Discovering and Woodworking

I’m not altogether sure what makes for a purist. Some have cast me as a man that hates machines, someone that refuses to accept progress, eschews the use of machine methods for working wood. These are the assumptions of those who know little about me or indeed prefer to cast doubt on the efficacy of hand tools as a viable means for working wood. The dividing line for me is much simpler. The dividing line for me is my choice to teach only skill-building methods to others to work wood with. Over the past century, we can do nothing but admit that skills, even the most basic skills, have been severely diminished and continue to diminish to the point of disappearing. But it’s skill that sustained me through what is nearing six decades as a full-time woodworker and furniture maker. By sustain, don’t get me wrong, putting food on the table and making an income is but a percentage of what life has been about for me as a maker, the other half of this, the important half, the part that mattered the most, was my having the freedom and the ability to live a life as a maker and then to help others to do the same with their one life. The skills I speak of defy the quest for ease, the quest for much money, the desire for recognition and power. I didn’t want speed, progressive ways of working my wood, an unskilled life, such like that. I wanted the life of enterprise, free choice in designing, simplicity and skillfulness. In my search for such, I discovered that many if not all that I came across seemed to shun working the body in union with the wood in every way. I didn’t want power feeders and dust extractors, T-slot systems and hold downs for safe handling and guaranteed alignment. I hated the thought of making jigs to hold, steer and guide and biscuits, dowels and dominoes have to be the most boring things in woodworking hands down. The dividing line for me was skill and skilless woodworking.

By basic skill, I wonder how many will take this the wrong way. You see, I do not mean fine inlaying or carving ornate and ornamental designs in three-dimensional art but the using of different handsaws and all that that entails. You might think my enemy to be Japanese pull-stroke saws made in China and Japan as well as other Asian realms. Not at all, my enemy is the destruction of skill by creating tools that cannot be sharpened and the whole culture that surrounds that which is rendering others unskilled by creating tools that must at best be discarded. My enemy is the belief that the whole world of woodworkers must always own machines to do the work that in general people now believe defies the accurate milling and machining of wood in every area of processing. I no longer met woodworkers working with hand tools in almost 30 years except those that I had trained. How could this be? And for about 30 or more years I never met a woodworker that could sharpen his or her saws. Buying throwaways is fine if that is what you choose to buy into, but if it’s that you don’t have the skill, well that’s another thing. I wanted to make sure that too was a choice. We should all remember that tool makers don’t make woodwork. Anyone that makes any tools is solely in the business of selling tools. Nothing more and nothing wrong with that.

Over two decades living in Texas, and then traveling to another dozen or so US states, I discovered new woodworkers. I choose the two words, ‘discovered’ and ‘woodworkers’ for sound reason. One by one, hundreds of men and occasionally one or two women, watched me working with my hands at woodworking shows. They were passively watching over the first two minutes but then passivity left and intensity took over as they moved to the edges of their seats, “Did I just watch him cut a dovetail in two minutes?” This demolished the belief that dovetails could only come from a machine loaded with a router bit and wood held in a jig guide. I would plane up the outside faces of the wood with a # 4 Stanley plane and again they were amazed. Busting the myths and mysteries of handwork took me just a few minutes. My demonstrations were always packed and not one person left even though the demonstrations were the longest and largest of any in the auditorium, at least one hour. So, my chosen two words? Discovered was the realisation that somehow I was unearthing a massive population of people, almost exclusively men, who had unconsciously taken up woodworking without really realising that they were mostly machining wood using high-ticket machinery that took a massive footprint in their garages. My ‘discovery’ was that they were truly interested in methods many had mostly ignored as archaic and outdated or indeed had never seen in real life. Suddenly they were believers. I had hundreds of converts from each show I demoed at over a 25 year period. This is what led to me becoming famed only as a hand tool purist when in reality that restrictive title belongs to others, reenactors and the like, living-history museums, not me.

