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Alignment

In preparing for the house full of furniture I found myself reflecting on all of the pieces I’ve made over the years both to sell on the one hand and then to teach others. Woodworking masterclasses has been a dream come true because when I was teaching my classes more one on one I was worried that I couldn’t reach those who would but never could come to such a course. When I first started teaching in the US there were only half a dozen schools going.

Mostly their teaching surrounding long courses with the promise of work at the end of them but they also carried a big bill. I determined not to teach machine work because you could learn that in a few hours per machine just about anywhere. I focussed only on skilled work using hand tools. My courses were punchy and short and they worked. I proved what people really needed and it was simple too. In those days I worked out that with three basic joints and ten hand tools you could make almost anything from wood. Combine that with the right instruction, and I worked out exactly what was needed, people could match my skills in a matter of a few weeks. They didn’t need mass-making equipment to substitute for developing skills which is what the magazines all promoted back then, they just needed an alternative reality that reached back to well proven technologies. It still amazes me when I look back to that first piece I made in front of a camera for a video not knowing whether anyone would even listen to me.They did!

As we built the pieces and introduced methods of working, techniques and such, the puzzle pieces all started to come together. Much of what I teach came from working out my own methods of work and my teaching was never merely from gaining a college or university degree on paper to become a teacher or lecturer with no background in living the subjects. I built each method line upon line and precept on precept because I wanted something untainted by economics and politics of such backgrounds. My audience wanted realness and the only realness needed to come from a craftsman at his bench who had lived through decades of providing for his family year on year.

My working enabled me to build my own mental library of techniques and methods – such that didn’t come merely through books or even very much from my apprenticeship. I was developing my own upbringing as an adult and then much of the development came through my teaching thousands upon thousands of students right there in the schools I established and taught through. Now I am in continuing education where my students and apprentices still teach me through the burden I carry to pass along my craft into lived lives. By this I know my craft will be preserved and not some dumbed-down UK apprenticing strategy promoted by politicians self promoting themselves as do gooders and many of which only walk along a production line but never lifted any tool to any physical work.

Joinery is mostly about cutting dead square, paring to knifewalls as definitive cut lines, feeling for how much the wood compresses under certain pressures and of course much more. Exact sizing is not what I want; by that I mean an exact 1/2″ piece cut and fitted into an equally exact opposite. I want that fractional compression that ‘breathes in‘ and then ‘breathes out‘ in the certainty if settledness. Some woods, softer woods for instance, and those with large pores, oak, readily compress whereas others just don’t compress in any measure at all. Most of our temperate woods, both hard and soft, will compress and it’s getting to know which ones and by what amount. This comes over a number of years and a number of workings. Even within the species this can vary markedly and then too you learn by touch and look which ones will compress to what degree. Other considerations will be the structure of grain surrounding the knots and the areas where the branches were supported by added interlocking of the grain structure in support.

These past few videos you will have seen me more rely on the use of the mortise alignment jig I’ve developed and used over the past couple of decades. If you missed the reasoning then I’ll say it here, again. When you form a tenon you have externally visible gauge lines from the mortise gauge to work too. Keep to the lines and the cheeks of the tenon both sides will be paraplanar to the long axis of the rail you are creating the tenons on. But no matter how accurate this is, if the mortise is one degree off, and by that I mean out of parallel to the outside faces, then it is not possible for the tenon to align perfectly with the face of the stile, leg or post. This in turn means one shoulder will be gapped. The tendency too will be to chop all of the mortises to any bias leaning you develop as habit. Remember that practice makes permanent more than perfect! Ultimately you may have tenons that fit into mortises perfectly sized but whatever frame you are forming will indeed be twisted. For say a dining table this is less a problem because the weight of the top will take over and force the table flat to the floor it sits on: it flexes, but when you are making small frames, doors for instance, where they hang freely with no constraining except by hinges on the stile to the frame, a twisted door will stick out like a sore thumb.

