Principles Essential to the Woodworker’s Success

There is an old saying that a worker is known by his chips. This old saying must have had its origin years ago when firewood was used almost exclusively and many woodchoppers were employed cutting wood for fuel. Some of these woodchoppers would greatly excel others in the amount of wood cut consequently a swift worker would make many chips in a day’s toil while an inferior chopper would make comparatively few, so we have the saying passed down to us, “The workman is known by his chips.” But in these days, it would be nearer correct to say a workman is known by his tools and slightly more to the point to say a worker is known by the use of his tools.

Oriental Workmanship

They say that workers in Japan use some of their tools in a way that seems awkward and somewhat ridiculous to those of us of the Western world. The Japanese when he uses a plane pulls it toward him instead of pushing it from him. The drawing knife he pushes from him instead of drawing it toward him as the name of the tool signifies. They have odd ways of using tools, that is, it appears so to us, and our ways of using tools no doubt appear queer to some foreign-born workmen. With us as woodworkers our ways of using tools are quite uniform. Occasionally a workman, however, is seen using a saw in his left hand. Some are able to use one hand quite as well as the other.

Character in the making of chips, getting a shop reputation, motion study and its worth as a factor in forming workmanlike habits

But passing along from one worker to another in a shop or factory it would appear that all do things in about the same way in reference to their respective trades. Yet frequently we notice much difference in the quality of work done and much difference in the time that one man takes to do the same work in amount and quality compared with some other men. What is the reason for this difference? Why are not all workmen equally good? Why is it also that one man can do so much more work than another and do it just as well? These are quite important questions for with but few exceptions the worker is paid according to his work and he is known in the office and on the pay rolls by the use he makes of his tools. Therefore, how may a workman improve his work and thereby add to his chances?

Fundamental Principles

If these questions were submitted to a company of workers it would be sure to create interest and many and varied would be the answers given. I as one among the great army of woodworker., will suggest a few fundamental principles. First of all the old saying that a workman is known by his chips is obsolete. Chips or shavings are no indications of a workman’s speed or skill. But a good workman as a rule has good tools. If any man can do good work with poor tools the same man could do better work with better tools. The first requisite, therefore, to good work is suitable tools.

Inspecting the New Man

We notice new men as they come into the shop. It is natural that we should size them up by the tools they display. When a man appears with a substantial tool chest or tool case and unpacks a tine assortment of well kept tools we have at once respect for him even before he does any work. We expect him to be a workman that “needeth not to be ashamed.” How different is our views of the man that comes shuffling in with tools in an old battered box devoid of handles or sometimes with a market basket with a few odds and ends, relics of tools that appear as though they may have come from a second-hand store or possibly a pawnshop. Such a man as this the foreman is sure to look upon with some anxiety and suspicion. He does not give such a man very particular work, for judging from the tools the man carries about with him he could not be trusted to do a neat and particular job. If we would become a good workman and command respect among our fellows we should get together a kit of good tools. A worker is not only judged by the tools he may display but by the way be uses his tools. This is the great test of the workman. Workmen, like the rest of mankind the world over, are creatures of habit and the skilful use of tools by which we may earn a good living is largely the result of habits we form as we take up our tools to use them day after day. Much, however, depends upon the kind of start we get while learning the trade. The skill of the pianist depends on his position at the instrument together with expression as conveyed by the touch of the fingers on the keys. Improper position at the piano, awkward movement of the fingers, or a wrong start in learning has made the development of the performer into a great musician impossible. In a measure it is so with the use of tools. Much depends on the kind of habits we form while learning the trade and our disposition to correct errors and improve as we grow older and more experienced in our work. A man is never too old to learn if he is so inclined. But here is the rub. As we grow older our habits, good or bad, have a tendency to crystallize, to become fixed. As woodworkers in the use of our tools we are apt to get into a rut. We may move along in a monotonous kind of a groove. We become a kind of a human machine that goes neither faster nor slower and grows neither better nor worse except like the machine we are imperceptibly but gradually wearing out. It appears that as workmen we may be divided into two classes, those who from the start manifest a desire to advance by improving every available opportunity to become more skilful and those who having learned the trade manifest no activity to learn more only as it comes to them naturally and ordinarily through the performance of their routine toil. I can illustrate my thought best in this way: There was a cabinetmaker in years past who had two sons. They worked on either side of their father learning the trade. The older one from the start appeared quick and handy with tools but was not careful about his work.

