The following is written for those of you, like myself, who are amateur/hobbyist woodworkers. We just want to build things with wood and enjoy the process as well as the result.
In days gone by, when the apprenticeship system was in full swing, a person knew where they stood in the hierarchy. You entered as an apprentice and worked your way up through the ranks. Crossing milestones along the way that advanced you to the next level. Eventually working your way up until you were considered a master craftsman, or whatever similar rank, depending upon your chosen profession. My assumption is, that as these individuals moved up in the system their attitude changed as well. Gaining both confidence and a sense of responsibility to the profession.
That was then, this is now.
Something I have observed over the years is that amateur woodworkers are almost always viewed as perpetual beginners. Magazine articles, books and now the internet, all with the same approach. That’s not to say there are not exceptions, but in general terms this is the trend. Working alone and left to fend for ourselves, we lack those milestones that tell us that we have gained enough experience or skill to move to the next level. As a result, we end up with two general camps. The “perpetual beginner” and the “know it all”. Both are detrimental to actual learning and progress.
The perpetual beginner mentality tends to hold people back. They are convinced that most things they see in woodworking are too difficult for them. The result is they tend to only ever build simple furniture or projects and rarely attempt new skills or techniques. Fear to try and/or fear to fail best sums up this camp.
The “know it all” group needs no explanation nation. I think we all understand the concept. The danger with this group is two fold. Misinformation to others and failure to learn within themselves. Be skeptical of anyone who claims to be an expert.
Of course there are the rare gems out there who are actually masters of their craft. It is equally rare that they choose to share their knowledge with the world. Rarer still when they excel at instructing. We are very fortunate to have these rare individuals contributing to the knowledge base.
Back to the perpetual beginner mentality. All in all, I think this is the most detrimental. Little to no growth in skill takes place. Either the individual holds themselves back or they are limited by the information available to them. I languished for years with this mentality. During those years I relied on three mainstay excuses. Lack of skill, the wrong tools and the wrong timber. All three continually prove to be bullshit excuses.
To build furniture you need three basic skills. You must know how to sharpen, layout accurately and then accurately cut the wood to layout. That is it. Period. Now that is not to say that there are not innumerable ins and outs to all of those skills. Being told what those are helps, but experience is the only true way to discovery. So those three skills are the key to building just about anything from wood. The ability to apply a finish to the completed project is a fourth skill and an entirely different subject all together.
An extremely basic set of quality (expensive does not equal quality) tools will serve you quite well. Yes, specialty tools will make certain tasks easier and quicker, but lacking these specialty tools should not hold you back. A plane, a few chisels and a saw or two will take you a long way. No matter what tools you have, they are useless if they are not sharp. I have yet to come across a method of sharpening that doesn’t work. So pick a system that suits you and stick with it. The best advice I can throw in about sharpening is this. Sharpen twice as often as you think you should.
The ability to accurately layout joinery is of paramount importance when building furniture. There is no way around it. Any error in the layout will become an error in the joinery and thus the assembly. It is for this reason that I have issues with the extensive use of CAD (computer aided drafting, ie. Sketchup) programs for creating woodworking plans. I use AutoCAD everyday in my day job, it’s how I make living, so I know all of the benefits of its use. Creating a design on a computer screen however, is not the same thought process or skill set as creating the same design with pencil and paper and then ultimately on the wood itself . Nor does the computer approach do anything for strengthening your layout skills. That’s my quibble, YMMV. The bottom line is that you must be able to consistently execute an accurate layout.
The key to the whole damn thing is the ability to cut away the wood accurately. The complexity of the joinery falls away when broken down to what is to be waste and what is to be kept. To cut exactly where and how you want makes the entire process work. That may seem like an over simplification, but that is really all there is to it. Yes there are nuances that need to be learned along the way. Experience will reveal all.
As to the timber. I’m sure that all of us would prefer to work with air-dried, seasoned, straight grained and crystal clear stock. The reality is that the vast majority of us do not have access to and/or cannot afford such material. Damn fine furniture can be built from just about any sound timber. IMHO. If you have been to this blog before than you know that I use whatever timber I can get. Stuff from the big box store, including construction grade, and I’ve even salvaged from pallets for project wood. Allowances may need to be made here and there as to thicknesses and joinery used, but using this type of material is easily an option.
So…what I propose is this. Take a hard look at your skills. Put your big boy, or girl (I’m not sexist, nor do I judge), pants on and shake loose of the beginner mentality. Tackle any project that you want without fear of failure. Will you succeed every time? Nope. But you will quickly expand your horizons and skills and find that you are capable of work that you never thought possible!
Of course I’m just some guy with a blog banging away in his garage. I no longer consider myself a beginner, nor do I even try to figure out where I fall within the system. I’m a woodworker and I build furniture. Maybe I’m full of shit….but maybe I’m not. Hmmm…what do you have to lose? Better yet…what do you have to gain?