You think . . .

. . . it takes 57 years to perfect a dovetail.

By the second day this is what my students made from six pieces of wood with half a dozen basic hand tools.

Of course, it doesn’t take anywhere near 1% of that. I sometimes post a video or a picture showing a perfect joint I just made, a dovetail, a mortise and tenon, or a saw sliding and gliding effortlessly through the wood in perfect alignment. That shoulder line coming off a knife wall meets, greets and seats airtight against the stile first time and so on. And then the comments come in one by one. I take most of them down straight away. Why? Mostly they are not helpful or are even mostly unhelpful to most.

A month-long class from raw beginnings produced all of these projects. And we are talking some had hardly ever picked up a tenon saw here.

When I first started training and teaching it was one on one in the workshop and at the bench. I say bench because hand tool woodworking relies on developing skills that cannot be had any other way but by the doing of it. No sliding fences, dialled-in distances, power feeds and so on. Hand tool woodworking is all about you — your connection to the wood and the tools, your energy moving the tools, synchronising your whole being to negotiate the hand tools to the wood. The tools rely on what you feel in the zone, where the resistance is, how to negotiate it to result in immediate successes and so on. It is this alone that makes hand tool woodworking a stand-alone enterprise and not merely the flip side of the same coin as machining wood. Most people can learn enough about machining wood in an hour on the chosen machine, less mostly. This learning is 98% about safe practices. Not much more. Hand tools are about skill and the development of skill and they do take longer not so much to learn about but to master. That’s why I wrote my second book Essential Woodworking Hand Tools. All of the books I had read were mostly about the history of them or they were very generic and written by writers and never by crafting artisans with decades of full-time making under their belts. I am a dying breed. A remnant if you will. I wrote the book to pass on the knowledge but only in hopes that there would be enough in the book for people to say, ‘I want this!

After the foundation course of just six days, students came back for another six days to make one of these. Yes, I mean six days and twelve days in total.

I often read comments after a video or picture that say something like, “Yeah! You only need 55 plus years to get that good!’ Referring then to my extensive woodworking career. Or in today’s Instagram, “I suppose that’s what 50+ years at the workbench gets you though; practice may not make perfect, but it sure gets you close eh Paul?” Of course, it does not. In my weeklong courses over almost three decades, every student made a dovetailed box with near-perfect dovetails, a wall shelf with six housing dadoes, two through mortise and tenons and two stopped tenons and arched rails, all hand cut of course. The last project was a small chairside table with mortise and tenons, tapered or shaped legs and all from solid oak. In 95% of cases, these were men who never used hand tools beyond chiselling open a paint can. They all succeeded. I say this because anyone who went and chopped twenty mortises following my technique will have half of them come out well and even perfect. `same is true of dovetails. negative comments that seem jokey are often a sign of pure negativity and can even be passive aggression. I have spent 30 years investing my life and work in the lives of those who want hand tool woodworking as part of their lives. It is working!

The basic table is the same as for a dining table–a great Kickstarter!

And don’t forget all of the work we have done through the years to provide all of the foundational woodworking for those new to hand tools on our common woodworking site commonwoodworking.com. That is working amazingly too!

73 thoughts on “You think . . .”

  1. Not taking anything from the class what so ever but the dovetails look machine made which is what you get anytime you use a 1:6 ratio or less.

    1. I’d argue that that’s because machines are made to mimic hand cut dovetails. So machine made dovetails look like hand cut dovetails, not the other way around.

      1. Kingsley Alex Acquah

        Hi Mr paul I am Kingsley and after technical schools I have been doing wood works and still like the works I do l have been reading most of your works and your video some of the tools I can’t get them to work with I wish to do more or be like you in future if you need workers place invite me I will come and learn more for you and help the company too thanks 0277782394Ghana

        1. Hello Kinsley, We developed our online training to help others to distance learn and it’s working fine, but can never substitute for one on one in an apprenticeship. My apprenticing days of the past when I trained many are not to return I’m afraid. Currently, I am mentoring three younger crafting artisans and sometimes I think that they are mentoring me as do the team I work with in the video work. I hope you can find a situation beyond college tech where someone can take you under their wing and pass on their skills and knowledge in a tangible way.

    2. The dovetails are 1:7, hand cut, of course, as I have never in 57 years of daily making cut a dovetail by any kind of machine. Why? because the reason I wrote the article is simple. Other [people can achieve what I have readily if they take time to apply themselves and indeed can make the time to do it. If a machine cuts the dovetail then the human did not. Simple. It makes absolutely no difference if I make anything that looks like a machine made it, what matters is that I used my skills to make whatever I make. I don’t do it to be approved of or in some way validated. I don’t need approval or validation, what I do need and own utterly is the skilled workmanship and that is purely for my own love of my craft and the sharing of the knowledge with those who would like to earn the same.

