To Exercise or Not?

That is the question…

At the end of day two.

A decade ago a student came to my class and in twenty minutes learned how to sharpen edge tools. “That’s was so amazing!” He said. I spent a week on a woodworking course for sharpening and you just taught us more in twenty minutes than I learned in the whole week. We went back to the bench dozens of times when after examination the teacher kept telling us, ‘Not good enough, not good enough’. We had all kinds of equipment using this and that all of which cost a small fortune. Hollow grinds and micro-bevels, this file and that, I was totally confused over sharpening everything, saws and such too. And we had to buy a half dozen planes before we went on the course to use there. I almost gave up. In the same six days, I have made a wall shelf, a dovetailed box, and a table all by hand and using only the basic equipment with no machines.” Such can be the way of teachers some times.

Two days1

I preface the article here as a question because whereas exercises have value, there is a difference between an exercise and a practice. It’s not always too clear though what the difference is. Some things simply remain from early generations in schools we went to as kids. Depending on the teacher I’m sure, I have heard of the mean spirited making children lose heart by the insistence on rote repetition. Week on week the children were discouraged and by the time the kids got to a project they were out of time.

Two days!

The question for me is this. Is it necessary to make a dozen of this or that before we start a project or can the project be the vehicle to learn, practice and exercise on.? My courses evolved according to the students I was working with. I first taught children as students before I tackled adults. Adults came with lots of baggage and I was a woodworker and not a baggage handler.

The reason I do have brief practice and then switch to making a project is the project becomes more important to the student and they invest themselves in something that, well, might just turn out. If a box has four dovetailed corners, the corners map the project’s improvement. My project is the students, whereas the student’s project is the piece they make. No matter what’s made, it is a good idea to make early on. The result of my switching led to much greater levels of success in the hand made projects they racked up. We still had an introduction to making the three most important joints on the first day, but look what 6,500 students made over 25 years in my six-day introduction to woodworking workshops.

Of course, most schools want you there as long as possible. Bums on seats means income over a prolonged period. Students from independent schools and colleges alike that came on my courses always said that they learned more in my week-long than they did in months and sometimes years at uni. Whereas this is true, it was the students who stepped out and took the chance that prospered the most.

13 thoughts on “To Exercise or Not?”

  1. Paul – I agree with you that with something like woodworking, it’s probably a better approach to spend a little time on the basics like sharpening and handling tools, and on a couple of the joints and then move on to simple projects. Having something made that you can take home is the best motivation to continue working on skills. Even if the first few projects have gaps in the dovetails and are not the best quality, it is something tangible and it serves as a mile-marker on the road to becoming better at the craft.

    To be fair to teachers in schools – a lot of the time, the curriculum is determined by the school board or something like that and they have to have a way to evaluate the students (I don’t know why that’s the case, but it is). That affects how things are taught, even in shop class. I like to believe that most of the teachers would rather inspire the students, but they’re forced to teach in a way that’s not best for the students. Unfortunately, ‘education’ has become more of an assembly line than true education these days.

    1. Yohann, though I partly agree with you that teachers are bound by schoolboards and curriculum, they do have a lot of leeway. Teaching is a service-industry, where the quality of the service is determined almost entirely by the teacher. When I think back of my secondary education, we had teachers who inspired us students (thinking of one particular teacher here),and who also insisted on rote repetition and tested for it every class for the first 5 minutes in rapid-fire speed. He also taught us a lot about photography and model trains, neither of which he was supposed to during class time…. but he made up for any lost time! And then we had another teacher for the same topic a year later. The sorryest sod. Lazy, boring and temperamental (except on Friday afternoon when, as clockwork, he cheered up and actually seemed human). Same school, same course, same curriculum, different teacher. The first teacher later won the Dutch ‘Teacher of the year’ Award, when I had already left school. My first thought when I heard he had won was, ‘What, amazing, only now, not a decade sooner?!’. The other one… I occasionally see him cycling with his wife. I prefer to ignore him.

      My ‘woodworking teacher’ in school was a lady who had graduated from art academy/university. The creative, artsy kind, judging by her appearance. She wasn’t a woodworker. She wasn’t much of a teacher either. Come to think of it, I can’t even remember her name, trying hard to recall it. When someone during fretsawing-class (I hesitate to call it woodworking-class…) had broken a small 2 mm drill for the pilot holes, she freaked out. Next four weeks of woodworking class were spent in silence, sitting still with arms over each other, until whoever broke that drill would own up to it. No one ever did. I was glad when woodworking class was over.


