Because it’s Caught, Not Taught

Yesterday on the Dispatch I posted a video preview of my new book Worked: A Bench Guide to Hand-Tool Efficiency and spent some time discussing the logic of the design. I realize it needs a little explanation.

It’s common for publishers to limit the number of photographs to a minimum and prioritize the written text. Ironically though, I’ve found over the years that I’ve learned more from the books and articles which feature lots of large photographs than the ones leaning heavily on the writing.

I think this is because woodworking is a material and tactile thing and even the most verbose descriptions do not do justice to what an artisan actually sees while working. In this new title (just as in Joined), the text supports the photographs, not the other way around. So, yes, this is another way of saying that – at least when it comes to handcraft instruction – a picture is worth a thousand words.

One commenter observed that the simple task of tying one’s shoes, if put into words, would make you think that an engineering degree would be necessary to accomplish the task. I laughed. He’s right. I spent some time thinking about how I would describe the steps of tying a shoe if I could not use visuals. It was impossibly complicated. This written description I found online somewhere illustrates the absurdity well: “First, you need to take one lace in each hand, then cross the left one over and under the right. Pull both lace ends to tighten the resulting X. While keeping the X tight, fold the right lace in half and wrap the left lace around the right lace's overlapping point. Make sure to leave space in the loop created by the left lace. Bend the remaining left lace through the loop and pull the bent portions of the right and left laces to tighten into a bow.

I’ve read more than my fair share of woodworking instruction like this. But as you can see, words have limitations. Much of life is learned and understood – not through rigorous explanation – but through observation and mimicry. This is the way craft has always been transmitted. And it’s even the way such basic human things as language and culture and shoe-tying carry into the next generation. They’re caught, not taught.

Don’t get me wrong. There is, of course, a place for verbal and written expression. I am a lover of books and I enjoy the time I get to write out my own thoughts. But it would be a mistake to assume we can learn orinternalize a craft skill by cramming facts about it “into” us from the outside. Instead, we must pay attention to experienced artisans at work and mimic what we see. It’s only when we practice this attentive imitation over and over that those skills one day will become our own.

Worked is designed to facilitate this kind of learning. In this book, I do not throw brain-bending descriptions at you that require a secret decoder ring to translate. I just show you. This heavily pictorial format has proven to be so effective and so straightforward – it “gets it done with exactly zero screwing around,” according to Rex Krueger – that we’re doing a second printing of Joined alongside that of Worked. The book just keeps selling.

One reader said to me, “The fact that you are answering questions that have plagued me for years without having anyone to ask in person damn near brought me to tears.” Wow. Thank you, everyone. We are honored that our work here has been a means of empowering more people to take up the craft.

May this new title continue that effort.

p.s. Worked: A Bench Guide to Hand-Tool Efficiency will be available for pre-order next week, Thursday, March 17th. All domestic pre-orders will receive free shipping.



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