The ‘discovered‘ is that there is a sort of underground mass of woodworkers who quietly and unobtrusively practice woodworking in their shed or garage at weekends and in the evenings on their own. I discovered that their love and passion for woodworking and their knowledge and skill levels far surpassed that of the so-called professional, certificated carpenter. I discovered that they were just like me but that most of them could only find machine-only methods and that this for the main part was due to woodworking magazines showing half of their pages with adverts for machines only. The word ‘woodworker‘ is the other carefully chosen word. A carpenter never refers to himself as a woodworker, at least not the ones I have ever met. Woodworker and woodworking are reserved for the amateur, whereas carpenter means that you make your living from, well, doing carpentry. Woodworking is much more expansive and then too inclusive and woodworking can mean everything from carpentry, joinery, intarsia, woodturnery and much more.

One by one the people were converted by my simply and quickly cutting a perfect two-minute dovetail in the middle of a machine show with a handful of hand tools. You see, the basic skills I am speaking of is not how to saw to a straight line, though that is important too, no, it was and is much more; the skills I speak of are how to sharpen the saw itself, all saws, how to change the pitch of the teeth or indeed change the ripcut saw to a crosscut saw in a matter of five minutes. What of saw setting and so on. Could it be that I could develop a teaching plan that would equip that generation of newly emerging woodworkers now seeking hand tool methods to work their wood with? Could I work with groups of people with whom my life now seemed to unite with; people who actually wanted skilled work rather than machine work only? And what of those who could never own the types of machines of which I speak? People living in a high-rise, a tiny home, social housing? What of those in a bombed-out middle-east and an isolated village in Asia?

Over the years I find myself intentionally evolved with my craft by a path I call the de-industrial revolution. When I discovered that I was on a mini-conveyor belt system 30 or more years ago I cried out in my head, “Stop the world! I want to get off!” No one ever again was going to push my buttons because what evolved for me was the better way of working. I went right back to the very root of where and when I first discovered real woodworking. I wanted the hand tools and I wanted the rough wood. I did not want the conveyor belt and the diversions of new gimmicks. I wanted the freedom hand tools gave me to think for myself and I especially wanted others to rethink what they were doing with their lives.


  1. You are completely and absolutely right. What my limited experience and initial projects have taught me is that there are 3 sets of things, as a new woodworker, that I must master and they are all connected: establishing square edge and face, laying out precisely and cutting straight. The last is the most visible to the beginning woodworker and a block to thinking of yourself as a beginning woodworker. A decent quality Ryoba saw is just the simplest and quickest way to build sawing skill. That initial skill is key as I suspect many walk away from the hobby out of frustration for not being able to pick up the ability to cut straight and clean. Once i had this down I started to see other issues with my initial projects – problems in layout and squareness that i need to fix. I restored an old rip handsaw that someone gave me using your vidoes and it came out great, but acquiring and restoring a crosscut handsaw and then sorting out and restoring smaller saws is a significant time investment when like many others I only have a few hours a week. Is it worth doing all this work? Absolutely, but i have higher priorities for now – getting layout and squaring skills to a higher standard. So is a quality but disposable Ryoba saw just a crutch? Maybe it is, but i would suggest that it will develop a competent beginner woodworker quicker and keep more of them in the hobby. Beginning woodworkers that will be ready for you to bring further into the craft. As I said, you are completely and absolutely right. Thanks

    1. And, having trained at the very least, 6,500 woodworkers through one-on-one, hands-on workshop how to successfully use only western push stroke saws in a matter of just six days through the completion of nine different but related joints, one dovetailed candle box, a hanging wall shelf and an occasional table, I completely and utterly disagree with your comment about Asian saws. And having worked both types, I have found that using an Asian pull-stroke saw is of no real help in learning to use a western-style saw because the whole dynamic is so very different betwixt the two.
      I don’t wish in any way to offend you, John, with the saws resharpened and correctly defined, western saws have been proven through centuries of use, as have Asian saws. When push comes to shove I think we can both pull a few tricks out of the hat to show how well they can both work advantageously.

      1. The nearby saw shop that I use to sharpen my saws (no time to DIY) also sells high quality Japanese saws that can be sharpened. They do so at a very good price. Plus the cost of the saw itself is actually quite reasonable.
        Now don’t get the idea that I only use these. I do however use them for joinery. Especially dovetails.

          1. I sharpened my first saw last night. I never even considered it was possible to sharpen your own saw until I saw Paul’s video on it. What an amazing difference it makes.

