Even if you are very familiar with certain hand tool techniques, mistakes can still happen. But Robert Howard suggests that changing your attitude to how you work might make a difference. The following ‘rules of thumb’ are the product of years of teaching and watching how people learn.
Woodworking mistakes are both specific and general. When planing a long joint prior to gluing up a tabletop, for example, a gap at the end of the joint is a specific mistake that must be fixed. It is also a general mistake if it has occurred as a result of, say, my tendency to rush my work. It can also be seen as a failure of technique.
It is not enough to simply fix each specific mistake as it occurs, and move on. That does little to prevent it from happening again. Instead, the mistake needs to be analysed so both its specific and general causes can be understood, and plans made to minimise the chance of it happening again. Then we will have gained something from it.
The following rules are general, not specific. They have been drawn from my teaching experience, and are intended to provide a framework for my students to use when analysing their mistakes. Some rules merely rephrase another rule, but with an important emphasis on another aspect of it. All of them I refer to so commonly that they have earned their places in this list.
Woodwork is brutally logical
On the surface you might think this is very, very obvious. But that is before hope warps our logic. At some level we know that if we don’t mark out our joint correctly it won’t fit properly, but still, we hope that it will. Or perhaps we hope that we have, in fact, marked it out correctly even though the evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise. But it cannot work. The Woodworking God of Logic doesn’t care how much we truly deserve to succeed. It only cares about one thing: do it right and it will work; don’t, and it won’t. It’s as simple as that, and as brutal. So, if you want a joint to fit, mark it, and cut it, accurately. There is no other way.
In the long run, the slow way is the fastest way
It may take time to make sure your work is right but it’s faster than having to do it all again because you rushed and ruined it. This is probably the most painful rule, because we all seem fated to learn it the hard way by repeatedly banging our heads against it.
Woodwork is brutally logical: ‘If we don’t mark out a joint correctly it won’t fit properly, but still, we hope that it will. Or perhaps we hope that we have, in fact, marked it out correctly even though the evidence before our eyes suggests otherwise.’
Creep up on the desired result, don’t rush at it
The problem with woodwork is that it’s not always possible to put the wood back, so overshooting the mark and taking too much wood off usually has unfortunate consequences. If we pick up a plane or a chisel and just cut away until we reach our mark, we adopt an all or nothing approach. It will work sometimes when we either hit the mark or fall short of it. But inevitably we will also sometimes overshoot the mark, and that’s the problem.
I believe I am more likely to get the result I want by patiently creeping up on it. I focus my attention on small steps, and make small corrections, and as a result, carefully nudge my way, bit by bit, to where I want to go. Working as though I am a bomb disposal squad member, or a brain surgeon, are ways of ensuring that I am not too rash or hasty.
Several small cuts are better than one big one
The thinner and/or narrower the chip or shaving I take with a chisel or plane, the smaller the force is required. This allows me to work within my comfort zone where I have best control of the tool, which in turn means my work is more likely to be accurate.
When chopping directly down into wood, a frequently overlooked consequence of taking a thick cut with a chisel is that a component of the force resisting the cut acts to drive the chisel back into the shoulder of wood behind it. Thus I might start the cut with my chisel on the line, but finish it with my chisel behind the line, because this force has been large enough to compress the wood in the shoulder. This is particularly likely to happen with thick cuts in softwoods, because of the combination of a low compressive strength for the wood, and a large force generated by the thick chip.
I seldom chop or pare more than 1mm at a time with a chisel, and frequently take much less than that. A good cut with a plane gives me a shaving of about 0.002 or 0.003 inches (0.05mm or 0.075mm). I only do more than this for rough work or where it is very safe.
Creep up on the desired result:‘I seldom chop or pare more than 1mm at a time with a chisel, and frequently take much less than that.’
True speed means getting the desired result quickly, but not by hurrying
This is another way of expressing the old saying about hurried work being ‘all haste and no speed’. If I hurry I can give the impression that I am working quickly. But this doesn’t mean I will necessarily finish the job quickly, because I might have to spend a lot of time fixing mistakes.
True speed comes with time and practice
Time and practice increase our work efficiency. As the work becomes more familiar to me I do not need to spend time thinking about what comes next. As my skills increase I do what I need to do more accurately with less effort, and more quickly. What previously seemed complex becomes extraordinarily simple and straightforward. When I have reached this stage, I can work quickly without any hurry at all.
