The Best Way to Learn is to be Selfish

A few weeks ago I did my first podcast with the crew at Modern Woodworkers Association. Couldn’t tell you a word I said. Utter terror does that to ya I guess. Hopefully there won’t be a petition after the episode airs in a few asking for their podcasting permit back.

As usual the episode ended with a separate “Five Questions” segment. I do remember one question. Paraphrased, “Who’s been your biggest woodworking influence?” I think my answer perplexed. So I’d like to explain.

You see, my biggest influence in this craft have been students. Influence being the people that have improved my skills, taught me the most and shaped my path. I think they were expecting the name of a great woodworker, relative or craft celebrity.

Let me paint a picture. Say you want to learn to dovetail. A general thought is repetition is the most effective path. You know, perfect practice and all. So after a hundred or so you should be fairly proficient. Now go teach a dozen others to cut a dovetail. You will learn more teaching than you will cutting 1000’s of them.

I swear students will find the most perplexing issues imaginable and a dozen of them will throw ‘em at you like a Gatling gun. It’s your job to not only correct their issue but explain it in a manner efficiently understood and remembered. You get hit with so many opportunities to learn that you’d never come across with your staid repetition process. And each one requiring a different translation that solidifies that unique tidbit of knowledge into memory and skill set.

It’s a matter of leveraging the ineptitude of a student to progress  and cement your own knowledge.

So yes, I can honestly attest that students have influenced my ability in this craft more than anyone else and always for the better.

My recommendation if you want to become better yourself. Be selfish and teach.

Posted in article, educational, school | 1 Comment

New Tools

I bought a new tool today. It might sound strange but that is unusual for me. I don’t buy many tools anymore other than replacement blades when I wear them out. I did pick up a 30 year old lunch box planer a year ago when my old one died. But I don’ t feel that counts. This is the first new power tool I believe I’ve bought in 5 years.

Major tool purchases are not fun. They are anguish, uncertainty and stress. The only reason you buy a tool is to accomplish something you can’t with what you got. So pre-purchase you fret over whether the direction that a new tool will allow you to go is really the right way to your ultimate destination. Or is it a diversion that will sap resources, time and focus. The larger the tool, both physically and financially, the fretting gets amped up as there develops a level of commitment. Not only do you need the resources to acquire such tool but there is ongoing costs of space, maintenance and opportunity loss.

I bought a new tool today. Likely the most expensive tool I’ve ever purchased. And I bought it at a time when money is the most scarce it’s been in my life. For the past few years there have been several avenues of the craft that I know I could veer into as the skills required are within my grasp but I haven’t because the time loss of creating those items would detract from what was paying the bills. Certain steps along the path with the assets available would cost an exuberant amount of the total time that could be allotted in order to make stuff profitably. When you are living on the edge potential profitability is paramount.

But if I could veer that way there might be new doorways that could be discovered.

So today I bought a tool. A specialty tool that only does one thing. But does it well and quickly. And that one thing is the foundation of roadways not yet traveled.

Today I bought a tool. Tomorrow I get to make something with it…


Today I purchased a drum sander. For years I thought this was an idiotic tool. Making stuff smooth could be done with a hand plane, random orbit sander, belt sander, sanding block, thickness planer, jointer, etc… But the more I ventured into trying to increase my income via small production runs that could be sold online or at art markets the more I realized how much time is spent with sanding.

Almost everything that comes of the CNC required a hit on the belt sander to separate it from the board. Sending it through a thickness planer was dangerous because small parts could break off and get jammed or explode inside it. Hand planing is impractical because you’re just as likely to break the part off as plane it separate causing more damage the good. Random orbits are slow. So that left the belt sander which left much to be desired for quality and time expensed.

Yet with a drum you can send it through a few times and the piece will come out flat and separate and there’s no danger of the small parts damaging the work or the machine. You can even send the separated small pieces through by themselves to match the other side. It seems CNC’s and drum sanders are a match made in heaven when you work with solid wood.

Thin material is the basis for items such as: box liners, veneers, Shaker Boxes, fine shelving, jewelry, Kumiko, tools and such. Items that are held in hand and easily marketed online and in art markets. Yet making it is exceptionally time consuming as it comes down to hand work that can induce variations that’ll ruin the final product. Yes I can resaw a thick veneer then hand plane it smooth but if that thickness isn’t even steam bending will just result in breaking. You could run that kind of stuff through a thickness planer but when you get below 3/8th or 1/4 inch things become dangerous and many planers won’t work. You could do all kinds of shenanigans with sleds, carpet tape and such but at what point are you fighting a losing battle. You could relative measure every junction of two boards to get them to match but having consistency would let you match the thickness to a tool instead (such as a table saw blade and Kumiko). Purchasing stock like that on a regular basis would destroy any kind of profit margins.