      2. Yes Paul, please come to Finland to hold some of your classes. I would definitely join those. And bring some of those sub 50 euro resharpenable saws with you to sell us. So far, the only resharpenable hand saws I’ve found here start with price tag of much over 100 euroes.
        Those are a bit pricy to practise sharpening with for someone like me, who works on his apartment balcony and is just starting the woodworking for my own pleasure and (mental) health.
        So my Japanese pull saws are a quite good crutch to get me started on woodworking. I totally understand your point about Western saws and resharpenable saws and skills to do that, but circumstances for many beginning hobbiest woodworkers are quite varying and if I had to learn all those skills by myself, get all those sharpening tools (and get correct ones, sellers here aren’t all that competent), I would never get anywhere with woodworking. So far I’ve settled for learning to freehand sharpen chisels and plane irons the way you teach.

        PS. Here is my workbench build, it’s basically Chris Schwartz’s knockdown English workbench

        pps. I really hope I could attend one of your classes.

    2. Interestingly, my first saw was a Ryobi and I found it very difficult to cut straight with. I thought it was just me (and maybe it is), but when I got a western-style push saw, suddenly my cuts were much better. I don’t know why though.

      1. I’ve used a ryoba and a dozuki and found that cutting straight comes down to technique and how you hold the piece. A firm death grip ensures a wavy cut going all over the place. You need to use a loose grip with both hands (at least when using the ryoba) and position yourself so that you pull the saw in a straight line. Sort of using a katana, I imagine. Other than that, it is the same as with push saws. Start the cut, then drop down until you saw at an angle downwards. Be aware of chatter; if the trailing part of the blade starts flapping about, it’ll affect the cut. Easy does it.

        I still have my throw-away ryoba; it is great for flush-cutting dowels (place a shaving underneath it to lift it off the surface ever so slightly) and for those cases where a push saw requires a different setup. But it is NO match for my push saws. I have cut lap joints with the S&J 9500R panel saw (stock, no modifications or resharpening done yet) that were perfect straight off the saw. four joints for a side table, all interchangeable with no or very little fettling (had to use a file on one or two of them). I’d show you, but I don’t think links to personal blogs are allowed here.

        A pull saw can be a great asset in the shop, but one must understand how it is supposed to be used and how the work should be secured. No different than western tools in that regard, really.

        I get why people are so impressed with the results from the pull saws. The do cut incredibly good and the cut can be VERY clean. But the same thing can be said about a well sharpened push saw, too. My Veritas dovetail saw was impressive when I got it (needs a sharpening now). My S&J saws too, and they do not “flap about” as much…
        If people could experience a well sharpened traditional panel saw, with a few hints and tips about technique, I don’t think they would be as impressed with the pull saws.

        Of course, people will always be drawn into the exotics. The myths and rumors about how a Japanese katana will cleanly cut a silk handkerchief floating down to the ground, martial arts and eastern culture in general. Intricate joinery using no glue. If all of that is true, the tools must be very good – right? 😉

  2. I remember how wonderful it felt when I made my first round overs with a power router I bought. And then I got a straight bit and started to make straight smooth edges on little boards to make boxes. It took a lot of noise and dust, and a lot of risk. Thank God, I have still all my fingers!

    After a while I dicovered Paul’s Youtube channel. It didn’t have 500K subscribers 8 years ago or HD content, but his woodworking was so real, same as today. Hands on wood, some tools, simple basic skills, amazing results! …then I discovered this blog: combine it to the videos and I got a full mentorship!

    Now I know how to work wood, only from Paul’s teaching. And I feel a bit sorry for myself when I recall how I made a little box squaring the edges of the boards with a power router. I just didn’t know about planes.

  3. Your saw sharpening tutorials were a revelation to me. While I certainly cannot sharpen or set a saw like the professionals at Lie-Nielsen or Bad Axe, or the handful of other handsaw manufacturers, I can do a decent job of it and that, coupled with the wide availability of quality old saws (Disstons, Atkins, Tyzack, etc.) in my neck of the woods that can be had for less than $10 each, meant I could equip my shop with virtually any saw I will ever need for a fraction of the price of their powered counterparts.

