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    What I Know Now: Letters to My Beginning Woodworker Self





    Ask your elders.
    I know you hate to ask for anything, but when it comes to woodworking it will bear you in good stead. You know that, when it comes to computers and carpentry, your grandfather has probably already done it. Call him and ask. Fortunately, there are also a lot of (and will be more) people online who are older than 30, many of whom are retired and lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time online in woodworking forums answering questions instead of boring day-job office applications. They are helpful, generous and kind. You should approach them earlier and often. One of them will also point you to a veritable treasure trove of saws, and a master saw restorer and seller.

    Ask for scrap.
    Right now, Beginning Woodworker Self, your definition of "scrap" is a shim or a 1" piece of end grain. But "scrap" means something else to lumber yard owners and purveyors of fine hard woods, like 2' lengths of thick mahogany and 8"x6" chunks of black walnut. One day, your friend Peter, who already knows how to ask for scrap, will go to a local lumber company and ask if he can buy some. The owner will tell your friend that he can take as much scrap as he can carry in his car for $100. Peter drives a VW bus, and will have the rafters of his garage filled with multi-foot lengths of cherry, mahogany, black walnut, maple, and poplar for many years to come. Ask for scrap.

    Go ahead and spend the money on that table making class. In a few years, you won't even remember what it cost.
    You pass Jeff Miller's shop window every day on your walk to the Metra train. You look at the website with the class listing every day. I know money is tight right now, that you're making about $34,000/year before taxes, that graduate school costs half of that, and that you need to cover all of your living expenses. But that table making class will be worth it, and will introduce you to endless happy hours of woodworking and some of the most talented and generous people you'll ever meet. You don't have any credit card debt, but having a few hundred dollars of it won't kill you. Trust me: in 2010 I don't remember what it cost, only that I made that beautiful cherry Shaker-style end table and learned enough to make more furniture afterward; that I was hooked; and that having things to do by hand after being in an office job all day will save your soul. Trust me. For all the books, videos, websites and other resources online, you'll make the biggest leaps and bounds in woodworking when you take a class with a true expert with decades of experience who can observe and help you correct and hone YOUR mistakes and form.

    Hand tools are underrated.
    Don't believe the mainstream thinking that hand tools are irrelevant, too slow to be useful, or less effective than power tools. Ignore, or at least take with a grain of salt, the power tool devotees who will say "There's a reason they invented power tools, ya know!" Your "shop" is a bench attached to the inside of a coat-closet door in a one-room studio apartment right now. Power tools are going to bother that nice med student next door, and that closet shop doesn't have any ventilation for the amount of dust you'll produce. Hand tools can be more efficient (in speed, quick access, storage, and lack of set up), they're quieter, and the pleasure of silence afforded by quiet hand tools--just a few soft noises produced by your tools--is a pleasure not to be overlooked. They're portable and will move with you, you'll learn more about how different types of wood behave, and, when you run into one of those power tool zealots, just go over to Todd's house and watch a few episodes of The Woodwright's Shop to get your respect for hand tools back in check.

    Don't cheap out on tools.
    Actually, you're going to have the opposite problem because you'll meet people who DO cheap out on tools and find they don't work all that well, wear down quickly, and don't last that long. You will want the best of best but not be able to afford them all the time. You will find, more often than not, that some very good tools are available in the mid-priced ranges: not the least expensive but not the most, either. For example, these two sets of chisels are not terribly expensive but well made and a great quality for the price: Marples and the beginner's set I got from Woodcraft that's Made in the USA. You can ask for the nicer ones for Christmas when people ask for ideas. It's good to think of tools as things that you buy once, where possible, but there are some deals to be had.

    Learning to clean and sharpen tools is just as important as learning to work with wood.
    You have no money, so you have dull IKEA knives in your kitchen right now that you don't even realize are dull, but you're going to learn that dull knives and tools can be more dangerous than sharp ones. You start changing your form to try to make them work better, when they really just need sharpening. Sign up for that sharpening class you're thinking of taking, stop being afraid to take tools apart to sharpen them thinking you won't be able to put them back together (especially the Lie Nielsen ones, but maybe just don't start with those), and do it. Learning how to properly remove rust and sharpen tools will be one of the skills you'll be most thankful for as time goes on, and it will also enable you to buy some inexpensive used tools at garage sales and make them sing. Speaking of sharpening...

    When testing that freshly sharpened chisel by shaving hair off of your forearm, don't push too hard.

    You can do this in an eco-conscious way.
    From day one you've wondered how can you be both a tree hugger and a woodworker, how you can respect nature while also using and working within nature (not roping all of it off limits), as Wendell Berry professes. In Illinois, there is a family-owned and run company called Horigan Urban Forest Products that dries and mills old-growth wood from trees felled in the Midwest's awesome spring tornado season, and summer and fall thunderstorms. There are many sources of wood like this all over the world, and sometimes they're more expensive, but old-growth wood is going to be.

    And no, you can't have Cuban mahogany and there's a reason for that. Be skeptical of anyone who claims they have some.

    You'll eventually learn the language.
    Your earliest notes on woodworking will look much like notes from your first days at a new job: they're comprised of words you've heard, the lingo of a community and those in the know, that don't make any sense. Just as, at a new job, you will write a word like "Aditi?" and learn that it's a nickname that means "development server," so your first notes will be "biscuit joint?" and "joiner planer? planer joiner?"

    (Editor's note: Check out the SW glossary for help understanding woodworking terms)

    The book "What Wood is That?" will also help you develop that seemingly magical skill, when you see experienced woodworkers look at a wall full of rough-hewn, unmilled wood that all looks the same to you and can tell you "That's poplar, but maybe you'd like this cherry over here."

    Tool porn is socially acceptable.
    You may feel a bit indecent when you're riding the el train to work and your mouth is hanging open at the sight of a bronze shoulder plane. It's OK: Those are beautiful, well made, useful objects, some of the finest around. It's easier if you don't put a brown paper cover on the Lie Nielsen catalog.

    In a decade of looking you will not find an Antiques Roadshow level tool at a flea market.
    You can keep looking, but it's probably best to abandon hope on this one early on. It will make all those future flea markets and the annual Oakland White Elephant sale a lot more enjoyable.

    Visit the living masters while you can.
    When you move to California, Sam Maloof and James Krenov will still be alive. You will delay plans to visit both of them, and they will die within a few months of one another and you will never get the chance to meet them in person. Go, go, go. Meet these rare gems of woodworkers while you can - and view all of your elder woodworkers this way. People don't live forever. This also applies to your grandparents.

    And, at risk of sounding trite, woodworking is a lot like that yoga you're so taken with lately: it's a lifelong practice in which you'll always feel like a beginner.


    Stephany

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    There's a lot of good points here to agree with!

    I like how you mentioned about "asking for scrap" - it's a big shame to see good wood go to waste. We've recently started a Free Wood for Schools scheme where we donate our offcuts to the next generation of woodworkers!

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