      1. Frank Stalteri

        Hi Paul, I agree with you about the hand tool verses power. When I was in shop class in my school years it was all power tools. And when it came to the table saw, it took a kick back .Birch in the gut. Thank God I wasn’t taller. Yes you learn safety. I bought power tools and what a mess of saw dust from routers to the table saw and the time to clean it all up. Hand tools though take time and patience to learn, I rather not go back to power. I wish though I had an answer for replacing my routers. For the edging sides. Thanks

        1. Moulding planes. And in some cases even a #45 (or other models of plough/beading plane) can take care of the edging. The power routers were of course intended to replace these types of planes. But definitely have a look at moulding planes to replace the router. There exists a plethora of varieties and quite cheap compared to router bits.

        2. Well, Frank, I do think moulded edges have become a bit much. I’d rather never see a moulded edge again in my life. The obsession for moulded edges lacks imagination as to me they reflect the elitism of past eras that carried over into our present day. I think mostly its because once you buy a power router you also buy into buying the hundred different profiled bits and then, well, you just have to find something to mould and something more to do with that expensive piece of kit other than just make jigs to rout out housing dadoes. So, sad to see, everyone and their dog routs a Roman Ogee or an Astragal onto the edges of their tables and never asks themselves,”Now why am I doing this?” It becomes automatic to pick up that router and rout a mould — bit like those who perpetuate the pretention eras of the rich and royals for little more than entertainment and novelty carving ball-and-claw feet and Queen Ann or cabriole legs. Not much imagination beyond copying something created as merely a whim for the wealthy. I walked around the barochial palace in Vienna and every surface wherever I looked was shaped and carved by underpaid crafting artisans whether it be stone, iron or wood. Yes, the rich kept them in work and life, but only just about, by dripping out just enough work and money to keep them in their places but it was little more than catering to the whims of designers catering then to the wealth of aristocrats and wealthy of the time and then too the new money of those eras. Personally, I’d see it as a day of new beginnings and steer away from the now far too ubiquitous moulding. I have shelved my moulding planes and keep them where I can be reminded of all the blood, sweat and tears shed by the hundreds of thousands of men who moulded millions of linear feet in their own anonymity, unrecognised for their skilled work because, well, they were just workers owned by the elite few.

          1. Paul, I would agree with you to a certain extent. Of course there are more or less vulgar exaggerations in moldings, but I think it’s to generalise a bit when referring only to the wealthy and the elite few. I think it’s fair to accept a difference in taste also among those of us who loathe exaggerated mouldings. Some like it very straightforward with no or as little moldings as possible, but there is a great span between that and exaggeration. I think the thing is to be subtle so that the mouldings do not steal the focus of the beholder from the overall impression of a work.

          2. I was simply looking at the roots of origin in Greek classicism adopted through the centuries and how makers more often mindlessly, not all all of them, because some replicate to match existing work, etc, grab a router, chuck in a router bit and rout every corner. This is from my observations through the decades watching how the router came in, and became nearer to the truth of what happened and I don’t much give thought or concern to whether anyone agrees with me or feels I generalise. What’s more important to me is questioning the whys of replicating styles and types, patterns and so on. This for me is a reality and especially so in the realms of today’s woodworkers in certain not all realms and on certain continents. Give a man a gun and he wants to shoot a moving target. To some it’s just a bird, a hog or even a person, to others it’s life. Give a man the now ubiquitous and effortless router rather than his own energies and skill and he wants to rout a moulding to almost every square edge he comes across. Simple facts!

          3. Well said Paul, they must have spent hours to produce a piece of furniture for little pay that just sat in the corner of some big house with no practical use at all except to impress there well healded friends. Thank goodness for the Arts and Crafts movement.

          4. “What’s more important to me is questioning the whys of replicating styles and types, patterns and so on.”

            Yes! I really hope that the next few decades brings us to a point where we ask these types of questions in everything we do. Why the shirt (obscenely ironed using the equivalent power of two horses) and tie to sit in an office all day – when was it decided that this was the barometer of “smartness” or “professionalism” and what value does this functionless fashion add to my role? Why do we persist with the Victorian fashion created in the form of the lawn (give a man a lawnmower… to expand on your routing analogy), destroying the environment for a functionless patch of grass as fashion dictates (of course, not all lawns are functionless, but I suspect most are not utilised and most could be shrunk).
            What does these fashions actually do for us? Who (or what) suffers in return? Why did they become fashions in the first place, and why do we need to continue to fetishise them? Hopefully these questions will keep on being asked, and by more and more people.

          5. The same could be said for most of the art, craftman, & music world though the centuries. Regardless of who paid for it or where it sits we can still admire the skillset and creativity that went into it. Personally i like the ornate pieces as well as those with simple lines.