  4. I spend nearly half the year in a cottage by a lake in Ontario which requires frequent maintenance and improvement. (The cottage, not the lake!) There are power failures every year and some of them last several days before the authorities get around to restoring service in our locale. My aim, and it is doubtless a foolish and self indulgent one, is to become both well enough equipped and also skilled enough to work through the outages. The former requires only investment. The latter requires learning. Paul, thank you for your part in making the investments more judicious and the learning more pleasurable.

  5. Hi Paul,
    I caught your work almost at the right time. I had just spent a lot of money finishing my garage with lots of electrical for the upcoming machines. Fortunately, I was out of money and needed to save for a year to start buying machine tools. As such, I started to research what were quality machine tools. I stumbled across your original YouTube video of cutting dovetails and it all clicked. It’s hard to describe at how clearly it came into focus at what I wanted to do. The only other time that happened was when I chose my professional career after part way through taking organic chemistry in college. I just knew this was it. Better yet, it had to be it or I would go insane if I didn’t do it.

  6. I really enjoy your videos and blogs. I worked in residential construction my whole adult life, so I am fluent in using portable power tools. But I was fortunate to have begun in the ’60s, when we still did a lot of hand tool work, and many of my onsite “teachers” were journeymen carpenters, who learned hand tools first, and passed their use on to me. At that time, we did everything, from digging the ditches for the foundations all the way through hanging the doors and windows, and making some of the cabinets. Your videos are like a walk through my past. Thank you.

  7. I hand-code websites, cook meals from scratch. I have loved woodworking my whole life, in part because my father loved wooden boats and learned how to care for them. He also loved hand tools because they were quieter than power tools, a trait I confess I share, but also, that they connect us to the wood we’re working with, in the same way a gardener is connected to the soil they kneel on and dig in.

    In my various businesses I learned long ago that one effective product of good marketing is to get people off the fence—even if many get off on the outside.

    People who don’t understand your thinking, Paul, are not fans and are unlikely to become fans. Their departure can only make it quieter in the shop, eh?

    As I’ve finally reached a financial point that I can buy a nice tool once in a while, I surely wish you would stop teaching people about router planes and such. You have a remarkable ability to put prices through the roof 😉

  8. I’m not a woodworker, I’m a professional musician, but I admire the skills of woodworking and I love wood. Learning the basics is, I think, very much like music: when you know who came before you and who came before them you have a much wider range of choices in front of you. I use a computer these days because I know what music I want to make. If I never used a computer again I could still make the music I want to make. I was taught the nuts and bolts of making music by older musicians, and the tools I use under any given circumstance are dictated by the music and what’s around. Regardless, the final product will be equally good.

  9. It is interesting Paul as to how life can, even in my advancing years, seem a bit much. I’ve found a nicely sharpened hand plane and a small project of two help lift my spirits greatly.

    Life is oftentimes simply marvelous. At others a bit less so. I have found my opinions are not received directly from the Almighty so I may dispense them to the uneducated. Silence or a smile with a nod is sufficient as a reply to someone in whom I disagree. The smile of a grandchild followed by a hug lifts the spirits. When that is not possible, the song of the aforementioned hand plane trying an edge at least appeases my spirit for now.
    Thank you for offering a more than adequate substitute at a much better cost than counseling.

  10. Paul, I think if you were not a master woodworker, you’d be mathematician–not that you missed your calling! By profession, I’m a theoretical physicist. There is a certain joy in solving a difficult set of equations with a pad of paper and a nice fountain pen and discovering something new about the way Nature works. It may take a while to work out and I may need to develop and perfect the necessary tools and skills before applying them to a new problem. OK, I could write a few lines of Python code and send the calculation off to a supercomputer. It’s just not the same! Even after doing this now for 30+ years, I find great pleasure in the process. I see a similar parallel with your approach to your work and your teaching. I love seeing a new student approach a hard problem for the first time by taking the time to perfect the necessary tools, and to see their sense of awe when everything “clicks” together like perfectly cut dovetails.