A drum sander was built for thin stuff. And consistent thin stuff at that.

Getting a band saw opens up the world of rough sawn material, especially in conjunction with a thickness planer and jointer (scrub and bench planes). A drum sander takes that to the next level.

So today I bought a drum sander. I spent money so I could diversify product range of items produced economically. Is that flawed logic? Spend money to save time in what you could do less well without the cost?

Why did I chose the model I did? Well I did a lot of research online. Browsed the forums. Thought about what I would do with it. Left room for expansion. Then chose the cheapest one I could find that showed signs that it might be a tool I could use for the rest of my life. Every thing below this point had something about it that told me it likely wouldn’t last. That I wouldn’t be passing it on. Everything above this point had niceties and capacities that would be great but I couldn’t see would enhance the bottom line more or make my experience of using it better.

Since this was a major commitment as implied earlier those criteria justified the financial stretch.

So here’s to the potential of making more shop tools, boxes, cabinets, segmentation, and CNC work. Let’s hope it wasn’t a mistake.

Today, I bought a tool. Ugh… pressure.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Pegging Dovetails

Peg a joint and you add a mechanical lock. It’s why so much was pegged in situations where the antique glues would fail. Pretty much all joints can be pegged and there are numerous methods and materials used in pegged joinery. Nails and screws can be thought of as modern variation of a wooden peg.

Knowing a variety of methods to peg common joints is a great tool to have in your arsenal. But it’s especially useful for educators.

Teachers tend to measure initial joinery success by if the work goes together at all. But a student brings details into the picture. No more so than when teaching/learning dovetails. This joint has become a rite of passage for woodworkers. I’m clueless as to why. And it seems they’re always disappointed when their first one isn’t perfect even after the speech about: “a tee-ball player isn’t gonna hit a home run on their first swing, a kindergartner isn’t gonna color in the lines… but, they will eventually hit the ball and the picture will get color”.

Because of the unjust importance placed on the dovetail milestone you as a teacher need to make sure the students’ work is successful the first time. This might mean building up to that first attempt, giving them too much practice cutting in the waste, or setting up methods to fix errors early so it doesn’t appear that the teacher is pinch-hitting after the fact.

I do this by introducing pegs early. If all students are successful on the first go round then it’s just added information about pegs why, how and benefits. But if a student’s work needs a little help… then I have a resource to draw upon that doesn’t make it obvious a student buggered up.

An easy way to discuss pegs is in the “why’s.” Where to start the first tail?

  • If your pins on the outside have a little meat to them you can drop a peg from the top and bottom into the first and last tail. This creates a mechanical lock without affecting the aesthetics of the dovetail. It’s also helpful in future repairs (or if a student splits the pin board).
  • Thin or thick pins? Spacing them out allows you to interlock pegs thru both pins and tails, thus creating a joint for abuse (and students who can’t figure out what side of the line to cut on.)

Further the informative ruse by citing historical examples of both these peg additions. They’re everywhere.

Posted in article, educational | Comments Off on Pegging Dovetails

Build on the Shoulders of Giants

You can always tell a new motorcyclist. They are hyper focused on the controls, the machine and what’s in their front tires path. They’ve learned about shifting gears (one down, five up, neutral in-between) but haven’t experienced the toe force required or the variable rpm makes. Each shift is an adrenaline filled cardiac arrest in anticipation of what will happen. The same is true for the clutch and throttle.

That’s just the go side of the equation. You still have to stop (balance front and rear), steer (turn left to go right) and position yourself to put a foot down when the chaos ends. (Oh no, a pothole….) Do we need to mention that all this coordination results in motion so direction can be a mild distraction.

This is the perfect time to introduce road construction design theory into this Tasmanian Devil level of activity. Yes, a new motorcyclist needs to be bombarded with ideas on pee gravel size, rebar alignment, frost heave, banking, runoff, environmental impact and the like.

Sounds stupid doesn’t it. Yet isn’t that what most of us woodworkers do. Before passing the white belt level we’ve got pen and paper, or sketch-up, out designing pieces to build. I know I’m guilty of this. And my results show what a horrible mistake that is. I think most experienced woodworkers cringe at the first piece they designed and built because the design aspect was entered into way to early.