          6. Well, I have three routers and some moulding router bits, but I don’t use the latter very often, and, incidentally, as an active sports shooter for many years, I have never once fired at a live, moving target.
            But that’s just me :-)…

      2. Mr Paul. I guess I’m kind of a straight shooter, which sometimes seems abrupt. But, sir, you need to stop defending your hand tool preferences. Your a master craftsman with hand tools. That’s it! If people compare your work to machines, let them! As you said, you don’t need validation. The proof is in the pudding/joint. Hehehe. Just smile my friend. You know, and so do they.

        1. Good morning Gary, Thanks for this. If you will allow a slight nudge that makes a huge difference to clarity — as a straight shooter I hope that you will understand. You tell me I “need to stop defending your (my) hand tool preferences.“, but I am simply defending the art of hand tool woodworking for all and not in any way for myself for as you say I have no need defend my preference there, I’ve lived the life I chose and love it and it does make me smile all day, but I do defend my and anyone’s right for freedom of speech; I generally happen to express my freedom of speech to that end in the simple things I write of which just happens to be hand tool woodworking most of the time. Some things are really worth defending.

    3. This is exactly the type of comment I get whenever I finish a guitar: “It looks like machine made…”
      No, it doesn’t. It is sad “machine made” nowadays is the reference.
      People are impressed if you can make a piece that looks “almost as good as from ikeeya”. But if your work is (hopefully) much better than that they’re disappointed. Handmade means rustic, right?
      Like my kids, who think my home made mayonnaise is almost as good as the one from their favourite brand.

      Once you master something it’s hard to not do it right. I don’t strive to make my work look like it’s handmade. It IS handmade and I try to be as accurate as I can. And yes… after a while it looks just ‘perfect’.
      What can we do about it? Whack a nail in it and apologise? “It’s handmade, you know…”
      Looking for flaws and not finding any must be frustrating for some people.

        1. It’s no different than to try writing your name differently or try switching the knife and fork when you are using both to eat. I’m English and it is different to the US where people cut up their food to bite size on the plate and then transfer the fork from the left hand to the right hand and discard the knife until needed further. Some things become so intrinsically ingrained to you that you just can’t change. Hopefully, it’s good things!

      1. It was all intended as a distraction to the true reason and pulse of my encouraging article by Kratky, nothing more, even though he says he’s not taking anything away. Of course, he does and he did. It’s a form of passive aggression that looks like it’s one thing when it is another.my

    4. It is an interesting point of view to be pondered upon. The basic question would almost be whether or not, if I am an excellent and (perhaps exaggeratedly) thorough woodworker, I need to deviate from my standards because they are too perfect?
      I am serious, as I have sometimes come across the same thought, but restrained myself, as when I know the amount of time put into the work and the inner feeling of a pedant when he or she has made something to their own satisfaction and also when they are dissatisfied, sometimes even scrapping the whole piece of work for some minute little detail that nobody but they themselves could see. After that, it’s up to me whether I am interested in something of that perfection at all. Sometimes I need to ask myself that if I’m not, is it because it’s too perfect or is it because I am nowhere near the level necessary to make something similar :-)…

      1. I think perfectionism is often an obsessive compulsionism that destroys the peace of simply making. Pride too can be more harmful than good in people’s lives. Better to just make and realise that we are, after all, ONLY human.

        1. I have meditated on the idea of perfectionism and I think it is related to being hyper conscientious. Conscientiousness overall is an attribute in many professions think pilot, engineer and surgeon. These professions demand careful attention to detail and working in a systematic thorough fashion. I think Paul you clearly also demonstrate these traits and could be considered as a perfectionist. You clearly take great care and attention to detail always prioritising quality of work with your projects such as your white house collection. I can only assume you remade parts of the work if you weren’t happy with it/and or could of been an even higher standard. I think the problem of perfectionism is if you are neurotic about it to the point where you attach your self worth or obsess over potentially making mistakes or chasing others approval. Look at the top Michelin star chefs they also demonstrate these qualities always constantly getting their work as close as they possibly can to that perfect ideal (and what society also accepts as excellence), But also know that perfection doesn’t exist (and is subjective to a point) but its the striving. As even if you think you can achieve it you can always improve and its the recognition of that its a process to get to that level of perfection is what sets the artisan apart from the mediocre craftworker who simply accepted “yeah that’s good enough” would love to hear your thoughts Paul on whether you think you can resonate with this I would say healthy perfectionism where you are always looking to improve your quality of work and reject the notion that good enough simply isn’t good enough and that you instead should strive for that ideal whether that be the airtight dovetail or hang the door a door with perfectly consistent mm precision margins.

