Two Distinct Paths

Following up on my post “Perpetual Beginner Mentality“, I encouraged the amateurs/hobbyist woodworker to be bold in their woodworking.  This post is also written for the amateur/hobbyist.

Many, many moons ago when I was coming up thru public school students were separated into two distinct groups.  College bound and vocational bound.  Although there was some overlap, the curriculum varied dramatically.  The college bound group were placed in advanced trigonometry and chemistry.  While the vocational bound were in basic math and geometry  as well as wood shop and industrial arts classes.   Shortly after I graduated from high school the program was abandoned in favor of the “everyone goes to college” theory.  Looks good on paper, but the result is that a large group of people now graduate high school with no applicable skills and a real sense of failure due to being forced through a “college bound” curriculum.

What does this have to do with woodworking?

I believe there are also two distinct paths for woodworkers.  There are those on a professional path and intend to build furniture for a living.  Then there are those, like myself, who are on the amateur/hobbyist path and simply want to build furniture for the pleasure of it.  The two paths overlap in many ways, but diverge in many ways as well.  So does it really matter what path your own?  I believe that it does.

If, like myself, you get your woodworking information and instruction from anywhere and everywhere you can.  That means we are gleaning our information from professionals and amateurs alike.  Here is where the problem begins to sneak in.  While I believe that it is of paramount importance to obtain information and instruction from the best sources possible, I believe that we must also temper our expectations based upon our own path.  Some of these sources can have better than 50 years experience.  We cannot a watch a video or take a class and hope to match that amount of experience and skill.  I know that this seems obvious, but I wonder sometimes as I read blog posts and comments.  Folks tend to be very hard on themselves, or worse do not even attempt something for fear of failure.  Woodworking is a journey of skill building, not a “one and done” activity.  Just because an aspiring musician watches a video of a concert pianist doesn’t mean that aspiring musician will be able to replicate the performance.  Why would you expect to do that in woodworking?

The professional path is generally an intensive one.  Similar to the apprenticeships of old.  A high level of skill is  sought out in the shortest time possible.  Often the professional path leads to a specialization.  Examples being a particular furniture style or technique.  Inlay and marquetry being technique examples.  There are other aspects to the professional path as well that are not directly related to skill and technique.  Those on the professional path need to be concerned with the matters of running a business.  The understanding of marketing, purchasing, production and accounting will play heavily in their success or failure.  From an ethical standpoint, those on the professional path must be able to consistently perform at a level commensurate with that of the industry standard or better.  What is built is also heavily dictated by either the intended customer or the current market trends.

The amateur/hobbyist path is more of a meandering  path.  Skill and technique tends to be built up in spits and spurts as time allows.  Shop time tends to be measured in minutes rather that days, months or years.  Proficiency at any technique can take months due to this limited linear flow of “shop time”.  Most of us are driven by the simple act of creation in wood, with no thought as to the making of money.  In many ways we are practicing woodworking in its purest form.  Beholden to no one other than ourselves, we are free to explore various styles, forms and techniques.  Yes, often times progress is slow, but we progress nonetheless.  Pursuit of unattainable perfection at a snail’s pace is often the path of the amateur/hobbyist.  We are free to error without any real consequences.  Besides, as you progress, your definition of perfection will evolve.  What you consider to be “perfect” now will not be the same a year from now.  In fact, I will venture to say that in some instances it will be drastically different.

So what is my point?  Be realistic about your true path and judge your work accordingly.  Embrace the freedom that is enjoyed by being an amateur/hobbyist.  Embrace your successes, as well as your errors.  The fact that you recognize an error means that you have attained the knowledge to do so.  Relax and enjoy the journey, its only wood after all.

Greg Merritt

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25 Responses to Two Distinct Paths

  1. davidos says:


  2. Tim says:

    Very sage advice! I wasn’t completely happy with my first piece with through dovetails. My friends, including a fellow woodworker with 20 years experience, all told me that I was being too critical. I guess I expected my dovetails to look like those of Paul Sellers and Chris Schwartz. I’m ever the optimist.

  3. Derek Long says:

    Yep. I’m just woodworking for my own sanity. I don’t need to work fast or flawlessly because I’m not trying to feed my family on what I make. Which is probably good, because I’m ssssslloooowwww.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Hello Greg,

    I have enjoyed both your posts on this topic. As a serious hobbyist and not a professional woodworker, I couldn’t agree with this post more. For the past few years, woodworking has been rather all consuming. I read woodworking (books and blogs), watch woodworking (DVDs and you tube), and listen to woodworking (podcasts). In some ways, I feel that I have done a graduate degree in the subject in the past three years.

