Woodworking Patterns

George sent me to Jack’s bench at the opposite end of the shop. His bench was more isolated from ours because the work he did in laying out needed more thought processing than the making did. You didn’t barge in on Jack, you quietly walked into his space and you stood there until he eventually acknowledged you were there and he addressed you with “Yes, lad.” Over familiarity was never tolerated which failing to recognise boundaries was indeed being over-familiar and warranted a headache resulting from the end of a long layout rod. I’d stand and watch Jack laying out. His precision with a pencil, square and a rod was remarkable. He rarely hesitated taking off measurements from plans with his well-worn, solid ivory scale rule and developing his rod for a new next series of projects and then too developing the individual pieces for one-of-a-kind pieces. There were patterns to his working, you see, as indeed there was a pattern for everything in the workshop. Even my standing there in wait and recognising his need for quiet and then too respecting the spheres of others within patterns there as well.

Surrounded by these emerging patterns, patterns completely new to me, I began seeing a certain beauty to each one of them. Creativity it seemed to me then was sensitivity to order and an acknowledgement that they existed to both nurture, preserve and conserve the culture of creativity. How such an amazing thing had indeed been handed down without many words seemed to me the most magnificent thing for me to yet encounter. Humility recognises the essentiality of boundaries, never violates them and searches out ways not only to protect them but to pass them on to future generations. In what is fast becoming an all the more over-familiar world, that has become difficult. In my world back then I would never have addressed George with a ‘Hey, George! What’s going on? It was a matter of respect and perhaps something that is indeed seen much less now.

Patterns often begin with seeing the limitations to things and the recognition that limitations harness the things we do, make and the way we make them. Remember that almost everything designed is only designed by humans and ultimately for the benefit and convenience of humans at that. This statement always prompts my being corrected that indeed other animals design too. But because an animal builds a den or a bird a nest does not at all indicate that they actually designed it; I am specifically talking about designing and the thought process of design. Fact is the nest type they interweave is woven into their DNA to build this or that according to type and they respond mechanically to a pattern they use and only make changes to according to conditions and supplies available to them. We, on the other hand, stretch things a million zillion times further, hence the computer, tarmacadam on road surfaces, cat’s eyes down the centres of highways and crumple zones on cars for safety. Laws both natural and manmade establish order and if we accept them, most of the time things go well. Run a red light and things go well until the 18 wheeler sideswipes you and carries you into the ditch. Just as mathematics is beautiful, so is the arrangement and composition of the patterns we woodworkers use and work to throughout the day.

Yesterday’s working reminded me that patterns are always beautiful. The more disciplined crafting artisans are in their handwork and the use of hand tools, the more beautiful their work and not just their work but their working too. You see the patterns determine the outcome so that these patterns express who they are. Each movement is economy in motion, of course, and the patterns create harmony and fluidity in movement. They speak of order and acknowledgment. Defy patterns and order and you achieve mostly chaos. Take one step ahead of the others that should have happened in the specific order of things and the domino effect sets up and every subsequent intent topples. The physical making of things often expresses things better and more practically so perhaps a physical description can help here. Even a very slight twist in a single door rail or frame of some kind yet to be made almost always creates a twisted outcome. The square must be square otherwise it’s not a square in the same way a dull-pointed pencil serves more to blurry what should be the defining lines and the boundaries lead only to confusion. The knife and the knifewall separate the waste from the wanted and the joint shoulders need no shoulder planes to true them. So simple!

To sharpen my plane and reload the iron in the throat takes me no longer than a minute, including reestablishing the full bevel on coarse abrasive to a macro camber, refining that in three more levels to 1,200 and a final buffing with 30 strokes on the strop to 10,000. Cinching down the cap iron and resetting in the plane itself is included in the minute. It’s a pattern I have used for 55 years to date and it’s this that speeds up my economy levels so that I don’t waste a lick. I think too that this is why more modern makers say this or that can’t be done by hand because it’s too slow. Truth is it’s only slow for them and with good reason. In my youth, I was disciplined to work and work effectively. Mentoring in craft was part of my world. This should be passed on. My apprentices now rarely stop to just chat. Mostly that’s because they are self-disciplined and with that respectful of my time as well.

