Becoming Better at Woodworking

Basement, Blog, Home, Woodworking / Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

I’m not professionally trained in most of the things that I do. Despite this fact, there are things I think I do exceptionally well. For example, I have never been trained to cook but I have put in thousands of hours studying cooking shows and practicing with meals and now I’d consider myself a decent, adaptable home chef. 

There are things I want to learn to do professionally, but my current profession gets in the way of that. I would love to take classes to learn to be a professional woodworker and end up with a job where I work with my hands all day long but to do that I would have to go back to school full-time for a few years and I’m not sure Ellie and I are in a position for me to do that. 

tool wall

But just because I cannot be professionally trained in woodworking doesn’t mean I cannot become a good woodworker just like I wasn’t professionally trained to cook but I’m still a good cook. I put in my time as much as I can, watching videos on YouTube and spending time in the basement shop when I can. Where I am today is far beyond where I was a year ago and far from where I want to be next year. I can follow woodworking plans and I can build something from scratch but the finished project always leaves me seeing the flaws and knowing I could have done it better. I have areas to improve on.

Some of the things will just take a lot of practice to get them right and be comfortable with different tasks. One task comes to mind and that is cutting dovetails. I’ve heard many people suggest the best way to cut dovetails and get good at cutting dovetails is to just cut dovetails over and over until you can cut beautiful dovetails in your sleep. You don’t need to be making anything, you just need to be joining two boards with a dovetail joint. Once you’re done, you toss it and move on to the next one. There are no repercussions for failing one time. This concept of the repetitive practice appeals to me and in the case of dovetails, it is something I plan to enact in the near future. 

chisels to sharpen

There are other tasks where I’m hesitant to start trying them on my own because it’s not a situation where you just toss it if you mess up. The mistakes are more and more expensive as you learn. Because it’s on top of my mind, sharpening blades like chisels, carving knives, and bench plane blades are some of the examples in my shop. Recently, I have watched dozens of videos from different people explaining how to successfully sharpen blades to “scary sharp” levels. Conceptually, it makes sense. Practically, however, I’m terrified to give it a shot because I don’t want to permanently ruin the cutting edge on my blades.

My preferred method of learning is to dive in and do. I like to have someone show me and walk me through it while my hands are physically on whatever I am doing. For many of the woodworking things I want to learn in a hands-on setting, I lack the teacher to show me. My default would be to have my dad show me because he’s been a hobby woodworker as long as I’ve been alive. But he lives an hour away and it’s hard to bother him with questions at 10:00 pm while I’m down in the basement. 

salvage store hand planes

So, because I cannot take classes like I wish and I cannot have a personal tutor like I wish, I have resigned myself to teach myself as much as I can. It’s one of my many goals for the coming year (more on some others coming soon). At the end of next year, I want to be able to list off the things I’ve become proficient in. And why start next year, what I can begin this year?

I recently came across a couple old hand planes while I was at the salvage store. One is a generic block plane and the other is a Bailey #6 plane. The block plane was in decent shape and I was able to make some shavings using it without doing any adjustments. The Bailey #6, however, needs some work. I’m okay with that. I like getting old tools and fixing them up. It helps me understand how they work better. 

The Bailey is actually the perfect purchase for the goals mentioned above. Because it’s in such rough shape, it was relatively cheap to buy. I need to replace some parts on it, the frog (don’t ask because I can’t really explain it yet) and the blade because both of them are broken and both the handle and the knob are missing so I’ll have to recreate those. Cleaning up the rust on the plane will be good fun and satisfying once I have the end result. As for the blade, since it is being replaced eventually it makes for the perfect practice iron for sharpening. I can take all the knowledge I learned in various YouTube videos and mess it all up using a garbage blade. It I truly screw it all up like I think I will, then so be it, I’ll get a new blade anyway. If I don’t screw it up and I end up with a nice sharp blade then maybe I can use it for the time being. 

In preparation for all this sharpening, I bought a few things and finally put a belt on the bench grinder. None of the YouTube tutorials I’ve watched have used a bench grinder to sharpen plane blades so I’m not sure if I could and if I could, how do I use it to sharpen? Either way, I have the grinder working. I also used some gift card money on Amazon to buy myself some beginner sharpening stones and a leather strop. I also bought a sharpening guide because all the experts tell me to forget my shame and use the training wheels as long as I feel like it does a better job with them and without.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt like such a student of something and I cannot remember the last time I was this excited to learn. I sit at my desk at work and daydream about coming home and hiding in the basement just to make sawdust. It’s going to be quite the journey for me and I hope I come out of it in one piece. I’ll make sure you’re there for the ride!

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