Why do this to ourselves when we have titans that went ahead of us on this woodworking journey and built a network of paths to follow. There is a wealth of designs in our history anyone would be proud to have in their home that would allow a beginner to focus on only tool usage and joinery. Designs that will last the test of time so that at a later date you can pass it on without embarrassment. That isn’t to say later on down the road you couldn’t veer left into a field of daisies. But at least wait until you’re out of the city with a few miles under your belt so you can enjoy the journey as well the ride.

[This editorial motivated by the “Why the hell did I build it this way.” thought I had while repairing a garden bench I built, again.]

Posted in op-ed | 2 Comments

Turning Creativity into Process

A general truth in the engineering world is if you’re making one then just make it. If you’re making two then it’s dealers choice. But, if you’re making three or more it’s time to start building templates and jigs. Woodworkers might be a bit more lenient in the numbers but the sentiment is the same. Production work depends more upon refining the steps of mass production (process) than artistic expression. It’s the left/right brain shift of creativity focus from artistic to analytic.

There are woodworkers whose production work efficiency comes from the study and refinement of their movement. I’m referencing the likes of Glenn Lucas the bowl turner. Most of us depend upon making templates and jigs. So after the original prototype the creativity game changes from artistic expression to process refinement.

The fun is discovering how to reduce the number of steps and decrease the time spent on each using your skill, knowledge and owned tools. You have to plan your material to take into account steps other than the next. Then in idea execution you balance the interaction of patterns, jigs, machines, leverage, speed, pressure and horsepower. It’s a kinetic battle between plans, action and fine motor skills.

All this planning, action, and excitement is to make a final product that a customer can’t differentiate from the original artistic prototype.

For the longest time I was weary of production work because of the belief that it turned all creativity into process. With that attitude, I anticipated production work to be drudgery. In actually getting into small production run work opens up so many new strategies, techniques and tools it’s like a whole new rabbit hole of the craft that ramps up creativity.

While production runs do bring more power tools into my work than normal it amazes me how often I turn to hand tools. They might be slower at a specific step but incorporated into an overall strategy the time savings of not setting up a module reduces the overall time of the 3, 4 or 5 step combinations. I constantly find myself saying in the middle of a step, “Hey wait, if I… then that…”

Production work does not eliminate the creativity of work, it just transfers it to another aspect of the work.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Turning Creativity into Process

YouTubers are not Teachers

Book writers, magazine writers and YouTubers are not teachers. And if you think that as a creator/consumer that you/they are then you’re doing a massive disservice to all the great teachers out there. Granted if you take those creators out of those realms they might be great teachers. But in their chosen mediums it’s impossible.

I say this as a YouTuber/writer whose stated goal is to become a great, teacher.

No parent or student would think a teacher proficient at their profession if on day one of a sixth grade class then plopped a two inch thick textbook on every student’s desks, maybe memorized names, then sat behind their desk for the school year and took role. Nor would they be good if they focused on only a few kids in a large classroom because those where the ones that “got it”. There is so much more than passing along information to teaching.

For one you have to check for understanding during the presentation for if you lose a student a third of the way in the rest of the lesson is mute. This can be as simple as reading body language, seeing exercise results, or watching their process. This continuous back and forth lets a teacher adjust the presentation of information to account for understanding, perception, and pacing. This requires constant refinement, adjustment and reorganization of the presentation. Sometimes it means stopping and starting over to progress on an entirely different tangent.

Then there’s the interpretation of that understanding. You see a student’s entire life experience comes into play for they might understand the words coming from a teacher’s mouth, recognize the theories the teacher but the interpretation is based upon that plus developed prejudices both positive and negative. A teacher exploits the personality, morals and history of a student to ensure the exact lesson they want conveyed is understood. This involves one on one time. Perhaps through the accumulation of seconds or minutes here and there but time nonetheless.

When you take away the immediate two way communication, the personal history and the understanding checks then all you are left with is a static message, a demonstration. While demonstrations, presentations, exercises, and articles are all tools a teacher will use. They are singular tools. Michelangelo could never have carved David or called himself an artist if the only tool he used was a mallet.

YouTube is nothing more than a textbook in motion. YouTubers and writers put our work in front of students then take roll (views). YouTube is not teaching. It’s a resource for a teacher.

Posted in educational, op-ed | 2 Comments

Most Common Market Advice

I get several emails a week asking for advice for  working markets. Be it a retiree wanting a new hustle or a college student needing to earn food/rent. People want to know what to make, where to sell, how much to bring and how much to charge.

It’s impossible to answer questions like this because all craft skill level is taken away, all location specificity is gone, all competition is eliminated. You get a wide variety of people entering and leaving market life like any business that is easy to enter, has low startup cost, yet is difficult to master. You have to be a marketer, accountant, designer, artist, salesperson, entertainer and sometimes carny. This is the work of being an art/farmers market vendor. It’s not the making.