          1. I would not at all consider myself a perfectionist, George, I am just quite, quite comfortable in my own skin. Whereas in the past I, like most, sought the approval of others, I came to a place where the others, from that point of view, mattered less than the contentment I got from what has become very ordinary work with ordinary tools, ordinary wood and quite ordinary working. When I came to this point I stopped man-pleasing and my fight for sanity and satisfying others was over. Now I can simply be real and transparent. I came to the point where I could just love my work, the people I reached out to and the people I work with. This defies perfectionism for me.

          2. Perfectionism is one of the many shapes of modern anxiety. Insatisfaction is inherent to this, as they ideal you are aiming for is never fully reachable.
            As Paul points out, having standards is a very different thing.

        2. Okay Paul I agree you may not do it for seeking others approval but what do you reckon to my other points associated with perfectionism can you resonate with them?

          1. Not really. We obviously see things differently as I do not see the categories such as surgeons, doctors and engineers as anything more than ordinary people doing ordinary work and no more or less focused than the carpenter, plumber and electrician or software programmer. Any neglect in their work will result in problems leading to some level of malfunction. They will be governed as much by not wanting to fail and avoiding anything leading extra work through negligence as anything. Of course, the stakes are higher for the surgeon and the pilot. Mainly, all who go to work are just ordinary working people and putting any of them on a pedestal is the same as saying Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are more special and independent than the millions of people who work for them but they are actually more dependent than independent. I think it likely too that they are the most likely to want to be admired than most others too.

        3. So you don’t chase a certain standard you simply just enjoy the process of working. can I ask why then should we strive towards good craftsmanship and the intolerance of sloppy work if we simply don’t care about what people think?

          1. The standard becomes standard. There is only one standard. A gapless dovetail, a tenon that fits firmly between walls with shoulders that meet. A squared shoulder to each corner with distances in between parallel in both directions can never produce an out-of-square frame. Once these become normal to you, after a year or two of a full-time period, they become standard to you. You are asking for answers when in my day no one asked such questions because they were and still are of only small or even no real value. No one was a so-called perfectionist if they were simply workmen (I can’t speak for or as a woman). The standard was set. No one strayed from it. It’s not something I think about really, George. I’m sorry if this disappoints you.No one says you have to consider what other people think except you. That’s simply your choice. I am often criticised for my writing. Do I care if my grammar is incorrect? Not particularly. If someone makes it clear that something is unclear `i go back in and add the comma. Beyond that I don’t much care. I simply pass on what I know knowing that most people will get it. I’m not a self-professing writer but I love to write. Perfectionist? No way.

        4. Paul that contradicts a lot of what you have said. I simply never said you were or are a perfectionist. But by saying you only have the standard which is “gapless dovetail” clearly implies of no tolerance for error, the kind of level of thoroughness which is associated with someone being “perfectionistic”. My point is that there’s this culture of demonising perfectionism even though there is such thing as healthy striving and in your case striving for gapless joinery and often only accepting it.

          1. Who are you, George, I wonder? And why the questioning? Can’t you just read what I write and see and accept what I do? I’m not saying what you say I am saying at all and neither do I contradict myself, George, so we should end this here because it is pretty fruitless and unhelpful. I don’t ‘try‘ at all to cut gapless dovetails, I just cut dovetails that are automatically gapless. When I was 15 cutting my first ones I needed the approval of those training me and overseeing me. Those days have been gone over 55 years ago. I doubt that I could even cut a gapped dovetail these days even if I tried to. I can cut dead-on 1:7 ratio dovetails with pins 3/8″ in size over and over as many times as I like with no ruler or template. That is just the doing of it. If I want 1:8 I can switch, or 1/2″ pins. I can guestimate 15/32″, 7/8″ and any other size in between. I knew that this would end up going down the analysts road and that leads only to conflict. I am content with what, how and when I make. The outcome always pleases me but I don’t do it to please me, I just do it and am fulfilled by it. Being analytical of my motives, etc is of no interest at all to me.

        5. Pride can be harmful, and we are human….resonates….
          OK, I was following your dovetail box with drawer, The box itself, nearly square, the blind dove tails on one side of the drawer gappy at the end.
          This piece intended for my granddaughter. I’ve put it to one side and done other things. I’ve avoided it as I’m not happy with it. I could even finish it for myself as it seems to be functional, but I haven’t.
          Is this pride? Is it my search for perfection…..
          I learned from it. Next one will be better but its 6 months since I last touched it….
          Anyway, there will always be haters, those that denigrate. As a martial artist that taught internationally as a hobby, I earned my wage doing other things I found this, normally from those that felt threatened by my skills and knowledge.
          It was injury that stopped me doing that and bought me to woodworking, a change from destroying to creating I guess.
          Thank you anyway, Paul for all you share.