I worked with several people new to woodworking who had not used any woodworking tools this week. Things we long term woodworkers take for granted are major control issues for them. Without alignment to the perpendicular, be that vertical or horizontal, the work was a serious struggle. Introduce an angle and they lose it. Over a few practice sessions they started to get it and lined the brace up square to the work or in alignment to the angle. It was then that they began to enjoy the results. Without alignment the chisels and planes end up out of square, with a thick edge and unable to cut much at all. The thing about woodworking is it is about aligning your whole being to the work. It’s a whole body experience and this includes the emotions and the mental acuity you develop.

Teaching them made me conscious that we all need alignment guides. Our lives become aligned to the world around when we see how much we align the things that carry us, stack the things we work with and all other things we become immersed in. My technical drawings, though often sadly lacking, start with my aligning vertical and horizontal lines. I work from certain points that guarantee accuracy. Imagine visiting a library without the Dewey decimalised classification system. In my world, and that includes nature itself, everything is about alignment. My hand and my eye must align, as must the sensing of the other organs that tell me to change pitch, stance, balance and so much more. Alignment is not about forcing things to align but flexing things to tolerate alternative pressures to absorb changes as the saw moves into the wood.

20 Comments

  1. Bob Leistner on 16 June 2019 at 1:01 pm

    ” I work from certain points that guarantee accuracy.” I think that this is one of your strong points, but don’t explain it well enough to make it second nature to me. I find that when I am making something that is not involving you( a magazine project), I have difficulty with accuracy.I seem to not transfer from one piece to another the exactness that I want.It seems that I pick the wrong order or measuring points. I hope you can understand my point here. Thank you for all that I have learned from you. It is not as simple for me as it is for you.



    • Michael Ballinger on 18 June 2019 at 8:02 am

      Most likely of my inaccuracies have come from not having stock square enough where it needs to be square or inadvertently forgetting to reference off the same face with my square. It’s just practice – how many hours have you spent doing it versus Paul. The amount of times I cut removed the wrong part of a dovetail or cut it in the wrong direction! That doesn’t happen to me now – not that my skill is great or anything. Just keep at it.



    • Joe on 19 June 2019 at 7:21 pm

      I couldn’t see to get anything square or straight when I started. It was very frustrating but I kept one of Paul’s mantras from some video’s in mind “Don’t give up, keep going.” Things go better fairly quickly from an hours spend at the bench perspective. I would say somewhere after about 200 hours of woodworking (8-10 weeks working time as an apprentice) I could cut to a straight line most times. If you keep at it, you will get better.

      Once a year I like to make Paul’s wall clock. By doing the same piece with some time in between, it really helps you see how you improved. It doesn’t have to be a clock. It could just be a dovetail or mortise and tenon practice piece. Make it, write the date, put in a bucket and every now and then make another one. At some point you will line they up by date and be amazed at the progress.



      • Joe on 19 June 2019 at 7:24 pm

        I didn’t apprentice by the way, the 200 hours was over a year of woodworking on weekends. I just wanted to translate into how many weeks of full time work this corresponded to. If I had been supervised, I suspect I would have learned how to saw straight much faster. Since the 200 hours are spread over a year, the progress can feel slow.



  2. Colin on 16 June 2019 at 9:18 pm

    Not sure I get the “fractional compression that breathes in then breathes out” but I can identify with the idea that some compression has made my early dovetails better than perhaps they ought to be. Following your techniques and making chisel trays from pine, I used the tails as a template for the pins purposefully leaving a little excess on the pins before paring down layer by layer until a bit of hammer persuasion brings about a union.. Quick discovery was that pine compresses enough that leaving the joint maybe a tad too tight still works but I wondered already if or when I’ll get caught out using harder woods?



  3. Steve P on 17 June 2019 at 6:17 am

    It would be nice if your Common Woodworking had a progression from the basics to creating tools such as the alignment guides(similar to the dovetail guide), then to the joint courses. It would help us newbies out i believe.