14572185_1239930812736439_9005649933803914342_nMy response to inquiries has to eliminate all of that.

Typically I’ll say there are no hard and fast rules. More variety is best (I never have enough variety), you will never sell more than 10% of available stock (if you do then you didn’t bring enough) and you can’t sell what you don’t bring.  I price differently for different markets. If you don’t then you will lose sales or lose money. And yes you do develop a feel for what the customer will bear so I don’t label prices on big ticket items so I can adjust it up or down depending upon how much added value my salesmanship has brought to the show.

I also always like to mention that your time is worth something. Time includes: gathering material, transportation, marketing, paperwork, booth time as well as what you actually make. So that honey dipper you spent 5 minutes making needs to include its portion of all that other accumulated time. I seem to remember a salesperson adage that 90% of your time is spent looking for the customer. If you don’t pay yourself for that then …. And that’s someone who sells what other people make.

Costs also includes: rent (even if just a portion of mortgage of shop), insurance (portion), utilities (portion), tool depreciation (even if already paid), mileage, fees, display costs depreciated, etc… anything less and you are subsidizing a hobby not earning an income. And yes it’s subsidizing if all that other stuff was either given to you or paid for long ago. Just by others or at another time.

Also if you’re of the mindset that you just want to cover cost of material and maybe buy a new tool every now and then understand that the other vendors in all discipline of craft at the show might be trying to support a family. Rising tides raise all ships so don’t be the a-hole that sinks the fleet. Price dumping is not just an international tactic.


Posted in art market and marketing | Comments Off on Most Common Market Advice

Why We Build the Way We Do

I like to think I’m above average in the amateur enthusiast level of woodworker (don’t we all.) Still, even at my level of expertise I recognize a bit of snobbery in myself.

Last weekend I tried a new market to sell my work. It was a bust but gave me ample opportunity to walk around and socialize. Other vendors like to talk about various things they’ve made for their booths with me. One vendor who sold mason jar stuff (pickled eggs, canned vegetables, salsa, honey…) was especially proud of the new shelves he’d finished. A simple design where a sheet of plywood is cut up into shelves and sides, screwed together through the sides and squared and strengthened via a back panel screwed to everything. His was painted purple.

Now this is a perfectly acceptable design for its purpose. It held the weight, was environment appropriate, inexpensive and durable enough to be moved around a lot. It’s a design you see in lots of DIY shops and there’s even a business here in Austin by the university that sells bookcases to college students and grunge stores made in a similar manner (he does add side dados for the shelves.)

I even contemplated that I could take a week off here and there working the markets and instead load up the bed of my truck with plywood, circular saw and generator to batch out this style of shelving for vendors on the spot, dirt cheap and still make a little money.

But I can’t. It’d be uncomfortable, even emotionally painful to hand someone a piece of work I’d built at that level. I know how and can do better. Yet “better” would still serve the same purpose as the quickly assembled. Hold up masonry jars for a few years until the abuse of constant moving dictated a new build.

For about a decade I sold motorcycles to help pay my way through college. I got to meet and ride with some top level racers. Most true pros I know drive like grandma’s on the street. Yes they’re capable of a little hooliganism but on the street, their attitude is “why”.

Yet while going no faster or getting to their destination any quicker they show a level of knowledge and skill that takes the journey up a notch and makes the experience so much more enjoyable. And like fine woodworking most time its things you don’t notice unless you are look for them.

Turning a car is simple. Brake, turn the wheel and accelerate. Racers at normal road speeds those transitions are invisible. And there’s no course correction in the middle. The suspension is always settled. You can hold an open cup of coffee and not spill it because the driver did all the geometry and physics without thinking. They read the terrain so the turning arc (never constant) hit any bumps in a manner to not unsettle the car side to side. They know the vehicle enough that the braking force equaled the gyro scoping effect of the turn so that the suspension compressed once for both operations and matches what is needed for the line chosen. All so the action on the vehicle and passengers doesn’t vary in that one turn.

Take away two wheels, 90% of the weight and add in a moveable seat, center of gravity, and weight distribution fore/aft/left/right and you have the added variables presented to a motorcyclist. I’ve never been in awe of the skill of factory racers than riding behind them going to lunch at a corporate event.

Knowledge lets you recognize the minutia in different things that serve the same function. It adds an appreciation level that acts as an added benefit. Things denied others until they learn.

I made it to lunch as fast and safe as those factory riders. That vendor made a shelf just as effective as what I’d make. But….