Comparisons of Craftsmanship

When in fitting a set of drawers into a bureau he had to be watched and his work inspected frequently as he would plane too much off from the ends of the drawer fronts leaving too much space or play for the drawers. When spoken to by his father about his work not coming up to the standard he would invariably reply, somewhat impatiently, “Oh, that’s good enough.” His bench was always littered from one end to the other. His tools were never sharp, and as for grinding a plane iron or a chisel it was almost impossible to get him to do it. He was a hard- working fellow and always went at things with a rush. But he never could take time seemingly to do anything well nor to keep his tools in good condition. He indulged careless habits. He had no ideal, nothing to look forward to in the way of improvement. Passing from his bench over to that of his brother, who was younger and serving his time with him, we notice a great difference, not so much in the movements of the young men for they both were quick and seemed to do things by the same method. But the younger brother did much better work and just as much of it. He was painstaking. He made no more motions than the older brother but each effort counted. There were no false motions. He kept his tools well sharpened and arranged in good order. He consulted with his father frequently about the best way to do certain things. It was not enough for him to get it done some- how, but availing himself of the experience of those that had been longer in the business he tried to do everything in the best way. And it is needless to state that this young man forged ahead. He was given the best work. This worker was known not by his chips or the shavings he made but by his well-kept tools and the very skilful use of them. The difference between these two brothers which so affected their work and wages is largely the difference between workers the world over.

14 thoughts on “Principles Essential to the Woodworker’s Success

  1. All in all, I enjoy (very much) this article…Some highlights and alternate observations. I do think “Westerners” use their tools oddly…LOL!!! One should be able to plane in pull or push, hammer and saw with either hand…another indicator of proficiency and expertise…

    “…a good woodworker” (they come in both genders, as I learn from both my Mother and Grandmother, et al) “has well cared for tools…” Many of these tools may not actually be that “good” at all, but because of care, and diligence they are made excellent…

    I more than agree about how a craftsperson learns is important. As once a student and now a teacher, it is more important to recognize that each student is different and that “how” they will do something, is very different from the next…Thus flexibility in both body and mind is paramount if one is to last at a craft (or crafts) for an entire lifetime. In this case “crystallization” often leads to stagnation and concrete thinking…all too common among many today…and definitely the bifurcation between those that remain anew and those that stagnate…or those that try to always keep learning and those that say…”good enough,” an all to common remark by general contractors…

    Another fine entry to your blog…

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    1. You know a few weeks back when I was making that shoe rack, I got tired ripping with my right hand. So, I switched hands and much to my surprise never having sawn anything left handed I sawed with ease and with accuracy. I cannot say what contributed to this. Is it skill or genetics? I haven’t yet attempted to crosscut with my left hand

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      1. Its funny Salko..🤔🙄…I will ask students to switch hands (hammering is more difficult…typically) and their first response is, “I can’t do that,” without ever really trying!!!

        “I can’t”…statements are as factual and true as…”I can”…statements. The paradox in this is…belief and application… 90% of the time.

        For example, because I saw slower with my left, I often switch to my left hand so I can become more accurate…🤣…In doing tree work, climbing to the very tops of a large class one fine pruning project, I have no choice but to be “fully abo” in both hands if I want to do the job properly…

        What I share with most folks, student and colleague alike…PRACTICE!!!…it all gets better from there!!! 🤗

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      2. Absolutely practice improves skill and performance. I think having the ability to work with either hand is a skill one should develop. In woodturning this is a necessary skill and the same to carving. To be able to switch hands on the fly is a game changer.

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  2. The difference between a fast surgeon and a slow surgeon is not speed of action. It is the time spent between actions. The fast surgeon moves smoothly and effortlessly from one to the next.

