    What’s missing from online and classroom tuition, even from the best, is being immersed in the rhythm of real work, experiencing the ebb and flow of not just the task done at real pace, but also the day overall, and even weeks and months. That may not seem relevant to the article, but it is because in both cases, the central question is about expectations.

Comments are closed.

Privacy Notice

You must enter certain information to submit the form on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you provide any information on this form.