  4. RODNEY MAGEE on 17 June 2019 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve noticed, by watching a video or reading about how to do something, that Paul does explain things well. As far as alignment goes he’s shown hold a square or bevel gauge, and later on the guide for chiseling a mortise, the knife wall is part of it all. I’m finding that it takes learning to fettle the tools and then practice, practice, practice. Also, when making a tool or jig the parts that don’t bear against the work don’t always have to be perfect but as part of the practice maybe we should strive for that perfection and attractiveness.



  5. BobH on 17 June 2019 at 2:56 pm

    To quote our teacher, “It’s not what you make but how you make it!” This dictum applies to alignment and precision and so many other things that we seek to learn.

    Thank you, Paul!



  6. Kirt Goodwin on 17 June 2019 at 3:16 pm

    Paul – I’m really enjoying your videos, which I discovered recently after coming back to building things after a 15+year hiatus. I’m a hack, but getting better through trying more, being a little more patient than I once was – and listening to experts like yourself.

    You hit on a key, wider point in this blog: “Much of what I teach came from working out my own methods of work and my teaching was never merely from gaining a college or university degree on paper to become a teacher or lecturer with no background in living the subjects.”. This is true but unappreciated for most creative fields. I’m a semi-retired mechanical engineer, was lucky to have instructors that were experienced real life engineers in school, then good teachers when I started working in aerospace – and for a number of years I’ve tried to pass it back on to others. Colleges now hire only doctorates, most of which have never worked in the profession. They are smart people with good learning to pass on, but it is not the same as learning the approach, and feel, and comprehensive look from someone really experienced

    So glad you took it upon yourself to capture as much of his teaching in video as you could – I envy the in person students, but am grateful for Ge insight and learning. I hope this translates to other skills and professions

    All the best

    Kurt Goodwin



  7. Ian Williams on 17 June 2019 at 4:17 pm

    I’M proud to say i watch your Films,
    accuracy is easy for me,being a fitter and turner,,when my eyes worked,I could tell you how many thousands of inch you need to take a piece of steel just by looking at it,,Hence now 60 with glasses,just not the same,,bloody focal point keeps changing,much look like duck trying swallow some thing some time’s,
    But you Paul have taught me so much and why we do it this way,
    Best thing i’ve learnt?? Knife wall,no more tear out and super clean lines,
    make a huge difference to finish quality,
    thanks.



  8. JCincy on 17 June 2019 at 5:50 pm

    Simplicity in teaching. Isaiah 28:10 “Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little…”

    Thank you.



  9. David Lewis on 17 June 2019 at 5:56 pm

    One great attribute you have is your conviction that “people could match my skills in a matter of a few weeks.” I have found from my own experience that you wildly overestimate my capabilities, but at the same time I know I can count on you to help me pick myself up and carry on. Thanks!



  10. Showgatur Rashid on 17 June 2019 at 7:29 pm

    Dear Paul,
    I appreciate your effort to prepare this useful post, Also I enjoyed the videos. Simply awesome presentation and very helpful. I hope it will inspire many people like me for DIY home furniture.
    Thanks a lot
    Regards



  11. John Lamb on 17 June 2019 at 8:02 pm

    Hi Paul

    Perhaps you hear this all the time Paul, but I came across you videos a few months ago and you have opened up a whole lovely world of traditional hand powered woodworking that is a delight. I recently had to stop working due to poor eyesight and honestly power tools scare me a bit now consequently. But through your excellent tuition I find that I can use other senses like touch and feel and sound to compensate at least partially for being pretty blind.
    Also it’s quite amazing – I have had hand saws and bench planes for decades, but only after watching you did I learn how to set them up and maintain them properly. What a difference! Quite subtle, really, but ending up with a use experience that is like night and day. It, seems at least, that i could tackle any project without the need to buy expensive kit.