          1. Hi Rob,
            I can see your problem. It’s not pride what you’re facing. The issue here is the lack of experiences. How many boxes, dove tails you did? From what you wrote it seems not much. Is it your first try? When did you learn swim or bike ridding did you learn it on first try? It’s same with anything you’re doing for the first time. It won’t be perfect never. If you remember this you will have better life and be more happy.

    5. I don’t think they look machine made at all. Every machine made dt I’ve seen has the corners of the pins rounded since they are typically made with a router and a router will always make a rounded corner.

  2. I have come to enjoy the process of learning how to use hand tools.
    Most recently I’m working on making a 6 panel door for a room in my house replacing an old hollow core birch plywood door popular in the 1960s.
    I’m using a panel raising plane for the first time and after the 4th panel I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’m finding that one skill leads to another, for example cutting to a knife wall making dovetails is similar to cutting to a knife wall or scribe mark on raised panels.
    It seems that I’m always working hard to make something come out the way I want but it’s most rewarding when you work through the problems and come out with a finished piece. Repetitive tasks make you better at shaping wood.

  3. Nice table Paul. For a moment I did a double take having finished one just like it last weekend which is now in use in our lounge. Your video for making it was as usual invaluable. I was particular chuffed with the join of the two halves of the top – my best effort yet I think. Learning all the time – thank you.

  4. It’s encouraging to read more posts like this Paul. I know it from things said years ago but it is easy to forget and I enjoy the reminders.

    I say that getting started in general can be difficult, but that’s mostly in dealing with movement, learning about wood in general, getting decent tools and figuring out how to maintain and especially sharpen them regularly, and some of that before preparing a workbench to then really get going. I stand by that but I’ve never thought creating a joint but hand to be some elite skill. Watch, learn, follow a few steps, do it 20 times and then 100. Under 50 hours and you’re probably 90% or more there.

    How many times would you practice the piano to achieve some fundamental thing? But if you have never sat at the keys it seems a mystery. But in our case an automatic piano player has been invented and we now think it is impossible to actually play the instrument. But, if shown how, most get it with a little practice.

    Happens in IT and software all the time. Automate something and people atrophy the skill automated and need someone to show them the skill to not think it’s some kind of black magic going on.

    I mean if you need to make 20 of something, sure. But one? It’s only common because of lack of knowledge. Or laziness. I’ll even say exclude truing up even small amounts of stock in machines (but likely smoothing plane after still is very beneficial). Just talking common joints, sawing straight, basic shaping, reading grain esp in something like chop cutting. Other than joints you could learn lots of that making spoons and spatulas. Practice joints in small boxes for less stock and less issue with straight/square/twist. And it doesn’t take 50 years to get it right, and I haven’t even gotten it right yet. But I’ve seen how it is done thanks to Paul mainly.

    There is no such thing as talent anyways. All things are repetition. Piano, computers, woodworking, violin, sports. Practice and good mentorship.

    I’m just starting my journey but from what I’ve seen I have every reason to believe this and nary a reason to doubt it.

    Forgive any typos and such; I’m on mobile.

    1. Amen Ben. I too am ‘talent agnostic’. I’m prepared to accept that it may exist, but haven’t seen any evidence that it does. It seems to be one of a number of unhelpful stories that we tell ourselves as humans, and a liberating concept to shake off.

      1. Some people have aptitude to do stuff, but how much of that’s learned, or learned and innate, or innate? Maybe a psychologist can cleave that apart. I can’t. I don’t want to know. Because if I lack aptitude, then maybe I won’t try the hard stuff or if I have aptitude, I may only try to do what’s easy to me.

  5. I cannot recommend highly enough the value of the tool chest shown in the group photo. It is the Rosetta Stone of learning to do woodworking. It has dovetails, dovetailed-carcase construcxtion, mortise and tenon, face frame, panel raising, drawer construction and fitting, hinge setting, and leveling of drawer / box tops. In the month long class, this was our first project after spending a few days cutting trial dovetails, basically making the four sides of the box in the first photo, but not the whole box. I think we also cut a couple half-laps. One big thing that helped us dive into this right away was that Paul had prepared the materials for us. They weren’t to dimension, but they were flat and to thickness. There just wasn’t time to leave that to us. Anyway, I just want to reinforce Paul’s point that you can make progress in relatively big steps, e.g., play with some dovetails, then make the simple box, then seriously consider the Rosetta Stone tool box. Just be patient with yourself and focus on the quality of the learning rather than focusing on the quality of the outcome. You’ll be surprised at the outcome! When you build a project end to end, like the toolbox, it helps give a bigger picture that will teach you how precise things need to be and will show you when you are wasting time fussing over things that don’t matter. Just make sure to put some finish on it, because that final step sometimes makes horrible looking joints magically look perfect. Seriously. Oh, if this is your first big project, perhaps make the box out of pine, not a hardwood. If at all possible, get decent pine (true pine, like Eastern White Pine) rather than mystery yellow wood at the box store. Pine will be more forgiving for the carcase construction. You can advance your skills by using hardwood for the coffee table in the photo.

