Most 21st-century woodworkers are self-taught, solitary creatives. They might have taken a class or two in the early days, but the vast majority of their projects are undertaken without the benefit of a shop mate. For the more reclusively inclined, this kind of isolation is in fact one of the major selling points of the hobby, but it cannot be denied that self-guided education has its drawbacks.
I suspect many of my readers have picked up tips or learned entire new crafts through videos, books, or articles. We moderns live with an embarrassment of educational riches at our fingertips. At the same time, if we’re not careful, this à la carte approach can produce imbalance and underdevelopment. It’s easy for us to get caught up in an interesting new technique (carving, French polishing, or kumiko) and bypass some of the fundamental skills that make those skills achievable. Years of picking and choosing projects can make lopsided woodworkers who are quite experienced in some areas while other areas are undeveloped. There are gaps. There are holes.
I have been thinking lately about the an “assessment” appendix in a great homesteading book by Ben Falk titled The Resilient Farm and Homestead. In this “resiliency assessment,” Falk lays out a comprehensive picture of the areas of life that one would want to have in order to be truly “resilient” in the face of social unrest or rampant supply shortages. As you can imagine, the list is quite extensive. As I worked through assessment, rating my capacities for each question, I began to see where I could strengthen my resources and skills. Rather than a means of self-assurance, the assessment became a revelation of areas for further growth. This kind of assessment is particularly valuable to those first-generation homesteaders who have never personally seen anything remotely resembling “self-sufficiency.” It is a handy checklist to make sure you’ve got your bases covered.
The usefulness of this test has me thinking about what such a list could look like for hand-tool furniture makers. For those of us who have pieced our education together from YouTube videos, random articles, and trial-and-error, a solid checklist might do us some good. I’ve begun making a list of basic – but essential – skills that any furniture maker ought to have. But rather than come up with this on my own, I decided to consult those whose lives pre-date such piecemeal DIY educations.
So, I’ve been combing through old books that recommend hand skills exercises and give lists of advice for aspiring woodworkers. It’s been eye-opening to say the least. These guys don’t mince words. And they have tons of practical and wise advice. (I find that true sages are never word-mincers.) “Do not make mistakes. Mistakes always waste time and materials. Work carefully, thoughtfully, and accurately.” “Carelessness or want of skill in this will always be manifest in the finished work. To the beginner it may seem monotonous, and even hard, to stand at the bench several hours before turning a shaving; but he must understand that a scratch cannot be called a line, and that patience and accuracy are the chief requisites in skillful manipulation.” “Work must never be done with blunt or badly-set tools. Tools must always be kept sharp and in good order.”
These are kinds of people I want to learn from. And with their help, the list is slowing coming together. As I see this list taking shape, I am already seeing what skills I need to be working on.