Patterns work their way into our lives gradually one by one. I arrive at the workshop, park my bike and place my bag where I like it to be. In my workshop, one might be forgiven for believing the drawer filled with tools is a little disordered. So too my other drawers, trays, well and such, but every time I need this or that I follow the same pattern to where the ‘this‘ or ‘that‘ was ad should always be placed when I had last finished with it. This discipline and order of work makes me efficient. Without it I could not function well at all.

My patterns include periodic but regular sweeping, bagging, emptying and restocking, restacking and such. Patterns for stock preparation were given to me, handed down as it were, as were many of the principles of my craft and that includes the handing down of the patterns I speak of by word of mouth, man to boy, master to apprentice, in my realms. Unfortunately in this present age, the ownership of knowledge and skill is not so deep as fewer and fewer skilled craftsmen are around to teach them within those realms I grew with. Respect for master craftsmen was earned by many years even decades of practice. We live in an age of copycats as we all know, a place in a time where the unskilled copy the skilled and present it as if they own something but never actually earned it. It shows in simple things, the flipping of a plane, the alignment of a cap iron or the placement of a chisel edge to the wood. The missing ingredient in today’s world of ever more mass information is, of course, the humility old masters had in the ownership of their well-earned knowledge and skill. Patterns became owned. The pattern of dismantling and assembling things like the many different planes and the sharpening of them, the shaping and sharpening of saw teeth, things such as that, proved their economy through the motion of working. Today it has become more something that puffs up the recipient of knowledge and not the mastery of acts and patterns. That’s all too different.

My day begins with patterns established first by considerations. Either the previous day or on the day of my setting out I must think through the things that I must attain to. I consider everything I want to do and then prioritise my work. This, for me, is pattern making. I am establishing thought patterns first followed by planning patterns. A note on a pad or in my brain reminds me of stages of planning.

More on this soon.

30 thoughts on “Woodworking Patterns”

  1. Thanks for your comments about the unskilled copycats. I watch far more YouTube than I should, and I am amazed by how many copycats there are but more importantly, how very few, again very few, truly skilled craftsmen out there. One thing that I now watch for is; how the presenters hold and use their hand planes. It is very telling, it shows me right away if they really are comfortable with it in their hands. You can tell that for 99.9% of them, they are not truly comfortable yet, they have not put in the time to get a grasp (or the correct lack thereof) of how to hold the plane and use it efficiently. Watch how their hands wrap around the tote and the front knob. They look and act like something is going to try and pull it out of their hands. While working on planning a board, the motion is not fluid, and a bit abrupt. It is difficult to describe, but it is very evident just by watching them, they really don’t know any more than a regular woodworker. The more Youtube I watch, the less I see, if you know what I mean.

    1. I keep seeing comments like this, so who are these youtubers that is mentioned above?

      Also, does one really need 50+ years of experience to show how to use a plane, sharpen a chisel, using a saw et al? No offense to my fellow woodworkers here, but the typical things we do in our craft isn’t exactly brain surgery.

      1. It’s surprising what you can gain in just a few hours at the bench. That is what we have always considered. You are right, no degree needed. I think what it is is someone sees someone else do something, pass a file into the gullet of a saw and then does the same to camera and puts it out on YT as their own, that’s all. You watch and it does seem, well, clumsy, that’s all.

      2. I can think of a few off the top of my head that seem to not master their tools. They do look clumsy and seem a little uncomfortable with them. Of course Paul has and elegance when using his tools that few have.

        1. I have to agree Thomas. I subscribe to about a dozen WW YouTubers and while I respect all of them (why would I bother subscribing otherwise), some look very awkward, particularly while planing. Of course, Paul seems the most natural, just like my father who also taught me well.