  6. I just finished an 8 week apprenticeship with the folks at Mortice and Tenon Magazine and what Paul is saying here is exactly my experience. These skills are not magic but you must go to your bench and use them to cultivate them.

    I was amazed at how easy it was to saw to a line, for example. Yes it took a few cuts to get it right on but it’s not as terribly difficult as you might think. The key is to actually get out to the shop and use them!

    1. That sounds like a lot of fun. I like the stuff they do, and they seem very passionate.
      I find it very easy to saw to a line, however what I find the most unnerving is that I have no idea how I do it (I mean, it’s the saw really)! It just happens, and it occurred through practice. However, I couldn’t explain to someone what I do differently from that point I couldn’t do it, nor explain anything about hand positioning or whatever. I just know it works, and have complete confidence in my ability to saw to a line. It didn’t take me that long either.

  7. Anybody with minimal knowledge of wood working by just looking at the dovetail joints knows it’s hand made. In my mind every dove tailed joint is slightly is different, that’s what gives it it’s unique stamp. When I see machine dove tail joints, they stick out a mile. Keep the artificial router made dove tail joints away from my woodworking they look terrible.

  8. I started with machines and hated it. Too violent, noisy, and dirty for me. I had too VERY close calls with a router and a chip saw that could have resulted in the loss of an eye or serious damage to my midsection. This lead me to hand tools. I started with sharpening, the making of a workbench, and eventually dovetailed boxes. I made a lot of them. My dovetails are pretty good, not perfect. They don’t have to be. My hand plane cupboard looks great, not loose (take that IKEA), and will last for over a century. All four dovetailed corners were sawed and chiseled by hand. It took me a long time to make but during that time I learned a lot about wood, woodworking, and myself. For example, if a tail or pin chips out it can be fixed; slowing down leads to less mistakes; patience is developed not a talent; sharp saws and chisels are fun to work with; gaps can always be filled but out of square after glue up is very hard to work with; I am a hand tool woodworker; I love working with pine; twists need to be planed out or it will lead to out-of-square; I do not have to pay too much for what I want because I CAN MAKE IT. My list can go on and on but I’ll stop there. Lastly, making hand cut dovetails has led me to the making of small tables, a chair, chests, a shop door, workbenches, a stool, book ends, coasters, 2 dressers, etc. Using a machine would have taught me how to be safe.

  9. I think if you can use hand tools with any dexterity you have to understand what you’re trying to achieve and plan properly to avoid difficulty just around the corner and you get an understanding of the material to a more instinctive level. As you have said about mouldings, U probably streamline your design and it becomes more what U want rather than what your machine is geared towards.
    I really hate power tool culture because it’s really fashion and ego driven and I know it’s all completely unrelated to why making anything is good

  10. I love this article Paul, inspiring and encouraging especially for beginners 🙂
    I have learned many skills over the years and you are right, having the confidence to give something a go is the only thing you really need to get started. It’s all too easy to look at an expert in anything and get demoralised thinking you will never be that good, but remembering they are only human and were once new to it helps. Just repeat the mantra Begin, Try, Learn, Try Again, Repeat As Necessary -and all will be well..!

  11. Hi Paul. I’m practising my dovetails. So far only on soft wood off cuts to make a basic box. I’ve noticed a lot of your demonstrations are in oak. Is there a better type of wood to practice and learn on? Or maybe it’s a case of just mixing it up? I’ve found the thin softwood quite spongy to work with; would a harder wood be better to practice on to get clean joints? Thanks Alan

    1. Not at all. All woods will work. The harder denser woods can have more even texture, woods like cherry, walnut, maple but pine and other softwoods can be pleasing to work with. In the US, look for Eastern white pine in the softwoods. This wood has less difference between the density in the growth rings. Home Depot used to sell it as premium pine. In Europe look for European Redwood pine also known as Scots Pine, Pinus Sylvestris or Scandinavian Redwood,

        1. definitely try some other woods. they feel and behave differently. cherry feels beautiful under the tools! (i did quite a bit in pallet pine, then bought some cherry etc – it was awesome, and makes some things easier and some harder!)

        2. Different timbers here in Tasmania, Australia, of course, but I would recommend trying different timbers. I find big box pine or a local conifer here, Huon Pine (not a true pine) to be so different to work with than our local hardwood (‘Tassie Oak” – one of a few varieties of Eucalyptus grown in Victoria and Tasmania).

