Perpetual Beginner Mentality

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?

Greg Merritt

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46 Responses to Perpetual Beginner Mentality

  1. Bill Traynor says:

    Great post, Greg it really resonates with me! I’ve been wallowing in the perpetual beginner mindset for the last year. Essentially I’ve spent a year gathering tools, cleaning them up, reading books, and watching videos. Your post has reminded me that if I’m going to build something, I should just build it. What I need is a nice hanging toolchest for my garage, a saw till, and possibly a plane till. I’m going to start there and just build them. I gifted myself a membership to Paul Seller’s WoodWorkingMasterclass, as he’s recently worked through a hanging tool cabinet. It looks difficult, but I’m going to tackle it anyway.

    Thanks for the wise and encouraging words.


  2. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    Here’s a nearly perfect little essay from Greg Merritt about amateur woodworking that can be applied far beyond our chosen hobby. It’s a great way to start off the New Year on a positive note.

  3. ROBERT LINDH says:

    Fully agree and if I may add I do not advocate the use of the computer/CNC in the woodshop.

  4. Wesley Beal says:

    Great post Greg, on a great topic.

    In my “beginner’s” experience, nowadays anyway, I don’t find that the mindset of a beginner stops me from wanting to try things out that much. What it does do is stop me from venturing out where there aren’t plans & instructions present. I’m constrained by what others have been willing to show us how to do (and the quality of the instruction – how much what is out there can be followed successfully).

    Same hindrance to growth.

    Reading your piece, I think the past, with it’s apprenticeship system, IS a big part of what limits us. Unless a person is out there, attempting to become a professional woodworker, they’re a hobbyist like me.

    Professionals need a system for measuring skills. I’d suggest that this is not relevant for us hobbyists. However when it comes to learning, it’s the only model we have, so it’s the language we speak, and the model we try to adopt.

    Consider my other favorite hobby, fishing. You could transform fishing into some similar model, measure people up as apprentices, practitioners, experts, and masters. No one thinks that way. There are professional anglers. They don’t have apprenticeship systems. They’re also so small a class of people engaged in the activity to be irrelevant for this discussion.

    When people fish, they do what they enjoy. They don’t think about how they don’t think they’ll measure up and be able to cast as accurately as an expert can. They might wish they were more accurate, but they JUST KNOW, that getting better is achieved through practice.

    They might discover a new technique or some method somewhere along the way. They don’t think to themselves: I’ll never be able to that. Instead they think: “Hey, let’s give that a try and see what happens!”

    Who cares if it doesn’t work exactly like it’s supposed to? What matters is, did you enjoy yourself? You’ll continue to do things that you enjoy. And by doing them more, you’ll get better at it.

    Nowadays this is how I try to approach all of my woodworking. I’m going to do what I enjoy. Learning is something I enjoy very much. Just the process of getting better at something is also something I enjoy very much.

    I’ll offer my personal deviations from your core skill set above. Most of the time right now I prefer a more “Follansbee” approach to layout. 🙂 One thing the “beginner” mentality has graced me with is being at piece with low expectations for the quality of my end product. If something doesn’t work out right, the fun isn’t lost. I enjoyed doing it. Now the same approach as with fishing – I fly fish – often I just cast out where I want, and enjoy myself. Sure enough though, there are times when instead I focus on my technique, and find joy in improving my skill. Sort of like accurate layout. When I feel like questing for perfection, I lay things out very carefully. When I feel like enjoying the ability to manipulate wood regardless of how precise things turn out in the end, I do just enough layout to get me moving in the direction I enjoy.

    I think woodworking’s past is not our present. Unless you’re seeking out a profession at this, of course. Otherwise, you’re doing this for the enjoyment you get from it.

    For some (I suspect for you), perfect, accurate layout gives you a complete level of satisfaction, capturing the process as it moves from your mind to the wood. For others, getting the beauty of the wood to come out through the best finishing techniques gives them joy. I find a whole lot of my enjoyment to come from taking old tools, and making them do the job they were made to do, despite there being machines that could do it all more quickly today.

