Skill . . .

. . . the Little Big Things

It should come as no surprise that skill often takes most of us a developmental period to establish it. When we already have skills in one area, connected to or not to a new one, skill development can take some just a fraction of the amount of time it takes others to truly master what’s needed. In reality, most skill is more to do with developing sensitivities surrounding feel, sight and sound than almost anything else.

The things I want to say is that it is the very small things that we learn and understand thoroughly before we truly grow into our craftsmanship. It is an intent, most of the time, and then too it is an accidental learning at others. Mostly we learn by our wanting to know and understand. Understand. . . stand under!

Stand under what?

Stand under knowledge through experiential learning.

Experiential learning?

Something we learn by earning and paying the price for it in our bodies and minds. Earning by doing.

Owning knowledge is something we gain from many sources, but skill is gained in the attainment of both knowledge and manual dexterity if indeed the skilled output is based on manual dexterity of one kind or another. The ability to work and think three-dimensionally usually comprises the development of skill. This skill may at first seem to be the largeness of an ability. By that I mean some people can build a house from scratch from the concrete footers to the last roof slate. Such capacity to design and build a building for instance is indeed a massive ability, but this massive ability comprises the zillion minute segments of micro skills based on our sensitivity to each and every skill we develop.

To cut a housing dado is a single task, but to cut a housing dado and fit the two components comprises several steps that are indeed many different skills. The skill of holding a knife differs to actually using the knife as does then using the knife in relation to creating a knifewall with a straightedge, square and so on. Factor in then the use of a saw and you magnify the dependency on skill and change the size of saw, tooth size and tooth pattern and different complexities affect the work in hand. To cut a housing dado may be a relatively simple task but it does require the development of a range of micro-skills and sensitivities that must ultimately be developed. As we enter the filed of woodworking many such skills owned by masters for centuries my be hidden to us whereas in times past a man said to a boy, “Don’t press, use the weight of the saw and the weight of the hand only!” With that came a hundred more such prompts and skills were passed down from one man to a boy until the boy owned the skills.

With this luxury now long gone, we must begin to understand that skill development will never depend on a mere papered degree or a book alone, it must be earned differently than most qualifications issued today because, well, there is no real qualifying body to do that any more (although many might claim such). What we are talking about must be attained by and through practical hands-on experience. Of course, knowledge is passed on through paper versions and videos, photographs and drawings, but what cannot be passed on that way is the physical sensing of what takes place at the saw tooth tips, the chisel edge and beneath the plane. This is where we must make ourselves aware of the impact the wood has on the tool and then the tool on the wood. different woods respond differently to different applications of the tools and the tools can be applied a dozen different ways to effect the cut. I constantly respond to the tool and the wood through this interaction and sensing. I am learning and adapting constantly and then no two different pieces of wood even in the same species and from the same tree are the same, often. This is what makes my craft so very interesting and stimulating.

So small things big? It should never be ignored that a small dovetail perfected from four saw cuts and some chisel chops doesn’t happen overnight. So many things in life rely on perseverance and especially is this so when we see smaller steps as, well, mere baby steps, kids stuff and such. Far from being inadequately retrograde, these steps lead to big things and whereas I could never admire the mans skill cutting a dovetail with a power router and Leigh dovetail jig, I can admire the man that designed the whole concept, the machine and the jig. And many times have I stood in awe at a man and a woman and then too many, many children who persevered to cut their first dovetail with just a saw, a chisel or two and a chisel hammer. Now this is admirable!

17 thoughts on “Skill . . .”

  1. Wayne Whalen in Canada

    You are right Paul and learning new skills is an investment in life. Never liked that old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. I am about your age and until this virus think i was still working at age 71. Now i am still learning and spending more time in my own shop. Most of my life i used power tools mostly since my father had a table saw that got me started. Most of my furnishings and cabinets i built myself. My kitchen cabinets were made from reclaimed pine that was on the walls of my present home. I have quite a lot of wood in my shop that i just couldn’t throw away and i have been practicing Paul Sellers techniques on some of it and giving it dimension and new life. My sharp Jack plane sure makes lovely shavings. I have been using sand paper on glass which works well but today i did order a 1200 diamond plate and some leather and compound. One or two lower grit plates will eventually be purchased after i see how l make out with this one. The reason i decided on this plate is because my sandpaper was going up to 600 so i figured this plate and leather strop would take me to the next level. I appreciate the tips and techniques. Thanx.

  2. Its interesting. I sometimes watch one of your videos on Youtube or Woodworking Masterclasses and I don’t quite understand what you are trying to say. So i watch it one or two more times. Even then I sometimes don’t quite “get it”. Then i go to the garage and actually try it out and get that “a-ha” moment. Or I mess it up and then realize, “oh so THATS what he meant!”. Its all those little things that come together that something “clicks” and all the little things become a big thing. I suppose it would be a lot better to have someone watching over me in person and show me exactly what I need to do, but this is the next best thing.

    1. mark leatherland

      Steve P – this is the same for me exactly. Sometimes I go back and watch the videos again and pick something else up too.

      1. Jason Kearins

        I have always believed in the saying repetition is the mother of skill, I have watched Paul’s YouTube videos several times each after trying the task for myself, it is a slow process but a worthy one, and one that I intend to carry on with.

        Than you Paul for the sharing of you knowledge in this platform.

  3. I found that my “Conversations” with wood frequently become arguments but thanks to Paul I began to listen to what the wood was saying. We still still argue but now it’s more of a compromise and I am learning that the wood often has a point.