True speed results when technique and discipline become normal work habits
Technique is the result of dividing a task into as many steps as are necessary to get the task done reliably under real work conditions, and finding the best possible way to do each step.
Discipline means using this technique all of the time, every time, for everything we do, with no exceptions.
If these do not come naturally to you, you will have to fight yourself until your technique and the discipline to always use it become habits, because I firmly believe they are the cornerstones of fine work.
The best evidence of this that I know of is modern sport. I cannot think of anyone who practises harder than professional sportspeople (except perhaps classical musicians), or with more attention to the basic skills, techniques and discipline of their sport, particularly in those that involve the skilful use of ‘tools’, such as tennis, cricket and golf.
I am constantly reminded of the importance of this whenever I teach a class. In particular, I am reminded of the critical importance of the final ‘extra bit’ that only the real perfectionist seems to care about. It means taking as much care with a small detail as with a large one. It means never making any cut, no matter how easy or trivial, without paying total attention to the proper technique for doing it. I think 90% of errors occur during the 10% of time when technique is neglected. That 10% is a failure of discipline.
Practise basic skills
The basic hand skills I can think of are sharpening, marking out, planing, sawing, chiselling, and another I will loosely call polishing. I would add two more skills, however, that I know I have also had to work hard at developing over the years, and they are seeing and judging.
It is not too difficult to work out exercises to give each of my hand skills a daily workout, should I have the dedication to do it. Nor is it too difficult to imagine the importance to my work of mastering each skill. Planing a small board flat and square, marking a square line around each end, sawing each end off so as to split the knife line, and remarking the crooked end and paring it flat when I miss, would give all my skills except polishing a good workout. The marking, sawing and paring could continue until the board was used up.
Seeing and judging are more difficult to learn, but both skills are critically important for design.
Seeing is also a large part of the basic hand skills, because if I can’t see what I’m doing, I don’t know what I am doing. I am not referring here to being able to physically see, but to recognising the significance of what I see. I might look at a surface I have chiselled, for example, but if I don’t recognise the significance of the shadow the light throws just inside the edge, I cannot meaningfully say that I have seen it. I need to recognise that shadow as a hump in the surface, the shadow being like the shade on the eastern side of a hill in the late afternoon.
Judging is also part of learning basic skills because nothing is ever exactly right, so I need to judge when it is close enough. A large part of learning to be a fine woodworker for me was learning to judge what an acceptable standard of work was, and deciding where I was going to set my own standards.
Seeing and judging become part of the broader design field when I begin to use them to decide on matters such as proportion, line, contrast, balance, and so on, all of which decide the look of what I am making. This is not an easy thing to learn, and for all I know might well depend on whether or not I chose my parents well.
While there does not seem to be any easy way to learn to see and judge in this broader design sense, I believe that the core issue is to never lose sight of what we like, no matter how fashionable or unfashionable it might be. I constantly practise by looking at all manner of things, particularly those that interest me, and by asking myself what it is, particularly, that causes me to like or dislike what I am looking at. This experience helps when I need to make a judgment in my work. It is by sticking to this core knowledge of what I like that I slowly develop my own distinctive design language and style.
Despite the avalanche of words written about art and design, I think that, from a maker’s point of view, it always comes down to asking that one simple question: Do I like it? Making judgments is hard work, especially without rules, but I know that if I want to design I cannot avoid wrestling with it.
Focus on the details. Small improvements add up to a large improvement overall
A piece of furniture can be looked at whole, but it is not created whole. It is the result of a large number of small acts, so if we want to make the whole better, we must do some of the small acts better.
Trying to do large things is usually quite daunting, and is often overwhelming. But small things are much less so, and are usually quite achievable. So by doing many small things a little bit better, we can make a large, cumulative improvement in the whole job.
Develop feedback: see, analyse, adjust
Using a hand tool is an active, not a passive, process. Using a plane, for example, is not simply a matter of pushing it from one end of a board to the other. It isn’t even doing so while concentrating hard on using the correct technique, important though that is. It is more than that. My analytical brain must also be engaged during the pushing so that I can estimate how the work is going.
