Excellence in woodworking requires skill.  Skill cannot be purchased.  Skill can’t be plugged in.  The acquisition of skill requires an investment of time and hard work.  There’s simply no other way.  More than fifty years ago I began a lifelong jouney of skills building as my Grandfather’s “unpaid” apprentice.  That journey continues to this day and I am at my happiest when I learn something new and believe me, there’s always something new to learn (or as you get older, something “new” to remember).

There are certain core skills that must be learned.  They are absolute requirements if the woodworking practitioner wants to practice the craft at its highest level.  The old style apprenticeship was designed to teach those core skills and here’s the way it went:

First came SWEEPING.  This was not so much a skill but a strength or perhaps a test of the apprentice’s determination.  But, in any event, it helped to keep the shop clean and it proved to the master that the initiate could take direction.  It’s still a very good strength to possess.

Second came SHARPENING.  Gramps was insistent that I learn to sharpen everything that we used in our woodworking; plane irons, chisels, gouges, drills and saws.  You simply cannot do your best work (or anything close to it) using dull tools.  I see people every day who have been hobbyists for years who still don’t know how to keep their tools sharp.  It’s essential that you understand the cutting geometry of each tool and the techniques required to create and maintain the appropriate edge.

Third was LANGUAGE or how to communicate the information needed to build something.  A mastery of drawing, geometry and architectural history provide a tremendous advantage to the practice of any craft.  I’ve spent hours consulting with Vitruvius about cymas, toruses and ovolos.  The artist and the mechanic both benefit from the ability to see and describe the shapes around them.  Perhaps the most important part of the “language” skill set is the ability to measure.  Believe it or not this is a skill, a learned behavior that can be improved.  And it improves dramatically when the master requires that the apprentice learns that the work must be completed to the tolerance or 1/64 of an inch.  For those who think in decimal terms that is .015625″.

You’ll hear me talk, time and again, about the importance of core and gateway skills.  You can’t get to your ultimate woodworking goal without them.  So take the time, learn and improve.  It’s the only way.

Explore posts in the same categories: gateway skills, handtools, life in craft


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2 Comments on “Skill”

  1. Jim Says:

    Well now, ’tis not often one gets the opportunity to meet or converse with one so noteworthy and renown. Now is the time. May I say that I am glad to be your first. May your chimney always smoke!

  2. Paul Kemner Says:

    When I was writing the A&C furniture book, I got the chance to measure 2 “identical” G Stickley bookcases. It took about 4 or 5 hours to do it to my satisfaction.
    The gallery owner had expected that it would take about 15 min, which would have given me a useless set of dimentions that I could have gleaned from a catalog reprint. Luckily I was in the back and she didn’t rush me.
    It was interesting to see just how much difference there was between these two pieces. The same thing was true for Limbert designs that were made over the course of several years. Factory-built designs did drift- sometimes getting a little more refined, then making a gradual slide into thinner stock and fewer details.
    About the only super-detailed drawings I’ve seen have been of harpsichords and other instruments. Otherwise, a drawing is more a point of departure than a complete perscription.

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