    That said, what have I made? Well, mostly shop stuff. I made my bench, which admittedly was rather over the top, and it took me 13 months. I’ve made a couple of furniture pieces, but they were before I started my blog. I don’t have the benefit of having made 20 cabinets or 100 dovetailed drawers, but somehow I’ve watched so many being done and read so much about it that when it comes time to actually cut them, things seem to come naturally and go smoothly. I’m not saying that repeated practice wont make me faster or better, and I’m certainly not claiming to have mastered the skill by reading about it. But the fact remains, I can cut decent joinery when one of my hobbyist projects call for it.

    The biggest setback to being an amateur is that I am very, very slow. I have a bit of a perfectionist personality which certainly doesn’t make me go any quicker. Thank god my family is not dependent upon me earning my living by woodworking, or I fear we might all be rather cold and thin. I imagine that producing pieces for commerce would force me to speed up, but that might take the enjoyment away from what I do. I work long hours and “tinkering” in the shop is what keeps me sane.

    Anyway, enough of my rambling. I thought these posts were good and that I would join the conversation.

    I hope that you are well. All the best,

    Jonathan White

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate them.

      There are some folks, such as yourself, that can internalize information and technique and produce very good results with their first attempts. The simple fact is, most cannot and it can be frustrating and discouraging.

      I find that speed is the direct result of repetition. Since, as hobbyists, repetition of technique is spread over months or years, speed is slow to develop. Ask a hundred woodworkers and they will all tell you they are too slow. 😉


      • paul6000000 says:

        Great post Greg. Among my plans for 2016 is to make multiple candle boxes. I’ve already made a couple that I’m happy with but I’m hoping that my speed will pick up when stupefied staring doesn’t make up such a big part of the planning process and I’m also hoping to develop some personal refinements of the type I often admire in older pieces….and in your stuff.

  5. Blaz says:

    Great looking texture! Bravo.

  6. potomacker says:

    have you intentionally misspelled these words: armature/hobbiest for some sort of effect? And while we are on the topic of word usage, professional simply means that one earns a living at a given activity. It is not strictly a statement of skill level or competency.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      No effect intended. Just poor editing on my part. Thank you for the feedback and corrections have been applied.

      As to “professional”…yes, anyone who is paid can be classified as a professional regardless of skill. What I wrote above is more the ideal and/or ethical approach to becoming a professional furniture maker. No matter the strict definition, the word still carries with it an inference of skill.

  7. Wesley Beal says:

    Again, hitting the nail on the head; thanks for this post.

    Two thoughts. First, I think someone taking the professional path seeks to be good at this. Simple statement. Doesn’t define what I do. I don’t find satisfaction in *being good* at woodworking. I find a great amount of satisfaction in *getting better* at woodworking. My enjoyment though doesn’t ever depend on being good at it, now or even in the future. One, it would really suck to have to wait to enjoy this hobby until I was good at it. I mean, power to you if that’s a path you’re on, but for me: I’d like to enjoy myself quite a bit in the meantime. And while I get a lot of satisfaction when through study and practice I get better at things, it’s not the only source of fun for me. I haven’t been able to figure out how to articulate the enjoyment of just, simply, manipulating wood. It’s there though, and very key to why I enjoy this hobby.

    Second, it’s occurred to me that a lot of my own reasons for making these points and having this conversation have a whole lot to do with blogging and interacting with others, rather than time spent working wood. What I mean is that, some of the time anyway, this topic is relevant because of how we all *talk* about woodworking, rather than what we do when we’re in the shop.

    I’ve gotten to be pretty good at just enjoying myself when doing wood work. Not doing this is an easy trap to fall into if you read too much about woodworking. A whole lot out there about how being good at this thing means getting these kinds of results. A whole lot out there about “here is how to do this right.” Thankfully. That information being out there is a real blessing, and is what allows us to pursue this hobby without the benefit of classes. It’s just important – I believe – to take a step back and remember why I’m doing this. I’m doing this to find enjoyment. Without people out there, sharing their knowledge on how to do things correctly so you can accomplish what you’re trying to do, this hobby would be much, much less enjoyable. Just don’t forget that you’re not getting a grade.