    So all this to say thank you, and to paraphrase Churchill – old tools are the best tools and when simple are best of all

    Scottish ex-pat in San Diego



  12. Alejandro Roque Glez on 17 June 2019 at 8:16 pm

    Paul,
    I’ve recently found your website-YouTube videos working with hand tools. I have a few university papers similar as those you described in your article, including one related with carpentry; and there is nothing without practice… and practice; with the wood, and in life itself. It is what we call experience. Since childhood I loved carpentry; but born then in an oppressive communist country (Cuba) I did not have a way to acquire tools: be power tools or hand tools. With an old saw, hammer and a couple of screwdrivers my father had, I then built some of my own toys, wooden rifles and bows with arrows, among a few. I remember looking for used nails, and then straighten them, to be able to build my fleeting dream-toy. Years later as an adult in US I was able, throughout the years, to get power tools and a dozen of planes and also hand-tools bought in flee-markets, estate sales, etc… then I restored them in my little shop, at home. Here, we are always busy with so many things which society desperately tries to make you believe you need to spend time in, pushed by politicians and bureaucrats who have never taken a tool in their hands, but skillfully run into our wilderness trying to control our thoughts while crashing their lawmaking capabilities against people’s good traditions;’ including traditional jobs and natural proficiencies. Thank you for your teaching, and the simplicity in reaching the common people with your trade, lasting now a century of carpentry skills.



  13. Joseph Cotter on 17 June 2019 at 9:10 pm

    ABSOLUTELY THE MOST EXCELLENT blog you have ever written Sir!!!
    The axe handle I have promised a friend has stymied me until I employed your paring technique to remove interfering stock, then used a four in hand file to further refine, and it has come into acceptable form (by that I mean TIGHT at the top AND bottom of the eye), and should be ready for proper hanging in a moment or two, and for this success, I have you to thank. I continue to strive for the standards and constraints you hold yourself to, and every time I watch or re-watch a video, I do indeed improve my skills and knowledge of your craft. My thanks to you for keeping the tradition and never compromising, holding to the standards you know will only produce the finest results. My hat is off to you.



  14. Sandy on 18 June 2019 at 3:27 am

    I can only say “thank you” Paul. The meager skills that I have picked up from your very careful and structures online teaching has brought joy, not only to the recipients of the wood projects but from me for the joy I have had while making them.



  15. Mike Charles on 18 June 2019 at 8:30 am

    Thank you Paul, you are an inspiration! This article is one of the best I have read! Thanks!



  16. Jeff Anderson on 19 June 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Mr. Sellers,
    Like many of the commenters above, I had fallen for the “always more/bigger machines” philosophy (the only source of inspiration and guidance was New Yankee). I discovered your YouTube videos some months ago and your methods of work and teaching is revolutionizing what I do and how I do it. Worst of all, I had most of the hand tools all along. First project from your series was the wall clock, and the experience was transformational!
    I hope you have a strong sense of how valuable the motivational aspect is, in addition to the technique. That, for me, is the stand-in for the appreticeship, as I don’t have this weeks food coming from my woodworking. And as much as we’re all a little ADHD these days, just wandering into the shop without a little motivation to do something specific would have me distracted onto that unsealed ductwork joint, or the filter for the humidifier, or…
    I’ve not felt as proud of any of the other things I’ve built in my life as I am of that wall clock. Your teaching of methods, plus the inherent message to GIVE IT A TRY are how that came to be.
    Thank YOU!



  17. Noel Rodrigue on 21 June 2019 at 9:41 pm

    Paul, I’ll open with “Thank you!”

    Then with a quote from above: “people could match my skills in a matter of a few weeks.” Yeah, right … not in my dreams could I, in a matter of weeks (or even months or maybe years). BUT the combination of that statement and of your teachings broke the resistance to ‘trying’, the first step to “instant talent”. Listen, learn, do, practice … I’ve now sharpened something like two dozen chisels, fettled two planes, cleaned and sharpened one saw that needed much work including cutting off a bit that was damaged. I have yet to produce something in wood, but I have ‘done’ something of which I am proud.

    So I close as I opened: Thank you, Paul.



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