  11. They say a bad workman blames his tools. That is true but not with the usual meaning… When I started woodworking, I could only use power tools because tools like handsaws, planes and chisels are impossible to use if you don’t have these basic sharpening skills, so I thought that they were useless or perhaps I should have bought some extremely expensive ones. Watching your videos, where you so freely share these skills, have opened so many possibilities for me. Whilst I still use power tools, especially for some repetitive tasks like dimensioning several boards, I find that often for one offs you can accomplish things quicker and safer with hand tools. Thank you for demystifying woodworking and helping so many people like me to be more creative.

  12. There is no joy in power tools but they will do a LOT of accurate work in a hurry. The point missed by a lot of new aspiring woodworkers is that you will still need to be able to use hand tools. There are a lot of functions that power tools will NOT do so best to start off with the basics and learn them as you are going to need them at some time anyways. You are planting seeds Paul that hopefully grow into might Oaks. That is quite a legacy to say the least. We can all learn something from you as I continue to watch. Thanks Paul

  13. It’s worth noting that working effectively and efficiently with hand tools requires practise and patience. This isn’t the case when working with machines. An honest approach to work is clearly working with hand tools.
    After being frustrated with machine work and the lengths I had to go to for not much gain I found Paul on YouTube and he completely changed the way i approached working with wood. All the skills in one place made it easier for me to progress. You must hear it often Paul but thank you. Thank you for sharing your skills. Also i don’t think I’ve ever thought of you as a purist or a Luddite but a great teacher and honest man.

  14. Thank you Paul,
    I’m one of the few women who would have been and am still mesmerised by the use of hand tools to make things. I’ve been around woodworking and carpentry most of my life, I’m 65. Assisting Mum & Dad as they built things and later teaching myself when I moved away from home with the Army. Whilst the use of power tools has been good, it’s daunting because I’ve found there’s no where one can go to learn how to used these beasts with confidence. Last year I came across a course in Canberra being held by one of the Australian National University’s Fine Woodworking teachers and learnt I could confidently flatten and square a piece of timber and make something beautiful – learning how to sharpen the plane, how to use it and know it’s personality. This year I’ve continued the journey with another Maker and recalled the memory of the sound of a sharpened chisel slicing through Blackwood. I’m re-designing my workshop, moving on a table saw, rethinking how I can do things simply, safely and with confidence. I have my planes, chisels and saws now, I can pick them up, knowing how to use them. My next step is to work out how to sharpen Dad’s auger bits and service the brace.

  15. Paul I love reading your material and I’ve learned a lot, but..there’s always a but.. When I picked back up woodworking again after so many years doing other things that old rocking chair was already chasing me. Yup…Old age is a bit faster than we are and it’s getting faster as I go along…Not sure about the rest of you.
    Anyway, I gave it a real go at pushing the plane (which I still do from time to time) and pushing and pulling a hand saw. One problem…Arthritis is not my best friend and it wants me to use power tools more than I’d like and being older I also have more money to spend on things I simply couldn’t afford as a youngin.. Oh well..I have both and use both and will up until someone gets around to nailing the lid down on me and someone else drags my sorry (edited for the family hour) down to the old grave yard.

  16. I have spent the past 30 plus years as a Luthier who builds using only hand tools.
    I have lost count of how many times detractors have said “I can machine a Guitar body to within .09 mm accuracy and build a Guitar in a day… They also say I will never make any money doing it the traditional way.
    These people, by those comments, show that they have no real understanding of timber. How it moves with changes in humidity, how to select the most stable and suitable timbers etc.
    (Funny that I have been able to live a good life, travel and buy a home and semi retire at 50)…
    Bust worst of all, they show no respect or passion for the actual craft of Luthiery.
    They choose to buy into the arrogance that a machine can do it better than a human.
    Yet when there is a Guitar show, the number of people who are attracted to the hand built instruments still amazes me.

  17. I do wonder Paul, how many people walk away from woodworking as a hobby, when using hand-tools, because of the lack of quick satisfaction with their work and results?

    Machines etc build repeatability, accuracy and consistency and they do this from the very beginning (assuming they have been set-up correctly), whereas precision with hand-tools can and often does seem to take years, which many of us frankly don’t have. Do we have to have Paul Sellar’s or Jim Kingshott’s (who remembers him these days?) years of experience before we can replicate what they do to a point where we are happy with the result?

