I have been a woodworking student for a long time. Before I decided to learn in person from people who knew what they were doing, I tried to learn woodworking from books. Of course, these were books written by very smart, experienced people who knew both woodworking and how to write about it. I like to read, and I especially like to read about tools, wood, and woodworking. So I read, and read, and read. Tools, sharpening, techniques, joinery. Subscribed to Fine Woodworking shortly after the magazine began. Thought I could learn to make furniture that way.
I got a start, but that’s about it. I guess I hit a wall. But the first time I took a class, I learned a lot, and not all of it was about woodworking. I learned a lot about how I learn, and discovered that my learning style is far from unique. When it comes to learning manual skills – like woodworking – I need to see it done, watch someone who knows how to do it, ask questions, try it, make mistakes, get corrected, and practice. Practice a lot. Sooner or later, the light bulb comes on. Might be only a watt or two at a time, but gradually the glow gets brighter and brighter.
That first class started to tear down the wall between where I was and where I wanted to be. More than that, though, it was an epiphany with respect to the path I needed to follow to get there. I suddenly understood that I need to learn from people, not from their books. For me, the books need to come after the class, not before. In the proper order, they help a lot.
Somewhere along the line I learned enough, and practiced enough, and made enough mistakes to be able to pass along a few modest skills to others. Recently I have had the privilege of doing some teaching at the Northwest Woodworking Studio. The classes have been either day-long workshops or two-hour introductory classes that focus on one specific family of tools – chisels, or hand planes, for example.
It is particularly gratifying that there are a lot of people who are interested in improving hand tool skills. The number of people in this country who are actually able to make something with their own hands is diminishing too fast for comfort. It’s quite satisfying to meet others as stubborn as I who are not yet ready to surrender to China, Ikea and WalMart.
And so, during these classes, the teacher teaches. The students listen, and practice. Mistakes are made, corrections are suggested, techniques improve, and every so often the bench room is a little brighter at the end of the day. As the classroom lights are being turned off, others switch on. Those minds that get stretched just a bit during class – just like mine did years ago – well, they never return to their original shape.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.