      3. Lucian C Laurie Jr

        I recently watched a YouTube video by a guy named Rex Krueger. It actually took a non-woodworker, (his usual cameraman) and showed him the very basics of using a plane. It was amazing how useful this simple approach was. Bless Mr Sellers, he has given me dozens of tips and techniques for woodworking, but I still couldn’t get my work to be “dead square” as Mr Sellers says. I really enjoyed the Rex Krueger video, and it helped somewhat. Now, all I have to do is practice.

  2. It’s funny to look at established patterns of working. Today computer programmers use design patterns when coding new programs. There is more than one way to skin a cat but often the best way has been found and finessed to a point that emulation is the best way to go. However we are all unique we may be taller short left handed or amphibious our benches work space and tools may be subtly different which is why there are many patterns of work all valid. Finding ones own pattern is one of the joys of making.

  3. I find your advice on developing patterns applicable to many areas of life. This woodworking journey has helped me in many aspects and in many spheres. God speed Mr. Sellers.

  4. Making order out of chaos, still working on that!
    Right now my shop is in chaos, I’m slowly getting it in order.
    It’s a difficult thing to be disciplined if you have a unorganized pattern or plan.
    Thanks for sharing your methods.

  5. I am in the middle of remodeling my woodworking shop. i am working in
    a two stall garage with access to half the space but only 1/4 of the space is available for my workbench and tool cabinets ,clamps etc
    i have been in the same configuration for 2 years
    i had recently bought several sections of LED lighting to place over my workbench. Any else notice how much harder it gets to see those marking gauge lines as you get older!
    The original placement of the bench was to get the natural lighting by opening one of the garage doors.
    Suddenly i realized if i turned the workbench 90 degrees and moved the overhead lighting my work at the bench would be so much more efficient vie getting to tools and putting them back. The reduction in frustrations on getting easily to the tools and putting them ‘back’ is a pleasure. Plus able to move electrical wires for my 2 shops. As you say a little more initial planning and organization!
    thank you for the great videos and the great blogs.
    I think i may have a problem because i am addicted to your blogs and have gone back to the archives to read them including comments. People use the word binge (know you are not a tv person) to describe going on the computer or tv to watch an entire season of a tv series in one night. I am binging on your blogs but not too worry i am still spending most of my time woodworking.

    1. You’re not the only one! I’ve started over from the beginning. The beginning, I think, because I’m not sure. I think the Paul Sellers Blog starts in the spring of 2012, but I’m not certain. Anyway, it’s fun to see how it’s developed and there is a lot of instruction in the early blogs.

  6. This is another one of those blogs that has me saying ‘Yes!’ at every alinea.

    One thing I’ve always found odd and have missed in English is the lack of a distinction between the familiar and polite/formal form of ‘you’. It exists in Dutch (jij/u), German (du/Sie) and French (tu/vous), amongst others. It annoys me when children or generally, my juniors or strangers, address me in the familiar form. I’ve always been taught to address anyone older, anyone I don’t know well or anyone with (implicit) authority in the polite form. It’s becoming more usual over here to use the familiar form, also in advertising. My usual response is ‘you (familiar form) may call me you (polite form)’. I’ve since started addressing everyone in the polite form, including children or my juniors. It’s more common in Belgium but the exception over here in the Netherlands. It makes one seem a bit old-fashioned or even archaïc. So be it.

    A great way to get me to ignore someone is by shouting ‘hey [insert last name]!’ on the streets. It not only shows a lack of respect but most of all, a lack of self-respect to behave in such a way. A little decorum doesn’t harm. Addressing someone in the polite form is just one small, verbal way of showing respect for someone else. The way in which someone behaves shows that even much more (intruding in others’ personal spaces as in your example with Jack).

    1. One thing I learned and indeed loved about living and working in Texas for half my working life was how many children would address their fathers as Sir and Daddy in the same sentence but without military or subservient connotations of class or militarianism. It was quite lovely too to once hear an 89-year-old father refer to his 50-year-old son and both son and sir in the same exchange of conversation whilst they both worked alongside one another at the same workbench. These indeed are treasured exchanges of mutual respect, manners, closeness, warmth and dare I say it, love. You have to live there long enough to truly and fully understand it; the warmth of it all.

