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What I've Learned About Woodworking, Part 1

Trees are our life.

Merle Burnham, my father

I found some notes I scribbled down on what I have learned about wood working.

I wrote them as a response to some blog posting that was on one of the woodworking blog aggregators, I don't remember what the post was, but it made me a little mad. Maybe it was something about a current fad in wood working or some new book that will make you a master woodworker.

Anyway, here some thoughts on wood working.

Learn how to sharpen a knife first, then a drawknife, a hand plane iron and a hand saw.

Don't make what is popular, make what you want to make.

Make a shaving horse.

Buy the best tools you can afford.

Go to a school if you must, you learn much by working at your bench making mistakes and succeeding at projects.

Build the work bench that you want to build, not one that is the current fashion.

Learn the old traditional techniques first. You can start with books by such authors as Bernard Jones, George Ellis, William Fairham, George Hayward, Roy Underhill.

If you need a teacher, take a class from someone who is well versed and grounded in the old techniques. Take a class at Roy Underhill's school, or go to Country Workshops with Drew Langsner or take a trip to England and study with Paul Sellars!

Build a spring pole lathe. Once you do you will never want to work at a bench again.

Live in a forest every day for two or more years.

It will make you a better wood worker because you will learn how every living thing in that forest interacts with the rest of the world.

The trees will show you how to work with the wood.

When I was a little boy, I was taught how to use a single bit axe.

I made toys and such from the trees I slew with that axe. In chopping down trees I learned much about pine pitch, round headed wood borers and yellow jacket hornets.

Trees are still my best teachers.

So do as Henry David Thoreau did - "I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods..."

Make sure you return the axe sharper than when you borrowed it and that it has a brand new handle!


  1. Agreed. Stretch yourself, experiment own ideas and alternate methods, accept and understand failures. Most any project is a sequence of small steps and techniques you probably already know or are easly learned. Also, check out Don Weber for class, article, video, or meaningful story.

    I've been learning to build ukuleles on my own studying blogs,articles, and photos. I try my own ideas when I can't find an article on how to. Thank you for your blog.

  2. You'd be amazed how much you can learn about wood just by splitting kindling with a small froe or hatchet for an hour or two.

    Any time we cut firewood, we inevitably end up with an armload of "shorts" - logs that are about 9"-10" long. I always split them into quarters and set them aside from the regular woodpile and let them season for a long time.

    Then when I have some extra ambition or free time in the fall, I'll split them up with a small froe and mallet or my smaller hatchet.

    It isn't mindless work. You still have to consider grain direction and knots and the growth of the tree if you want nice even kindling (which my OCD demands).

    When I'm done, it all goes in a large copper tub I keep in the garage, ready for fires through the winter.


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