It’s harsh recognizing you’re a snob.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Why We Build the Way We Do

Top Tips for Teaching Woodworking – Get away from your bench/desk (7 of 12)

Be it a visit to your garage shop, a middle school shop class, a woodworking store, or a paid for class you have got to offer one-on-one education to any student in front of you.

Most woodworking classes are going to involve hands on time. Personal opinion is this should be the majority of time spent in a classroom setting. The half hour block where 5-10 minutes spent explaining and demoing followed by 20-25 of activity has always worked well as it paces students so they don’t get physically drained or loopy stupid.

You as a teacher need to be fast enough, organized enough, or have the modules prepared enough so that you can get away from your workbench and out among the masses during the work time. You will find that this is the time where most of your actual teaching occurs as the lecture/demo is just the regurgitation of information/skill to the wall. I like to think of this activity time as Drive-by teaching opportunities “like a gangsta”.

This is all about speed teaching. Answering specific questions, expanding on a subject, discovering what info you didn’t communicate well, judging understanding, and moving on. The one on one is also where you get to drill down with each student so you’ll know how to tailor future lessons. You’ll also find that it’s this time that develops the respect between student and teacher as it shows your personal interest to and understanding of the student.

In the beginning think of yourself as a sniper with a machine gun. Rapid fire targeted teaching. You’ll feel like these beginning sessions are mass chaos running around with your hair on fire as you’re doing a lot of work. Time will fly and you’ll feel like you’re behind schedule. It’s all about speed in the beginning. If you follow the techniques mentioned elsewhere towards the end of the class/course/semester you’ll be bored out of your mind standing on the outside waiting for a teachable target to pop up their head. Later on you’ll be able to spend much more time delving much deeper into solutions with the students. It’s just how things work out if you develop a real educational environment.

This technique isn’t too applicable in a symposium or club meeting setting but you can utilize some aspects by getting a variety of volunteers to come up and try/do the demonstrating during your lecture.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Top Tips for Teaching Woodworking – Student Should Teach Students – (6 of 12)

If there is anything that will turn a group of students into an intelligence consuming cohesive monster of a learning mob then it’s getting students to teach other students.

When answering a question or walking around if you see one student struggling with a specific task and the person right next to them excelling get one to demonstrate to the other. Doing so develops a pattern of collaborative learning (an important lesson in the modern workplace) and reduces the initial apprehension in a new class of getting to know each other. There are three 5-second steps to doing this successfully: walking away, following up, and reciprocating.

Ask one peer to help another by implying the student-teacher knows something unique. I usually refer to it as a trick or hack. Then walk away as if you have to get something else done or help another. Preferably across the room out of earshot. “Hey Jane that’s really good. Show Joe that trick. I’ll be back in a second.”

Asking in such a manner provides the appearance that the teacher-student grasped something beyond the lesson, not that the first isn’t grasping it. Leaving dissolves the pressure created when even the nicest authority figure is present. The time frame reference tells both this is just a short casual commitment that won’t cost either much but you will be checking back to make sure the knowledge is transferred.

Most times when you follow up a minute or so later you’ll get confirmation with a quick glance. Be sure to acknowledge you’re approval. My normal response is to just stick my head in so both notice I’m there and give a “Kewl” and walk away. If you can’t visually tell get some kind of affirmation that the information has been transferred successfully. You’ll never get an absolute negative response because the students don’t want to drop each other under the bus. But occasionally you’ll get a kind of ‘meh’ reaction. In that situation come in and utilize the student-teachers work to explain the answer. This does two things. It gets the needed information communicated and it’ll be a one-on-one lesson to both on how to teach each other because you are basically role playing what the student-teacher should have done. So in the future when you ask either to help another they’ll have a better shot at success.

And if you think this technique is only for teens, think again. You’d be surprised how well it works with the grey haired set.

The worst thing you could do with this technique is have the same student always playing the teacher role. You have to provide some method for reciprocation. This sometimes takes a little creativity but if you want this tool in your arsenal long term it must be done. It’s also why making sure seating arrangements in a classroom or workshop are fluid or change often.

Now this won’t work all the time as some subjects, people, or problems don’t lend themselves to peer education and it’s tailored to classes with more than 6 students (I prefer 24+). Use your judgement and intuition here. But when you can, use it because you are in effect teaching positive behavior skills via example and practice in a subversive non-confrontational or stressful way.

Plus you’ll find the group as a whole will be able to absorb more information and progress much farther as it creates an educational pattern of behavior that enables the teacher to focus on the truly hard roadblocks in learning.

Posted in educational | Comments Off on Top Tips for Teaching Woodworking – Student Should Teach Students – (6 of 12)