      1. On a recent visit to South Carolina I noticed the same levels of respect between most people. Customers calling their ‘service provider’ (whether that be a sales assistant, or contractor, or waiter) “Sir” or “Maam”. Obviously I’d expect that the other way around (waiter calling a diner “Sir” or “Maam”) but it seems it doesn’t matter who you are talking to – you show respect. I liked it 🙂 A lot different from Australia.

        1. My grandfather emigrated to Australia in the early ’50s and my father grew up there before they eventually returned. He liked to tell us that the first two words he learned in school there as a young lad involved a ‘bodily fluid that flows through your veins’, and the other word described an ‘illegitimate child’. I seem to have forgotten which two words it were and in which order they were combined. Alas, my memory isn’t what it used to be…. Maybe it was the Aussie way of showing respect, a term of endearment? Must’ve been because he learned it from his classmates in school.

          Though when he got home and repeated his first new English words to his uncle it was greeted with little enthusiasm and he had to run to avoid the brush that was being thrown at him by said uncle. Learning a new language can be a painful experience.

          My grandfather said he learned many new colourful words that time his neighbour’s lawnmower wouldn’t start. The sort of words you don’t learn in school or find in respectable dictionaries.

    2. “You” is the polite form and “thou” was the familiar form in English. But “thou” generally got dropped about three centuries ago as it was seen as impolite.

      Unfortunately, if you use the polite form for everything, it starts to lose its distinction.

  7. I’m happy and proud to say that I’ve been following you on both youtube and your woodworking masterclasses channels for 3 or 4 years now. I did recently unsubscribe from the Masterclasses series but that was about the relevancy of content to me, certainly not the quality of the content itself. I’ve also looked forward to your blogs as I’ve always found them uplifting, if not downright inspiring.

    That said, I got a little behind and have just finished reading the last 6 or 7 blog posts from you and noticed a rather disturbing theme. It seems to me that the tone of your blog posts has changed noticeably as of late.

    In earlier days your posts were all about transforming hand-tool woodworking from a very small exclusive club of “purists” to a vocation for the many. All of your advice was geared toward making the working of wood with traditional hand tools accessible, affordable, and approachable, for just about anyone. That work inspired myself and many others, I’m sure, to set aside some of the power tools we had been using for many years 9over 30 in my case) and to reflect a little on our craft, step up to the bench, grab some of those dusty hand tools, and make something that didn’t kill a single electron in its creation. Priceless advise, life-changing even.

    Lately it seems that I’m seeing something else entirely. You seem to spend the vast majority of your time either berating people who may see a slightly different way to approach the making, while defending your own methods as the only true path, or attacking those others who’ve taken up your mantle and are trying to spread the word as well, if maybe not quite as elegantly. Patterns are lovely and reassuring but only when we own them, not when they own us.

    I don’t see the need for defensiveness or criticism on your part. After all, isn’t imitation, even poorly executed, the most sincere form of flattery? Isn’t there room in the creative tent for everyone who wants to use traditional hand tools on some level of their work? You recently added a bandsaw to your arsenal. Does it matter if someone else adds a thickness planer or a jointer? Shouldn’t you take pride in the many hand tool apostles that all your years of hard work have inspired to create content? It seems that in achieving much of what you’ve wished for in the past, you’ve decided that, in the now, you no longer want it.

    Maybe it’s just me. Maybe you’re working too hard. Maybe this would be a good time to notice how full the glass is. Thanks again for all of the truly inspirational work that you do.

    1. I can accept my responsibility to present information accurately based on what I see happening all around me. That is why I present what I do the way I do and then too to choose never to copy others. What you describe as imitation being flattery is hardly what’s happening. I do suspect that my being forthright might have offended you somewhere in this, but I am truly grateful for the support that so fills my glass each day.

  8. I love the integration of pattern and humility! Really got me thinking. A friend once told me that the only difference between a groove, a rut and a grave is depth. I think it’s humility that keeps us from falling into the depths. Humility helps you realize that no matter how many years or how good you are at a skill you can always get better. It’s like your joke about miter joints – they miter been better. Humility makes it impossible to take things for granted, if you are humble you are always observing, enjoying and open to change aka no ruts.