    We read a lot of stuff that naturally tries to translate into what I’d consider a false method of measuring my work. When I write about the details of some woodworking I’ve done, I’m naturally describing things like techniques, how it was done, what was the wrong or right way of doing it, & etc. That’s just normal. And useful. We just have to not forget that it isn’t the whole story about why we do this.

    I’m here to have fun.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Wesley! You hit on the crux of my ramblings, my whole blog in fact!
      You ar correct that there is no way to articulate the joy that can be had when working with wood. To take a few bits of wood and turn them into something useful and/or beautiful, that joy can only be experienced. My hope is that I can encourage, maybe even inspire, folks to take to the shop and experience the joy for themselves. These posts of mine are meant to take down some of the barriers that people seem to build up that prevents them from truly enjoying the hobby. I might be overstepping, but if it helps someone, so be it.

      • Wesley Beal says:

        Thanks Greg.

        I’ve had a little time to think about how close someone would have to read what I wrote above to understand what I was saying (thanks for taking the time to do that!).

        More simply, I think I’d say this:

        What we write about woodworking is not a mirror reflection of why we enjoy woodworking. We trust others to understand that, or at least understand what their own reasons are.

        Further, we read a lot by people seeking a professional path. People for whom a key interest is the ability to make a living doing this.

        For those of us who are amateurs and hobbyists, we most often have another challenge to taking this up: we endeavor in isolation. Other than the internet, books, and magazines, we frequently have no other community we are engaged with relative to this.

        It’s very natural for people, especially those just getting started, to let what you read or watch shape how you think about woodworking, including how you think about enjoying woodworking and how you have fun while doing it.

        If you catch yourself doing that, stop. It’s the wrong approach, and can set you up to be disappointed in what you do, and consequently not get the enjoyment out of this hobby that you could.

        I suspect a lot of would-be beginning woodworkers quit the hobby, just for this reason. They go to do something they’ve seen done or read about, fail miserably (as they should), get frustrated due to that sense of failure, and quit.

        That is why we need both bits of information out there, available. How to do things correctly, so you can learn, and not fail. But also this conversation we’re having here: it’s not about being good and successful at it. It’s not about being able to do it right. It is about enjoying the journey. Enjoying it even though – if this is a hobby and you’re measuring your shop time in minutes, as you said above – you won’t ever be as good at this as those people you’re taking your lessons from.

        You will be able to build things that seem impossible to you today. By then you’ll have been exposed to other techniques and levels of skill that will also make you look like a hopeless fool compared to what you can do yourself.

        Enjoy the journey.

        If you’ve got to be able to measure up and be as good at this as what you’re seeing, you should consider quitting your day job, and pursuing a profession at this, as you’re just never going to reach that level doing this as a hobby. Many pros have taken that very path.

        I don’t need to be very good at this to enjoy it. Doesn’t mean I don’t try to get better. What it means is I’m still having fun when I make mistakes.

        Hmm. I don’t seem to have succeeded in explaining myself in fewer words. Oh well. It’s a fun conversation. Thanks again Greg for starting it!

        • Greg Merritt says:

          Brief? LOL I glad I’m not the only one thinking about this stuff.
          Like I said above, we should seek out the most qualified instruction that we can find. I also think that we should read and follow what folks of varying levels of skill are doing. That way we see the ideal as well as the reality.
          Where you fall within the spectrum should be of little concern. Strive to do better than your last effort and leave it at that.
          There is no final destination. The journey will go on for as long as you are willing or able.

  8. Kinderhook88 says:

    A very thoughtful post, I can see this from both sides. I have been a longtime serious hobbyist with a few intervals of professional work. I’m in a process of re-evaluating what I really want out of my interest in woodworking. This gives me some food for thought.

  9. Brian Eve says:

    Thanks for this, Greg! I can stop writing posts about woodworking philosophy now, because you put it much better than I ever could. I love your thoughts about the “everyone goes to college mentality.” I think this has been a big problem lately.

    I find myself gravitating towards reading blogs of amateur woodworkers. There’s a lot of guys out there with the same problems I have who have figured out things I need to know. Things that wouldn’t occur to professionals.

    The first time I realized there was a difference was when I read about one professional woodworker whose tip was this – to save time he had 25 separate routers, each with a different router bit. He saved time by not having to re-set his machine every time he wanted a new profile, he just plugged in a new router.

    My 100 square foot shop would look pretty funny with 25 separate routers.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Glad you liked it Brian.
      25 routers? Yep that’s a pretty good indicator that he is taking a different approach for sure. LOL
      Hopefully my ramblings will get some folks thinking.

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