    We’ve got to learn to toss aside these old systems, and do what it is we find enjoyable.

  5. I finally promoted my self a couple of years ago from an amateur to an intermediate woodworker. A lot of it had to to do with me getting rid of what you wrote about and finally finding a teacher like Paul Sellers..

  6. Matt McGrane says:

    Interesting topic, Greg. Confidence is something I think about often. Some people have it (in all aspects of life) and others do not. What is it that causes this? Nature or nurture (I suspect the latter)? Those who are less confident can work at it, though (again, in all aspects of life). Removal of fear is a key aspect in this. One just has to ask oneself a question – what will it hurt if I fail? When you realize that the answer is “nothing, or very little”, then you are freed to experiment and enjoy the process.

    Practice is another key to building confidence. Getting comfortable with your tools, with sharpening, with building – all these things build confidence. That is why one of my most common comments to beginners is: practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more. But don’t think the practice is only on throw-away pieces. You can practice on things you plan to have in your home. It’s OK if it is not perfect. Let me say that again – IT’S OK IF IT IS NOT PERFECT!!!

    Happy New Year.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Happy New Year Matt!
      I don’t dare guess what gives confidence. As to woodworking, time in the shop cutting wood is the best way to become better at woodworking. That time will strengthen existing skills and reveal weaknesses that should be addressed.

  7. Janine says:

    Great post. I came across it by chance and although I am a maker of things from fabric and yarn with over thirty years experience I baulk at selling my finished items because I worry about not meeting a professional standard and I get a nagging fear that my makes are not good enough. Although some of the specifics of your post are obviously related to woodwork, the gist of your post is very applicable. So thank you very much and Happy New Year 🙂

  8. John M says:

    I think that is an excellent blog Greg. Layout is critical and keep well clear of the know-alls

    Perseverance and practice, practice, practice … take your time and learn from your errors. Two years I’m trying to get the hang of woodworking and I would say I’m at level e to g in beginner. I can’t keep up with online tutorials – so I took a break to clear my head. Although frustrated the annoying call of wood chips and shavings remained.

    That was then, this is now.

    I needed to regain confidence with something I wanted to make so I drew a plan of a small project with things I can do and now it’s coming together and beginning to make sense.

  9. billlattpa says:

    The “perpetual beginner” mentality is probably the single biggest reason I’ve stopped reading or even following nearly all professional woodworking blogs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far too self-centered, old, and generally pissed off to let something I’ve read by a “real” woodworker to actually get insulted by it, but I don’t enjoy reverse psychology sales pitches presented in the guise of “saving the craft”. As you’ve pointed out, most of us are hard-enough on ourselves without the left-handed compliments.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      The way to preserve woodworking is simple. Make it as accessible as possible to the greatest number of people possible. I’m content to leave the extremely fine, high level woodworking to those that choose to follow that path. My focus is on us common amateurs. I truly believe we are capable of not so common results.

  10. goatboy says:

    Best post, on any subject, that I’ve read in a long time. It feels like something of a game changer for me. Thanks for writing it.

  11. Deniseg says:

    I attended our end of semester student work show and during the presentations, one of the instructors asked us all some questions. He asked “how many of you are intermediate or advanced woodworkers”. None of us raised our hands. Then he said, how many of you have completed 4 or more semester courses – more than half of us raised our hands. These labels are not helpful nor is lack of acknowledging our progress. I’m neither novice nor master but I love every moment I spend at the bench – and I’m always getting better and learning. That seems to be the same story for all levels of woodworkers. Here’s to more making in 2016. Happy new year fellow woodworker.