    Of course I do need to be reminded…there is nothing like dovetails that keeps you humble 🙂

    Re: direction of the blog. Once again many thanks, this time for providing a place to learn the underlying principles of how to make! I suspect one serious benefit to a direct apprenticeship/class is those down times when folks just chat about their approach to their wood working and how it is entangled with their life.

  9. Most everything I had intended to say has been said. Two points remain to be addressed. First to nemo: I work a great deal with translating. English does have a formal structure akin to German, although it relies on several words and derives more from medieval Latin. There is a lovely medieval Latin poem from a father to his infant son which plays quite cheerily on the structural ambiguity.
    In English, one may say, “Do this for me.” or recognizing the difference in standing between the speaker and the auditor might say, hat in hand, “Sir, would you please do this for me.”
    The second point has to do with DNA driven building by animals. Squirrels are the exception. Hence the word “squirrelly.” Fortunately, there is a humane wildlife control expert who talked them out of our house and into a tall tree in the backyard. They are still around and definitely squirelly, but not in the house.

  10. mark leatherland

    Hi Paul, wise words. Im trying to develop my own patterns to speed up and improve my woodworking. I don’t think that your nearly 400k followers will be looking elsewhere for a new teacher in woodworking. I certainly wouldn’t waste any of my time watching anyone else. I mean I have done but soon figured out that you are a great find, an amazing woodworker, teacher and man. I like your style and passion and from what I can make out so does everyone else hence nearly 400k subscribers so please don’t waste your great energy being annoyed.
    Regards. Mark.

  11. Robin Alexander.

    Hi. Paul. This maybe long winded, forgive me for that. I am not a person whom making things of wood, a craftsman of wood, a master of wood, but my early years of life made wood useable for people. My life came in contact with English highrachy. Owner speaks with manager, manager speaks to Forman, Forman speaks to leading hand, leading hand speaks to craftsman, craftsman speaks to workers plus apprentice. No one in my early years took the time freely to pass on what they had learned over decades of learning it still happens to this day. For the best part of 56 years I try to teach all about my skill set Boilers. I know of the days that you stood by the master waiting on his word, watching every move he does to get the required outcome. But I still feel to this day it is wrong, we should by nature if someone comes to our control panel, work bench, platform, we should invite a conversation, ( hi how can I help you Paul,) You say (bob sent me over to you to learn how to do what ever) sure thing first we take this and do this etc….. A conversation between master and apprentice starts, no awkwardness just a conversation with an outcome. My goal in life is to retire to a work bench making things of wood using hand tools, with witch I am steadily amassing my tools. I have learned things from your YouTube channel plus I brought your DVDs and books which I like a lot. I hope you can teach people for many decades to come. A conversation with a person no mater of position is a conversation of knowledge and respect. I like your work. Take as much time as needed in your videos in real time if a project takes 10 episodes to complete I will watch all. Cheers from Tasmania.

  12. I create time to sharpen/hone/maintain my tools sometimes as I go along whilst working; sometimes (unnoticed flaws in the tools or what I heave produced) I bring in a new ‘tool’ as I am working as my initial tool selection is incorrect and then use it. Regarding producing what I am paid for, I use the knowledge (tool selection, work processes for example) I have had from others, what I have learned from my own ‘mistakes’ and my own research (books, www).
    I remember as an apprentice carpenter and joiner (the two elements under one apprenticeship are now making a comeback in the new T levels in the UK!) the “Jack” you refer to was a “Stan” (I met a couple of these) for me who was an elitist and shunned everyone else and kept the knowledge to himself thus maintaining his earning power! But, I have passed on my hard earned knowledge and enjoyed doing it. I have watched several people over many years producing timber related products and on very many occasions been amazed – literally – by how they produce high quality products with scant regard for a set process in place. They earn their money by doing it their way.
    I am now limited to a ‘shed’ being 7’ 6” long and 6’ 6” wide in the garden and still enjoy the process of woodworking. It is a great challenge (very enjoyable too) to work in that space.
    I enjoy your output, and many thanks for doing it!

