Skip to main content

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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

How to Make a Traditional Froe Mallet

What holds the Holy of the Holies, what did Brahma become? Wood. Why will aspen always tremble? For the nails driven into the cross. What makes the color of wood? The soil it tastes. Cradle, fiddle, coffin, bed: wood is a column of earth made ambitious by light, and made of beauty by the rain.

Kim R. Stafford, Having Everything Right, 1986.

Rive, verb, to split
Shake, noun, a split in a piece wood. (Heart shake, ring shake)
Shake, verb, (Middle English), to split.

I know I should have been in the studio working on my back log of guitars, but the day was so nice and warm with a tall blue canopy, I couldn't stay inside. I decided that I needed to make a proper froe mallet. This style of mallet is traditional to northeastern California, primarily Tehama (where I'm from), Butte, Shasta and Plumas counties where making shingles by hand from sugar pines was an industry. I don't know if it was used in any other region along the Pacific Rim, other parts of the United States or even o…

The Guitar's Scale Length, Your Hand Size and a Chart

I will cite the case of a marvelous concert player, a Japanese lady who is barely 5 ft. tall and with hands that are real miniatures. She plays a 664 mm 10 string guitar and demanded that I build this guitar with an action 1 mm higher than normal, which she handles with incredible ease. This is serious study!

Jose Ramirez III, Things About the Guitar, 1990

Here is the hand size and scale length that I found on the forum at

Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 250+ 664mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 230 to 250 656mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 210 to 230 650mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 190 to 210 640mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of 170 to 190 630mm scale length
Thumb tip to pinky tip span of below 170 615mm scale length

Here is my flexible imperial/metric ruler.

Here is my hand properly placed on the flexible imperial/metric ruler.

Today my reach from little finger to thumb is 240mm. I should more or less be playing a…

Basic Hand Tool Kit for Making a Classical Guitar, Revised

Ours is really a simple craft.

James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinetmaker, 1979

So, you want to build a guitar.

Since the original post, Basic Hand Tool Kit for Guitar Making, click here to see it, is the most popular post on this blog, I thought I would revisit it and adjust it to what I am using now to make a classical guitar.

The first thing I recommend doing is to buy or borrow copies of the following books:

Guitar Making: Tradition and Technology, by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Natelson
Making Master Guitars, by Roy Courtnall
The Guitar Maker's Workshop, by Rik Middleton

These are required reading before you begin making a guitar.

Also required reading are these books by Roy Underhill:

The Woodwright's Shop
The Woodwright's Companion
The Woodwright's Workbench
The Woodwright's Apprentice

Why these books by Mr. Underhill? You will learn valuable wood working techniques if you make any of his projects. The dovetail joints used to join a drawer together are far mor…