    I think you have done your best to dispel this perception. I think you have been trying to convince people that what you do with a No.4 to bring timber to a straight and level stage of preparation, seemingly impossible without a jointer and thicknesser for most people, is actually achievable. If you are prepared to put the work in. But this could be argued for anything, how much work must one put in, how much timber must be thrown away before an adequate skill level is developed for timber to be able to be used on projects, when using hand-tools?

    I think you have elegantly and eloquently argued and demonstrated through decades of work, that in fact, given careful instruction, planning, the right tools and the willingness to try, then in fact most people can develop the necessary result in a relatively short period of time and not have to resort to machines. I believe this as I believe in you and Jim, for me, this is the only path to take.

  18. “Machine = better” does seem to have invaded most aspects of life. i have often seen workmen using a digger to dig a small hole when I am sure that I could do it quicker with a spade and bar. I have a very distinct memory of watch this whilst drinking a coffee and seeing 6 men stood around a hole whilst the 7th was using a digger. It would have been far more effective for 1 man with hand tools. Sadly our taxes were paying for this.

    1. When the big dig was going on in Boston, the cost per mile was astronomical and the timeframe was huge. A colleague of mine, who was familiar with history lamented often that the New York subway was done with handpicks and shovels in a fraction of the time. You are onto something here.

  19. Thank you for your inspiring words, mister Sellers.

    Yours truly,
    Geert Moorman

  20. I mentioned to a colleague at work that my past time was woodworking and his immediate reaction was ‘ you must have a tonne of machines’. I tried to explain, but in the end it turned into trying to justify, and then it wasn’t worth it.

    However, if I had said carpentry, what sort of reaction would that have evoked? Though it is a past time and I am not earning a living from it, is there scope for an amateur hand tool enthusiasts to call themselves a carpenter instead of a woodworker?

  21. Very interesting narrative, thank you very much.

    I have often thought about the art of writing a letter. Everyone just uses email, or Skype or Face Book. When do people actually sit down and write a letter to a friend? I know that I am guilty of that.

    When I was going into grade eleven I took a typing class as and elective. Maybe I thought it would at least be mostly girls! But I did learn how to touch type on an Underwood manual typewriter. I my career as and Accountant, it certainly paid off.

    I am totally for using hand tools, but I am new. It is thoroughly enjoyment to me. Thank you and I hope more people would watch your videos and learn a bit about how craftsmanship is done.

    Oh, I am located in North East Ontario, Canada but have spent a great deal of time in Texas when I was working.

  22. Hi Paul, I am one of your carpenters, started an apprenticeship 1978 in Sligo Ireland. I was lucky as there was several carpenters that I could work with, most had returned from England after a couple of decades working there. They told me I could tell the standard of a site by the saw clamps and to always look for them when new to a job and also spend 20 minutes each week sharpening and maintaining your tools.
    When I did go to London in 1983 my tool box could fit under a bus seat, you had to carry every thing you needed and the main contractors did not have a swag of power tools.
    I think what you do is fantastic and we should be given the time to learn, another tip I was given was not to worry about speed in your work as this will come with practice and the more work you do.
    I am still working and have spent a large part of my life using the quickest way to get the job done, I don’t have any regrets and now I have slowed down I look at jobs in a different light.
    Kim Roycroft, Nannup West Australia

  23. I was one of the people at the woodworking shows in the U.S. thanks, Pal.

    New Jersey

  24. As one of those 6500, I can attest to first meeting Paul at a woodworking show on the perimeter, separate, quietly marking, cutting, fitting…thanks Paul.

  25. Paul I have now been inspired by your videos and blogs to do what seemed nighon impossible and have (re) discovered the joy of physical work. Slowly over the last few month I’ve moved my random selection of cheap tools and have been building a new set mostly swcondhand based on your guidance. Diston panel saw freshly set and sharpened, planes that work as they should. Mostly repairing sash windows saved thousands this year alone for the cost a a couple of hundred pounds and making toys, swords and axwa and bows for and qiemy boy. Have built a tool trug designed by another YouTubeer for him and plan to help fill it with hand tools and help him with the skills to use them him as he grows. I’m not highly skilled yet but I am working on it inspired by your posts, so thank you.

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