The Mental Side of Woodworking

An Essay

Most of the skills I have learned over the years have been from matriculating at the University of Self Taught. In fact I consider it a gift, because I've also learned that not everyone can do it; SWMBO and my mother both have to take classes to learn things. Well, with every gift there is a catch. The catch with this gift is that you wind up reinventing a lot of wheels that are fundamental skills or procedures taught in classes. I mentioned in my biography that I envy those that learned in a more structured environment because they know things that I'll never know, and many of the tasks that we must do with our projects are easier for that structure.

Having a mentor to reassure you that you are doing this right or that wrong and showing you how must be really nice. I actually sought one out once. I recall the time back in the days of my Apple computer that I had been dinking around with the disk operating system floppy disk format. I had gotten to the limits of my accumulated wisdom at that time, and needed the answer to an esoteric question. I asked a friend of mine, the president of the local Apple user's group, who the local DOS guru was, and he said, "I would have said it was you." Yikes, was my reaction. That was scary.

Come to think of it, I did it one other time, as well. I had built a lathe and read a couple of books about turning, but I was having a deuce of a time with the skew (still do). I saw an ad for an adult education class in woodworking at a local high school and I signed up. It was really neat seeing a real shop. I patiently waited for 2 or 3 sessions for the hackers to get their orientation and submit their dream plans to the instructor. Finally, I got my chance. I told him I wanted to learn to use the lathe. We chucked a piece of wood in, fired it up, and he grabbed a round nose chisel and started scraping. Good grief, I thought, "I can scrape!" He didn't know as much as I did about the lathe. I never went back. What a disappointment.

(side note: I took an art class at the same school once. Let's just say Clint Eastwood was right in Magnum Force; a man's gotta know his limitations.)

I had the good fortune once to have someone actually decide to do his own tower work and not have me do it; I was getting pretty tired of tower climbing at the time. However, we spent a lot of time on the phone discussing problems and solutions. I noticed in the conversations what I figured were psychological phenomena about climbing and tower work that I had learned and taken for granted. Obviously my friend had not.

One of the things I helped him with was the time he called me and told me about a problem he had up on the tower and how he didn't think he was going to be able to do the job. I recalled that he had done that sort of thing and more in a previous installment, which I reminded him of. I also pointed out that there are good tower days and bad tower days. I have experienced times when I just didn't feel right doing something that I had done dozens of times before (I'm not talking about the danger Will Robinson type feelings, just the variations in confidence that we experience in our jobs from time to time). I told him to keep on working, and that the comfort level and confidence would return.

I have come to the conclusion that woodworking is no different. I have gone down to the shop and whipped out a small project and never missed a beat. Other times I've made stupid mistakes that so discouraged me that I stayed out of the shop for weeks.

Forgetting my own tower advice, I figured that I was the only one doing these stupid things and that everyone else was sailing through their woodworking life error free. I now think that I should follow my own advice and when committing a woodworking foul, just go on and do something else in the shop; the metaphorical equivalent of getting back on the horse.

Well I didn't tell you all of this stuff to dazzle you about my great accomplishments or deep insights. I merely wanted to lead into some of the mental things I go through in the shop, and how I got myself in that position. I want to know if having an industrial arts curriculum vitae or experience in the professional world makes it any easier to conquer the mental obstacles we face in the shop.

Most of us as hobbyists are making one-off projects. I don't know how many cribs Lee Schierer is planning on making, but I'll bet it's about the same number as sewing tables I'm going to make. When doing production work it's easy to setup the tool, run a couple of tests, pound out a dozen or a hundred of something, and then go on to the next step. In many cases the design is so tried and proven that each step is no more or less subject to error than another.

On the other hand, every little cut I have to make, it seems, requires a leap of faith for me to make it, because I'm so afraid of a fatal error that will force me to start over. In fact, this is the very definition of woodbutchery, and, while correcting these errors is something I've gotten pretty good at, this is not the fun part of woodworking. Am I alone?

Measure twice, cut once, is one of those platitudes that is so commonly invoked that we don't even give a thought to what it really means. It's simplistic in its purported truth. After all, we could measure fifty times, but if we were having a brain cramp when we did the math of 19/32" + 3/8" (just an example of the sorts of things we have to do sometimes to come up with a measurement) in the first place, our one cut is still going to be wrong.

Heathkit (remember them?) was famous in its day for its manuals. They also had some great troubleshooting hints, and one of the first, and one that made the biggest impression on me, was the one that said, "have someone else look at your work." They were right. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at the same mistake; electronic, wood, math, program source code; and skipped right over what later proved to be a glaring error. Your mind wants your work to be right, turns right around and lets you mess up, then tries to convince you you're still right.

Do you swagger out to the shop with the confidence that every cut is the right cut, and no joint is too complex, and that if you build it, it will work? Or do you know that you can fix any error that you are going to make in your project and it'll still work but, man, the nerves were wracked doing it? I look at Dave Smith's stunning English walnut table and I know how I'd sweat making it. Did he? When working on a project requiring 20 handcut dovetails, does Jim Shaver feel the same when cutting the twentieth as he did on the first?

I am convinced there is more to this woodworking stuff than knowing how to do things. I'm thinking there are lot's more demons to conquer than read, understand, and follow. Any thoughts? Is this just duh material to everyone else, or is it something worth pondering?

If I didn't mention your name, it's not because you didn't cross my mind as I was writing this. Every time I'm in the shop I think about Bill (all of them), Jim (all of them), Moses, Dom, Phil, Jorge, Dave (all of them), the other Rod, and all the rest (see how you are? If I told you I thought about Jennifer, you'd say that's the problem). I wonder if your piles of molar dust are as big as mine get sometimes.

If it sounds like I'm not having fun, I'm sorry; I am. I love solving problems, and SWMBO sure gives my ego a big boost when the project's done. And those tools... aargh, aargh, aargh! I just want to know that I'm not alone.

Last updated: 27 January 2009

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