  12. Peter Littlejohn says:

    I learnt my trade as a joinery apprentice in the 1970’s and have worked on and off in the trade ever since, though in resent years I seem to be more on the “off cut” pile. Most of my woodwork has been commercial machine made products, kitchens, doors/windows, furniture and the odd job from home with limited machines & tools.
    I notice a common comment on various woodwork sites is asking for plans for a simple item, or worried they don’t have the exact same size or type of timber. The best way to advance your skill is to adapt the item to suit your needs or situation. I often just save a photo of an interesting item and then figure out how it was constructed, maybe combining parts with another similar design to make it. That is probably how the original design/idea came about in the first place. Sometimes it works, sometimes its a balls up! OK having a full set of plans is useful, why reinvent the wheel. But learning to adapt ideas can be more useful for learning new skills. After all most of our work isn’t required to be to a commercial specification. NZ Pete

  13. davidos says:

    i think the key word here is experience and to gain that one must practice,practice .i was too sure when i first got up on a bicycle but wasn’t long getting the hang of it .great post

  14. John Meaney says:

    Excellent Blog Greg!

    Persistence, practice and patience and enjoy it. I got so confused I took time out to clear my head and realise the skill I may have developed. I think I would grade myself as a g in the beginner category but I still work wood and thoroughly enjoy it. John M

  15. Mike Siemsen says:

    It is important to remember that the only person you are trying to be better than is yourself. Work for a personal best, Work towards improvement. Practice is important but practicing how to do something poorly over and over is not going to improve your skills. Get some coaching once in a while, wherever you can get it. Don’t skip over the fundamentals in a headlong rush to make things. You need to learn to swim before they let you in the deep end of the pool. Don’t go to Cozumel and rent diving gear if you can’t swim! Learn to sharpen and maintain your tools properly and learn how to use them properly. Learn on simple projects and inexpensive materials that are low pressure situations. Learn the properties of your material and how it is joined together. Learn proper layout.
    CAD drawings are great if you want to send them to some one far away but they aren’t necessary in the shop. My son made up a beautiful CAD drawing of a spice rack he wanted to build. He brought his drawing out to the shop and I gave him a piece of oak firewood and a froe to get started making it. He has a nice spice rack now. 2 bottles high, 1 bottle wide, 8 bottles long, made from riven oak.
    The apprentice was able to move along in his training because he had guidance and a lot of practice. The master’s goal was to have a fairly capable worker in a short period of time so he could make money off of him for the 7 years he had him bound for. He was given better work when his skills showed he had the ability to do so. It is difficult to be your own master.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      It is quite difficult to be your own master. Unfortunately, that is the situation for quite a lot of us. I didn’t write this post for the absolute beginner, but for those that have aquired a basic level of skill. Nor did I write this post for those that are on a path to become “professional” furniture makers. I wrote this to hopefully inspire folks to begin pushing thier limits and get out of their comfort zones. As this happens and shortcomings present, they will seek out more information and/or guidance.
      Thanks for the input MIke.

  16. ant11sam says:

    Hi Greg!
    If this was the 1st post of the year… whoau! I can only anticipate this is going to be a great year on your blog!

    Well put!

  17. “There is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist.”—Charles Rennie Mackintosh
    For me, becoming confident and competent at designing furniture (and structure) took much longer than acquiring the mechanical skills of layout and cutting joinery.
    2 cents: keep a sketchbook and a #2 pencil (preferably sans eraser), learn the basic rules of perspective, draw every construction detail or piece of furniture that attracts your interest.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Great quote Michael….and dang it, your stepping on future posts. LOL
      Design is by far the most difficult skill to develope to comfortable level.
      Your point about a sketchbook is spot on and ties in with my issue with the amateur using CAD for design. I see too many woodworkers comment “I can’t draw”. That needs to change!

  18. Emilio says:

    Great post, Greg. Thank you for writing.
    I’m not exactly in the perpetual-beginner mindset and obviously I’m not an expert woodworker.
    In my case the problem is the lack of confidence: I’m an amateur and, as amateur, I feel like I were perpetually… “in between”…
    I’m learning through Internet, books, practice, …, and I’ll never be able to thank Paul Sellers enough for what he does with his WWMC videos.
    And, yes, I know I can humbly learn and improve my skills.
    But sometimes terms like “non-professional”, “self-taught”, “non-formal training” make me feel “unfit”. Maybe it’s silly, but it’s like my works had less value than works done by professionals…

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Emilio!
      I believe the two ideas are one in the same. My point is that we, as amateurs, should not judge or limit ourselves based upon a system designed for those on a professional path. Be a woodworker. Be bold in your approach. Find your weaknesses and strive to strengthen them.