  4. One of my old, respected teachers once said:
    “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement.”
    Quite apt- mistakes are the worlds best teachers if we pay attention..

  5. Thomas in Vermont

    The argument, as I see it, is something said to me long ago by a skilled professional: you have to get good before you get fast. With power tools the good is abandoned in favor of speed and production. It’s no easy task to go back to getting good after developing habits that emphasize speed. That’s not say production is not paramount in the trades, it is. I don’t know how an average person such as myself could have made a go of it using the techniques and hand tools of that skilled professional, but now that my livelihood doesn’t depend on production, I’m trying to develop the manual skills that were left by the wayside. Twenty years on after the advice from the skilled guy, I went to his house to see if he was interested in some custom cabinet work in a house I was doing stairs in. He was taking a nap. Still had the same ‘69 Chevy van and was not in the most prosperous of situations but he stayed true to himself.

  6. “Something we learn by earning and paying the price for it in our bodies and minds. Earning by doing.”

    It’s an honorable and respectable way.

  7. Today a dear friend of mine from high school came to visit me at my shop; he is 41, an economist working for our prime minister’s office. He just came to see me, but I had other plans: we made a kitchen spatula from rosewood pine (my version of Paul’s burgher flipper). He did 95% of the work, having no prior experience with manual tools. At first he couldn’t start the tenon saw for the stop cuts. And I also said “don’t press down…”. After a while he was sawing well, with no need of supervision. It took him 3 1/2 hours for a job many of us can do in less then 30 minutes, but he had “a transformative experience”, in his words. Now my friend has some first day skills in 10 different hand tools and he nows he can make. His hands know they can make.

    It was a wonderful day for me!

  8. Thanks Paul
    I was the guy that had many of the skills of the building trades and even built my own home from foundation to chimney top but I didn’t know what real skill was until I put away most of my power tools and stared working wood by hand.
    One of the most important things I learned from you is that wood will talk to you if you listen, I thought you where nuts, but now I can hear what it’s saying loud and clean. Most time it makes more sense than I do.

    1. I will know I have been successful when woodworkers go back to calling machines machines and leave the word tool for those we need to guide and manipulate hand tools in a multiplicity of directions as an extension of human skill, dexterity and will and not something simply pushed along a single axis in one direction. I would never call even a handheld drill or power router a so-called “power tool”. the real power tools for me are the ones `i power and direct completely by my own strength, direction and will.

  9. I read this today – “When we already have skills in one area, connected to or not to a new one, skill development can take some just a fraction of the amount of time it takes others to truly master what’s needed.”

    The timing was perfect because just last night I was watching Paul’s Q&A where he was talking about being too rigid and bulldogging the plane in to the wood. It seemed almost as a deja vu – I had heard that advice before…..

    Now, I consider Paul to be one of the best teachers in woodworking. He reminds me of another great teacher in the sport of golf. A man who was from Austin Texas – Harvey Penick (now I’m wondering if Paul and Harvey may have ever met during Paul’s time in Texas ….)

    If you pulled quotes from Paul teaching woodworking and Harvey teaching golf they would sound almost the same. Harvey talks about “taking dead aim” and Paul talks about developing a sensitivity in your work – but when one listens to either of them elaborate, they mean almost the same thing – be present and attentive to what you are doing, but not so much that you are worried and in fear of it. Be firm and confident as you approach your work or your golf shot, but not rigid and tense. Allow your brain and your senses and your muscles to be in communication with each other to accomplish the task with accuracy.

    I bet if you asked a Major League pitcher they’d have a similar approach, and again a batter. And likely a soccer player (or footballer) about to take a penalty shot and a again the keeper trying to save said shot.

    I think these things are applicable across many skills – but that relaxed confidence only comes from repeating the task many times and training your muscles, your brain and your senses – only then can you truly trust them with a task.

    But, to the original quote from Paul’s blog-when you’ve developed that skill in one area and have learned to apply it to another – that learning curve can be accelerated.

  10. Stephen Tyrrell

    As you say Paul, the time of a man showing a boy the skills of a craft, and training him in person is long gone, but through the reach of Youtube, you have been able to share your skills with thousands of students, and they can see, in the most minute detail, everything they need to practise to become competent woodworkers. Sometimes technology is a blessing.

  11. So often, rote memorization takes us to just passing proficiency but to truly understand how to work and use our working tools is the only time do we truly cross the threshold between Fellows to Masters of the Craft.

  12. Clarence Perry

    Sometimes re-learning an old skill is necessary. I learned to use a chisel about the time Paul did. Sadly I was entranced by horsepower and went on to learn how to use machines.

    I’m now retired and have a small shop full of power equipment. After watching a lot of YouTube videos, you finally taught me to sharpen a chisel without additional implements. The amazing thing is what you can do with a really sharp chisel and how quick and easy it is to own one.

    I have found that there are innumerable things that are relatively easy to do by hand that are harder and require more skill and patience with a machine. More planning too.

    I viewed your discussion of mallets and that bois d’arc wood was the best for making a mallet. I had always considered a bois d’arc (or horse apple) tree as nothing but a thorny problem. They are usually alone in a pasture, possibly with angry cattle around and if you are a child attempting to cross the pasture and you need a quick escape from an angry bovine, the bois d’arc with it’s 2 inch thorns leaves you a real decision.

    I think today most kids would never get the chance to spend enough time outdoors unsupervised to realize there was a decision required.

  13. Hey Paul I was curious if you could impart any wisdom on burnishing wood for the finish?

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