People have often asked me how would I recommend they get started in fine woodworking. I respond with how I approached it. I took some classes at university, most of them were design classes and I would have loved to have had access to a furniture program at the time. I then apprenticed for two years in a professional cabinet shop, where I was very fortunate to work alongside two very talented woodworkers not many years older than I, whom I watched like a hawk.
Almost every night of those two years apprenticing, after working all day on projects for the owner, I stayed another 5 or 6 hours working on projects of my own design. Around midnight, I would ride my bicycle home to save precious money (he paid us less than minimum wage, just $2.45/hr) to start buying tools and beautiful wood for the future. After a long day full of new techniques and skills starting to seep into my thick head, I was too excited to sleep and stayed up for a few more hours reading anything and everything I could get my hands on about woodworking.
Did I mind long, pitifully recompensed days? Did I mind dusty clothes and eating “managers specials” at the grocery store? Not in one single instance in more than forty years. Never. Not no how.
For those of you who may be eager to get started in a life of woodworking, I offer this advice on getting started. At a high level, I encourage you to:
My specific recommendations follow.
Whirring metal blades, sharp tools, the wood itself: all these could represent a threat if not understood thoroughly. Take the time to befriend them and they will be just that, friends. The sawblades and planer knives and router bits are a wonderful asset to you when you become skilled with them. They enable you to move through a piece with precision and satisfaction. Complete those tool skills with good eye and ear protection and you will feel the confidence to allow all your senses to focus on your work and you will be amazed by the results.
There is both art and science to selecting, seasoning, and choosing specific woods for specific purposes. Wood is the richest resource and the foundation for most of our work. Our native American woods such as fir, cherry, maple, oak, sycamore, and ash provide a full-color palette to work with and different densities and structural qualities. They also tend to be less expensive than most of the imported species, and as such are often the wise choice when starting out.
I have spent over 40 years working with a variety of incredible exotic woods as well, and these are great fun when you are ready. Woods such as ebony, East Indian rosewood, wenge, imbuya and perhaps my personal favorite, bubinga.
The study of design is essential to give the student a real sense of what is possible in their work and a heightened appreciation for the work of other influences. You are unlikely to ever have a real sense of just what your work is and who you are in this area without exercising these muscles well. What is the point of learning to build superlatively well, if your pieces are banal and do not evoke an emotion in the people who experience them?
Design is easily the most neglected of woodworking skills for not a single good reason. Good woodworkers are not really that hard to find. Good designers are harder. Skilled woodworkers, who have achieved something special in their designs? Well, now you are talking about something rare and special.
So much of woodworking is cutting wood in one form or another, and a sharp edge is essential for superlative results. And for efficiency, safety, and just to be able to enjoy your time in the shop to its fullest. Sharpening is the quintessential woodworking skill.
The essential tools that any serious woodworker would want, besides safety glasses and earphones, would be:
The most basic and critical skills a woodworker must learn start with sharpening. Then the care and techniques of chisels and planes. You need to understand a handful of the most commonly used joints, such as dovetails and mortise and tenons. There are hundreds of variations of these joints and room for endless imagination as you continue to learn and practice.
Of course, there is so much more to learn! Advanced techniques and the accompanying tools, rare and exotic materials, finishing, and running a woodshop as a business. As you would expect there are as many different paths for those going into woodworking as there are individuals.
Some will want to hone fine skills and find a serene spot and just work for themselves. Others will dream of opening a workshop and starting to design, build, and sell their work to the people who appreciate it. Some will work only on commissions and enjoy the security that a deposit check offers. Those with perhaps a more independent streak will stomach the sales commissions charged when showing their work at galleries and revel in the complete freedom of not working within the parameters of a client’s wishes. Some may even carry their skills into a bigger, more prosperous commercial shop.
What matters most, to me, is the refinement of both a thorough set of technical skills and good design instinct, married to an insatiable passion for working in wood.