With a plane, this means watching the shaving in particular, because this tells me much about the surface I am creating. For example, if I am planing a joint, I know that I cannot possibly have planed a flat surface unless I have, at the very least, taken a full length, full width shaving. On its own this will not ensure that the surface is flat, but at least I would know that my surface does not contain any facets, so I would know I was part of the way there. I can read a similar story from the stone marks on a chisel when I am sharpening.
This is the feedback loop: a continuous process of looking, analysing what I see, and adjusting what I am doing as a result. It is an active process. To do it well I need to learn a lot about why I do what I do, what is supposed to happen when I do it, how I might know when it is happening, and what I need to do to correct myself if it is not happening.
Analyse, adjust: ‘I can read a story from the stone marks on a chisel when I am sharpening.’
Accept that making mistakes is a necessary part of learning
One of the most crippling, and unintended, by-products of my education was that it made me afraid and ashamed of making mistakes. They were proof of my incompetence, or stupidity. This was especially bad for me because I am a bit of a perfectionist and I can easily beat myself up and lose heart over a ‘silly’ mistake.
But, annoying though they might be, mistakes are inevitable. Nobody is perfect. And once a mistake has been made, no amount of anger and self-flagellation is going to fix it. The best we can do is to accept what we have done, and try to learn from it.
Expect to have to learn something many times in order to totally ‘get’ it
I think it is natural and normal to need to practise doing something many times in order to be able to do it properly. I also need to hear many times what I am supposed to do, and how I am supposed to do it. I may need to be shown many times as well.
This is because, apart from the fact that I have an appalling memory, it is simply a fact that I can only focus on a limited number of things at any time, and anything more than that goes into a black hole. However, as I slowly master the few things I have focussed on, it allows me space to take in more new things. In this way I slowly work my way to that magical point where I know enough to know that I have really ‘got’ it.
The point here is that if we realise this is quite normal and that everyone learns in their own way and at their own pace, it helps us to cope with it, and frees us from feeling stupid or incompetent.
Enjoy the process and forget about getting finished
Because I love trying to get everything ‘right’, I could happily puddleduck about with projects forever and never get anything finished. But put me in a car and point me towards a distant city and I become absolutely single minded in my focus, and impatient of anything that gets in my way.
This does give me some understanding of what it is like to need to finish a project, to ‘get somewhere’. I think it is a psychological need rather than a real or practical one. It isn’t a safe need, because one of the most common contributors to workshop accidents is haste.
The problem with this need to get finished is that it is the enemy of both quality and satisfaction, both of which are usually a big part of why most of us do woodwork in the first place. In a sense, the need hijacks our brains, and we sacrifice everything to it. We becometoo impatient to do the work properly, and our satisfaction with the finished job suffers accordingly. Once the rush to finish has taken hold, we are very easily derailed. Any unexpected obstacle means an exasperating delay, and we don’t have the patience to deal with it in aproperly workmanlike way. Bit by bit our satisfaction with the job leaks away.
With some introspection, and probably a lot of time spent thinking about the pointlessness of the cycle, we can reframe our goals, with an emphasis on doing good work all the way and enjoying it. Qualitative goals, rather than quantitative ones, are much more satisfying.
Give yourself a fair chance: use good tools and good materials in a good workspace
If I use second-rate tools and poor materials I am setting myself up to fail. It is true, of course, that fancy tools will not make me a good woodworker, but good tools will certainly make it much easier for me to become one, as will a good workspace.
By having good hand skills I save myself the need for a lot of gadgets, and I can invest the savings in better quality tools. If I can’t, or won’t, buy this quality, an option is to learn how to acquire and tune secondhand tools so they will work as well as I need them to. It really boils down to spending money or spending time. It is also worth heeding the message I once saw on an old woodworker’s stall at a market: ‘Sure, you can make it yourself. But will you?’ Sometimes, spending the money is the easiest and surest way.
Having a comfortable, attractive workspace can be vitally important, because if doing the work is optional we have to want to go and do it. If the workspace does not encourage this, if it is not a place that we love to be in, that we find ourselves (and our mates) going to simply because we like being there, then getting ourselves to the bench and beginning work becomes a battle that is too easily and too often lost.
Robert Howard is a Contributing Editor for AWR. He is a wood artist, designer and furniture maker who lives in Brisbane, Australia. He also teaches ongoing classes in woodwork. Learn more about Robert Howard here