          I’ve made many workshop dovetail boxes and find the ‘sponginess’ of the pine to be much more forgiving for achieving a gapless fit. But when it came to making 5 or 6 dovetails in 3/4″ hardwood, any slight out of alignment of the tails/pins was difficult to get them to seat properly etc.

          I guess my point is that, although I thought my dovetails were to a standard, when I did the first ones in hardwood, I found them not to that standard. So I practised more in hardwood until I reached the same standard.

  12. dear paul (or someone),
    on the recent youtube video of you making an oak drawer:
    1. just curious – why is the drawer bottom rebate so wide?
    2. do people ever plug the holes made by the grooves extending the full length of the side? doesnt matter for a drawer, but i have used the same technique with making a box, then realised afterwards i needed a fully enclosed box. (should have used half blind dovetail etc, but didnt think at the time – so wondering would you traditionally plug with wax, or a wood plug, or some other technique? or just not mess it up in the first place)
    thankyou, and hope you had a lovely holiday (excluding the covid).

    ps – the close up videography was really helpful, as the thing with your blogs/ videos, compared to an in person lesson, it is hard to judge the tolerances that are acceptable, and the close up helps a lot with this.

    1. 2. Assuming the groove is in the tails, make a rebate at each tail board end with the same depth as will be used for the groove.
      Of course, that means that the inside dimension of the box, from one tail board to the other will be diminished by 2 X the rebate depth.
      The width of the rebate is equal to the thickness of the pin boards. The height of the pins will be the tickness of the tail board minus the rebate depth.
      See Keepsake box project.

    2. The answer is personal preferences influence decisions on design, by that, I mean that they are personal preferences and have no structural or design values as such. 2: Again there is no industry standard and I am rarely influenced by those anyway. Just do what feels right for you. Mostly, it doesn’t matter much if at all.

  13. I don’t think I could agree more. I may never be able to devote the time to the craft to get to be Paul Sellers good, but it is amazing just how much improvement you can see with a little bit of practice. My first attempts at using a hand plane were laughable at best. I could maybe the a good shaving one out of every twenty or thirty strokes. But it didn’t take long and those good shavings started happening more and more often, until now, it is a form of relaxing therapy to pick up the hand plane and work a surface to just how I want it. I’m not as fast as accurate as someone who does it for a living, but I’m continually improving, and that’s all I can really ask for.

    1. Hi Kevin,
      Isn’t it remarkable we can recline in our comfy chairs and watch Master Roubo at work? I’m not being facetious, but literal. We get the great fortune of watching Picasso paint or Matisse cut out those paper forms. It is breathtaking. Then we can try to do what we see. Progress is good.
      Jeff D

  14. Thanks for the encouraging article, Paul. I’m a music professor, and I, too, find that idealizing accomplished craftsmanship as the product of some sort of alchemy is utterly useless for the student. What’s important is the practice of the craft itself: the persistent application of true principles in the making of something—music, in my case. In my piano teaching, I demonstrate simply to show how it’s done, and I see this same impulse in all your own educational work. No task is too complex to be broken down into simple steps, because that’s precisely how the craftsman does it. And in *your* case, this has meant cutting your craft down to size for a music professor thousands of miles away who wants to make things from wood with his own hands. I’m almost through with your book, am tooling up, and have bought the wood for my bench. Almost there!

    1. This is a general reply, just to put some random thoughts to paper. First, I am the customer. I do things to please me. Second, all my work is flawed. I know where each flaw is, when I made it and in some cases how to avoid repeating it. Third, I want my work to look like no machine could have made it. And lastly, when someone says ,” Let me see that” and they mean that they want to touch it then I know I did my best.

  15. I started my apprenticeship as a cabinet maker 45 years ago.
    Due to family issues I had to then start again in a totally different trade as soon as I finished my apprenticeship, one that I’ve stuck with ever since.
    I’ve been training people as a teacher and professional trainer in this trade now for just over 20 years.
    I train over a thousand people face to face every year.
    I can speak with authority as to why people are so defensive about using power tools over hand tool and resistant to hand tools. Laziness.
    People are too lazy to invest the time to develop the skills and muscle memory required to master hand tools.
    It’s far easier and quicker to let the machine do the work for you.
    That’s not taking into account disability reasons of course.

    There are definitely uses for table saws, jointers, thicknessers etc, IF you have a business and deadlines and are punching dozens of the same item out like sausages.
    After all, machinery was designed to aid industry.
    However, most woodworkers, especially those who watch YouTube do not fall into that category; they are hobbyists.

    Most of those whom they follow and idolise over qualified and skilled woodworkers are NOT even qualified woodworkers, they are former window cleaners, odd jobs people, chefs, IT people etc.
    People who did not learn the basics and principles behind woodworking, yet they pontificate what they themselves heard from other non qualified as gospel, and the gullible believe them.