    “Adults came with lots of baggage and I was a woodworker and not a baggage handler.” Something to think about, adults…

  3. One of the problems with the “school shop” environments today is that (at least in my town) the instructors are not woodworkers but teachers who had a free period and dabbled in wood, metal or automotive and volunteered to “teach” the class. Now mind you, if these teachers didn’t do this, the shop classes would have been disbanded so in that, we are grateful to them for trying to keep the shops open. What is disturbing is that the officials in the education department don’t feel that it is necessary to hire people that actually know and understand these courses and have the proper background in them. As far as the officials are concerned, the shops are a wasted wing of the school that should be used for education. And we wonder why the trades don’t have any new blood!

  4. What I like most about your projects is how they balance between teaching how to make something, teaching how to craft something and how to integrate the two into your lifestyle, muscle memory ….

    I made the wall clock as my first wood working project. Let me say I made most of the components 5+ times each. So I combined practice with actually making something useful. One of the many things that project taught me was that all the parts are connected. You can practice a joint over and over, but how that joint behaves in a project can’t really be understood until it’s part of the project.

    In many respects it all comes down to the most important thing you’ve taught me. “follow the harmony”! If you find resistance, figure out where it’s coming from and fix it. You’ve spoken a lot about sharpening lately and when to sharpen. I sharpen when the tool is no longer in harmony with the wood, my body and mind. Once you’ve experienced a sharp plane heard it cut, felt it cut, watched it cut you can’t go back.

    Again many thanks

    1. It’s the changing from working on a practice piece to a project that ups the game. Even a good joint on scrap wood gets binned, but a box with bad dovetails never does.

      1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

        For me, there’s another element to this. I actually do not mind making dovetailed firewood. Sometimes, that’s the end result – but the road to that result teached me something.
        One should not be afraid to make mistakes. This is the beauty with Mr. Sellers’ approach where one goes almost immediately to a project.
        Even a really bad dovetailed box is better than none – or worse: a pocket-hole’d one….. 😀

  5. Brilliant! I see parallels in other fields. Especially classical music where technical proficiency can become an end in itself even to the point of detracting from the whole point of joy in music. Interesting twist on the design principle that if it works for children, it works for everyone. Just no baggage on the playground!

  6. Paul, in about 9 years time I will be retiring from my day job and expanding my evening job. In the evenings I teach at a local college. My focus has been college chemistry (general and organic chemistry).

    In semi-retirement I plan to teach three days a week vs. the one day a week I am currently teaching (busy day job and young family at home so one day a week is all I have time for now). I can see where when I teach more at the local college, I think they would be open for me to teach a one unit elective class on woodworking with hand tools.

    I could certainly figure out a lesson plan but was wondering if you have something you might be willing to share? I’m guessing I would need 60 hours worth of instruction (two semesters worth of class time). I would trust your expertise over my educated guess as to what is best for beginners. Many thanks.

    1. I think we have answered this on our site, Joe. Tools advice on the purchase, use, adaptation, maintenance and such. Then there are all of the exercises, projects, etc. Maybe look there first and then we can talk. Also, they used my foundation course, the one we adapted for our commonwoodworking site, at Stanford University for a number of years.

      1. Thanks Paul. I will look into the common woodworking site in more detail. It likely has all that I need. Also, the fact they Stanford used your foundation course makes it an easier sell to other colleges. The local college where I teach part time, has all kinds of classes such as rock climbing, ball room dancing, etc. Woodworking isn’t at all a stretch.

  7. this reminds of woodwork cleasses when Istarted high school. We would make projects. I don’t rememeber everything that we did, but a few stick in my mind. The first was cutting a stick to length and planing it square on all four sides. The next lesson turned the stick into a garden stake by planing a point on one end, chamfering the other end. A groove was cut near the top to hold a string line.
    The next lesson was an octagonal bread board. Cut the board square. then cut of f the corners. Plane the edges. Plane a bevel on the top edges. Very usefull project. I am still using it occasionally 50 years later! It still has my name and the mark I received on the back too. I also made a fruit basket the my mum used for quite a while. Making something useful gives a greater sense of achievement than all the practise joints do.

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