    1. Paul didn’t say that Jack would not transmit his knowledge.
      When one does a work which needs precision and focusing, distractions every now and then by other people will just produce mistakes.
      Furthermore, it seems Paul learned a lot by watching Jack.

      My wife had to work in an open office where other people would make a lot of noise; it was difficult to focus or to have a business telephone call.
      Lack of consideration for other people’s work.

  13. I can certainly resonate with what you said about the “disordered” drawer. Many times my wife has tried to “help” me clean up and organize my stuff unbeknownst to me. Then when I go to work, i can find this or that tool. I ask her if she has seen it and she says she moved it out of that “junk” drawer and organized to where it makes sense to her. Completely destroying my pattern of workflow. I’ve learned over the years that everyone has a slightly different way of organizing things, ways that completely male sense to them make no sense at all to others. For example a screwdriver used for cap irons may go with the planes for some people, but others would demand it be in the drawer with the 30 other screwdrivers. Or cold chisels, does that go in the drawer with other chisels? Or with tools fo flooring and concrete work? People that have different work flows and patterns will have different ways of organizing. This especially may not work well with people with OCD that have rigid patterns that must be followed.

  14. Thank you Paul.
    I had to stop for a moment as I read multiple times the sentence “Creativity it seemed to me then was sensitivity to order and an acknowledgement that they existed to both nurture, preserve and conserve the culture of creativity.”
    Sensitivity to order. What a turn of words! I rarely think of myself as sensitive to much in life yet the morning sunrise always strikes me as well as it’s evening setting. The look upon my 8 year old grandson’s face as he traced his initials carved in the tool tote he recently received was a sensitive moment.
    It is with an acknowledgement of the previously undiscovered that am grateful for your words.

  15. Can I just insert a snippet about the photo of marking gauges all set in vertical order. Nice photo but it reminds me about the awful adjusters being fitted on marking gauges today . The older styles had a screw fitted with a cello peg style adjuster . Very easy to get a firm setting and comfortable on the fingers .Modern makers seem to prefer circular wheel shapes with narrow rough edges . Has anyone else noticed that ?
    The cure will be a conversion using some solder and a bit of copper pipe
    or a scrap of brass . Just remove from the gauge first .
    I bought a very cheap plastic Chinese single point gauge and that has cello peg , marked measurements and even a tiny bolt to adjust or change the marking pin. A double marker version would be a classic . It was also very light in weight and contrasted with a showy hardwood and brass version weighing considerably more. Heavy enough to feel awkward and unbalanced .
    The first contributor is quite right about clumsy youtube video presenters . It`s not just our imagination . Not all , just some , and as he comments , mainly when they use a plane .

  16. A difference of opinion here . About a drawer full of chisels . Last week I looked for chisel racks. Probably safer than a drawerful but racks tend to be for show as well as practical use during the day.
    One common feature is they hold the chisel flat on to the viewer . This makes the rack wider . To minimise the width I thought an edge on view might be an improvement. But then the handles impose their thickness on the length of the rack . Sketching a top end view I staggered the chisel positions so an outer and inner row was formed . Each slot separated the chisel blades but with a longer slot (front to back ) the handles took up less room and as long as the front and back rows knew their place (?) we could achieve economy of spacing .I still need to make this but I can`t see any drawbacks . A carry handle will also need to be front to back for balance . Keyhole slot(s) at the rear for wall mounting . A fun project in itself . I just prefer to have enough sharp chisels so there will be no interruptions in the middle of a job . Otherwise use a rotary toolrack or combine the two .

    1. The chisels in a simple till or chisel well works perfectly and I have never cut myself, placed them awry or needed anything like a rack with slots in.m I say this because of my tools re always good to go.

    2. The chisels in a simple till or well works perfectly and I have never had a safety issue, placed them awry or needed anything like a rack with slots in. I say this because the simplicity of it means my chisels are always good to go.

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