  19. Wesley Beal says:

    Reblogged this on wesleyworkswithwood and commented:
    I want to link to this here on my blog, as the topic is especially interesting to me. I started this blog in part to speak to the experience of taking on this hobby, isolated from traditional ways of being educated or trained at it.

    My philosophy – I guess that’s an appropriate word for my thoughts on this topic now – is continuously evolving. For those of us best labeled “hobbyists,” I’m starting to think that the traditional ways of thinking about skill with regards to woodworking don’t suit us well.

    Reblogging this post from Greg serves as a bookmark for me on a topic I will write more about. Go read Greg’s post. Lots of excellent thoughts articulated very well, and also some fantastic discussions in the comments!

  20. Mer says:

    Hi Greg, I’ve been lurking for a while, that’s what I do, but this time I wanted to tell you, well said!
    I dabble in, people would say, too many “hobbies”, and I always just jump in straight to the things I want to do. I helps that I have a background in craftwork, perhaps, but I am convinced that everyone can do it. It may be a bit painful at first, but there’s no better way to advance (attitude wise), and it’s more rewarding. No baby steps, you can get stuck there, to build new synapses you have to try new things. You have to jump in the deep end.

    And as for design, there is no substitute for year upon year of looking at (pretty) things. Going to museums, looking at art books and encyclopedias, keeping your eyes open at all times! Google is a nice tool too, but you’ll have to be the judge. And then doodle, a lot. Anything.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Mer! Well said to you as well.
      The more you see, the more you can file away for later use. You never know what small detail may come in handy one day.
      Thanks for the comment.

  21. orepass says:

    Happy new year, I enjoy the small amounts of drafting that I do, it gives me time to reflect and plan and challenges me to work through the details. Having use autocapitalize and other programs I’m always surprised how quickly people grab a mouse rather than a couple of triangles and a scale. Like hand tools sometimes it’s quicker to do it by hand. In reality my brain doesn’t work any faster than I can draw anyway. Perhaps you should write an article on basic drafting techniques.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Happy New Year to you as well.
      Board drafting is quickly becoming a lost art. I have toyed with the idea of writing a post or two on the basics. I’m still working out the details though.

  22. Mike Siemsen says:

    It is best to be clear on terms,” Amateur” is not a reference to skill a skill level but merely means that the person is unpaid. Consider the Olympics and the skill of the contestants who (at one time) were all amateurs. A “Professional” is someone who gets paid for what they do, no matter how well or poorly they do it. “Hobbyist” is not a reference to skill either but refers to someone who does something for pleasure and relaxation. Coin collecting is a hobby that takes research and knowledge but not a lot of other skills.
    We should not confuse confidence with skill either, while it is true that you can gain confidence with the development of your skills I have seen people stride forward with confidence and do terrible work, with confidence!
    No matter how you describe yourself the best indicator I have found as to where your skill level lies is how people looking at your work say the phrase “You made that.”, are they incredulous? accusatory? is it a flat statement?
    Say it over in your mind to hear what I mean. Are they peers or someone who’s skills you admire?
    The main thing to keep in mind is did you enjoy making it and are you happy with how it turned out. If not, think about what you need to do to modify the outcome in your favor and try that.
    No matter your skill level or how you measure it there is always something more to learn, and your skills can slip if you don’t get out to the shop and use them, so get out to the shop!!

  23. momist says:

    An admirable post Gregg. I can’t add much to what everyone else has said.

    One thing: Use what you have, tools and wood. If the planning calls for a certain size of wood you don’t have, re-draw it to suit what you DO have. Usually, it will work out. Layout using the size of the prepared wood, not the size on the drawing! Having to do it again usually means doing it better.

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