    I read a study a few years ago that by the end of the century young people will no longer have the motor skills required to use hand tools, they will only be able to use machines.

    With the supply of power being bandied around constantly and people being demonised for daring to leave a light on; surely the use of power tools by the hobbyist woodworker who in his backyard workshop MUST have a table saw, a drop saw, a thicknesser, a jointer, a router table, a CNC, a belt sander, a oscillating sander, and dust extraction just to prepare something that could be done by hand, should be also targeted.
    That’s hardly a responsible carbon footprint.
    Yet I read people coming after hand tool woodworkers like Paul.
    If our carbon footprint is as critical as we are constantly being told, then perhaps it’s time for a reset.

  16. Andrew Laughbon

    First I love your approach of just do it. I actually have a personal goal to become a traditional wood worker. Your simple approach is a very strong lighthouse of guidance. I’m convinced many will just get lost at sea if not for some few that just show. I don’t mean to patronize you but to just say thank you

  17. Some interesting conversations early on.

    Paul, I’m always impressed with the ease at which you are able to make exceptional work look, and your constant encouragement that we can achieve the same, but also for us to strive for accuracy.

    I agree with your comments that we are all just people and no one is better, or should consider themselves better than others. We all have skillsets that we adapt to and master quickly, but can also learn new skills and master them through perseverance and striving for excellence.

    As a novice woodworker, sometimes my cuts and chops are dead on and other times I have gaps, reminding me to pay closer attention, and get a new prescription for my glasses.

    At the end of the day I’m not striving to be anyone but my best self at woodworking and in life. I do hope someday I will have a third career as a customer furniture maker. Who knows maybe after 20 or 30 years of that I may jump into my fourth career, seeing how I plan to live well into my 100s :).

    I admire what you do and am very grateful you’ve chosen to share what you know with the world.

  18. I must admit I cannot wait to be able to create with the same souplesse as you do Paul, but it’s the process of getting there that fascinates me. I do not have my (tiny attic) shop ready to craft comfortably but watching your videos alone has taught me how to make perfect dovetails.
    The reason I’d like to make perfect dovetails and be able to square stock etc. is that it will enable me to create what comes to mind.

  19. I think we sometime forget that the law of diminishing returns actually works in our favour here.
    By this I mean if you and I were to work side by side to make a dovetail then nobody would be surprised that mine looked very poor compared to yours, Paul.

    But suppose we then made a second one. Yours would still be much better than mine – but your second one would not be noticably better than your first one.

    Mine, on the other hand would be much improved as I corrected some of my earlier mistakes.

    If we each made a third dovetail I would continue to make improvements.

    It is a bit like the psychology of climbing a mountain. If you want to be encouraged it is worth occasionally turning round and looking at how far you have climbed and how magnificent the view is, rather than fretting over how far you think you still have to go.

  20. I saw a indian woman making a pair of beaded mocasons one time the bead work was to my eye perfect. Than I noticed a mis colored bead and I asked why? She replied only God can make perfect and I did not want him to think I was better than Him.

    1. This is a concept borrowed from Islamic art – which always has asymmetries and imperfections baked in for the same reason. Nice concept. I think it’s nice as an aesthetic principle too – things that are perfectly regular are generally less visually interesting to me, and also (weirdly) somewhat less impressive. If there’s just enough irregularity to show it was the work of human hands, it somehow elevates it by showing the level of artistry involved. Or maybe it’s just me.

  21. As someone who had the great fortune to take the week long course from Paul when he taught in upstate New York, I can vouch for the statements Paul makes regarding his methods. I took the course and went home with three pieces made only with hand tools that I could not believe I was able to make. I had not touched hand tools since high school which was many, many years prior. I use those techniques that I learned and others Paul presents in Woodworking Masterclass to this day. I still look at those three pieces almost every day and feel fortunate to have had my eyes opened to the possibilities available to me with a simple minimalist set of tools. Thanks for all you do Paul.

  22. I think this applies to just about any skill that takes time to develop. A beginner can fairly quickly learn to saw straight, adjust a plane, or cut to a line. Within a fairly fast time they can even start making decent bits of woodwork, but with various inaccuracies or blemishes (tear out, blowing out end grain etc.). After a (short) while, if you take your time and concentrate, I bet you can make something as nice as Paul Sellers would make, but it would take many times as long to do the work.

    Learning to make one of Paul Seller’s pieces can be done in a few weeks or months (I believe), but the mark of a master, lies in knowing how to consistently get great results, how to do it quickly, and how to deal with mistakes or other difficulties along the way. Also, it means being able to work within a system with the people around you to get a project done.

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