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  3. After reading Peter’s comment about the surgeon, I was reminded of a common expression among those I work with…and a s WEMT we live by it…”Slow is steady…Steady is fast!” To many often focus on just “getting fast,” but by doing so miss so much of the process, the subtitles and dare I say the pleasure of our labors. Naive perhaps of me to feel that way, as many remind me that “time is money,” However, to me, if that is how some live (?) I don’t believe they are living live there life well or fully, but that’s just my perspective of it…To each their own…

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    1. I agree that too many people focus on speed rather than technique followed by accuracy. Speed will naturally come, but if you force it you will not have achieved anything positive at all. There is much truth to the saying that time is money if you are in business, but as hobbyists who are healthy but not necessarily wealthy, machines in my opinion are not needed. There are some people who say that they don’t have the time to learn the skill to saw or plane by hand. Again if you’re a hobbyist you have all the time in the world to learn these skills. Hand tools are definitely not everyones cup of tea and like you said each to their own.

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      1. It is funny watching over the decades the resurgence of “hand tool” woodworkers. Taking off mainly in the late 70’s and slowly increasing per annum ever since. By the late 90’s there was even some vocal opposition to this (for whatever reason?) especially from some woodworking professionals (for me typically general contractors…not furniture makers, but them too, on occasion.) Now that sentiment isn’t quite as common (or not as outspoken?) yet still there. When it is spoken, it comes with some level of disdain. I find this both amusing and confusing at the same time, as it seems (in my experience) it comes from a place of envy and/or ignorance, as few actually have any hand tool skills yet are quick to point out how you can’t be competitive and/or productive if you use hand tools. They claim with certainty the use them exclusively simply won’t work, yet some of us still are doing so. The “hand tool only” crowd is growing each year, where more and more embrace this, maybe not fully but many over the 90% mark for the majority of their work…AND…some are professionals in the field!!!

        I’m on the back side of this work now at age 60, but still fit and still working the full spectrum of my “wood” related career paths. Timberwright, Arborist, Stone Mason, Furniture Maker…some of these will not see me touch “powered tools” all day and for days on end. I have no issue being productive or competitive. Then again, I own these are niche woodworking careers, but yet the number grow and more are drinking this brand of tea…LOL!!!…I say welcome to the party!

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      2. I agree with you that there is a hand tool resurgence. I believe this resurgence has developed into some kind of revolution against mass manufacturers, and a general stance against the unhappiness of living a working life that is unfulfilling. I have known no other life than working with hand tools. I begun learning to use them back in my father’s workshop in the 70s when I was a preteen and have continued with this life long journey to this very day. I have tried machinery for 12 months some ten years ago and sold them as I really had no need for them at all. So, I guess I am biased towards hand tools as I do not understand machinery, nor do I see what pleasure people get out of using them, and nor do I understand how anyone can take any kind of credit for a well fitting gapless joint of any kind using machinery and then promote that it’s handmade. This is complete falsity that is very much wide spread. There is much I can say on the subject and other subjects I could bring up and really create a storm, but I won’t. I would achieve nothing with it.

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  4. “I would achieve nothing with it,”…Hmmm…perhaps??? Yet sometimes it takes a storm to clean the field of its tumbleweeds…

    I do use power tools, but feel and side completely with you on this topic. For me, as I explain to folks, I’m doing the work of younger men, and often a crew of them at that. Yet I am often all by myself. The “edge” I need sometimes to create massive mortise and cut through timber can only be done in a timely fashion with either many hand tools wielded by young talented craftspeople…or an “old fart”…with skill of a hand tool user, manipulating mechanically spun sharp edges…

    Building a fine harvest farmers table of mass and great length can be competitively done with just hand tools alone, and done so competitive…I have know doubt, because I do it. Design that table to be 3 stories tall and a 150 feet long, and that’s another matter entirely…but its still finished by hand and with hand tools. The power tools do not diminish it at all, I think, when done in this fashion.

    The simple reality is, from my life experience and those of my teachers ranging in birth dates from 1877 to 1898, is that the IR (industrial revolution) created many wondrous things, to be sure, but it also greatly weakened our normative cultures around the world in destructive and insidious ways. It lessoned us as a species and put us out of contact with the natural world and ourselves at the same time. It bred a consumer culture that big industrie (and it’s big governments!!!) have had a stranglehold on for over 150 years now. That is changing, as more and more see what it has done to not only the planet, but the human psyche as well…

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