Woodworking in the great white north.

So you want to be a woodworker?

Interested in woodworking?  It’s “Get Woodworking Week!”  Thinking you should take the leap and start collecting…err..buying the tools you need?  Here’s a little primer on getting started in woodworking and what you REALLY need to know to fit in to the woodworking world. 

1 – What type of woodworker should you become? 

In ‘the Olde days’ there was only one kind of woodworking – hand tool woodworking.  After the industrial revolution came power tools, popularized in the PBS series The New Yankee Workshop with Norm Abram.  Since the onset of power tools (colloquially known as “tools with tails”, ie cords) woodworkers have taken sides.  Neanderthal woodworkers swear by the blood, sweat and tears required to be a hand tool woodworker, ask them to show you their scars.  Norm-ites are more obsessed with specialist power tools in matching colors with manly sounding names like Porter-Cable and DeWalt (say these names with a deep radio announcer voice).  In the 80’s Norm-ites were reinvigorated with a whole new plethora of tools to collect…err..buy:  cordless power tools.  Nothing is more manly to a Norm-ite than slinging an 18volt powerless drill in a hip holster of a toolbelt…NOTHING!  Note, this also gets you respect from the handyman/DIY/home reno crowd.

You may think that the Norm-ites have it right, after all they have a TV show and everything!  You would be wrong, we have to introduce Roy Underhill into the equation.  Roy has been on TV longer than Norm (who is now retired) and to this day is wary of anything with a switch.  Rumor has it he works by candle light when the sun goes down.  Neanderthals have raised Roy to the status of Sainthood after watching more than 30 years worth of hand tool woodworking.  He has more scars than anyone alive today.

Confused?  We’ve all been there.  Power tools make lots of noise and dust and give the impression that great work is being done, while hand tools have this mysterious history shrouded in as much secrecy as the Masons.  How do you choose your path?

Introduce the Hybrid woodworker.  Woodworkers caught on the front line between Norm-ites and Neanderthals made a daring move, out of desperation they bought both sets of tools!  If you want to fit in, it’s best to declare yourself a Hybrid woodworker.  This way you don’t offend anybody, and die hard extremists will take pity on you and possibly offer you their hand me down tools.  Win-win!

2 – What tools should you buy?

All woodworkers will say “if I knew then what I know now, I would have bought the best tools I could afford instead of the cheap crap they sell at the home center.”  Let them believe that this is logical and ask them about their favorite tool and you will make them very happy.  You still won’t know what to buy, but you’ll likely have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to want to buy later when you ‘need’ to upgrade to more serious tools.

For power tools this is likely going to something European requiring 3-phase electricity and a forklift to move, look primarily at German stuff…you know, the Germans, they make good stuff.  For hand tools this will be a custom made hand plane that costs more than your car made by someone of European descent with an easily mispronounced name.  (You’ll have to sell your car of course and buy a truck, carting lumber in a sedan, while humorous to watch, is not going to win you any acceptance from real woodworkers.)

If you’re really stuck for what to buy, get your power tools in matching colors at least, and preferably all the same brand, this will make people believe you won a contest or know someone who can get them for you cheap.  For hand tools, you will score big points if you can get old tools (like, really old…like, before there were world wars) and spend hours or days restoring them.  If this isn’t an option you can generally get away with buying from any specialty hand tool manufacturer like Lee Valley and Lie-Nielsen.   In fact, any company that starts with L and has three Es in it is just fine.

3 – You’re going to need a workbench.

You can get by just fine with an old table, a door on saw horses or your kitchen table when your spouse is out shopping, but if you plan to have other woodworkers visit you, you’ll need a big beefy workbench.  You will need to learn about workbenches, buy all the books you can find on the topic, the more recent they have been published, the more likely they will have the latest in 14th century workbench design.

Be prepared to tell people you designed your own, heavily influenced by (choose two of:  French, English, German, Scandinavian, Shaker) designs.  You will know what these are once you’ve read the books that you just bought.  Do not on any account buy a pre-made bench, this is a lot like those restaurant makeover shows where the ‘chef’ uses canned spaghetti sauce…it works, but you’re done for if anyone finds out.

When you build your bench, be sure to use reclaimed lumber.  This appeals to the trendy ‘green’ movement and recyclers as well as being cheaper than buying new.  Be sure to mention how much denser the wood is than what you get today.  Be prepared to recite the Janka hardness rating of all the wood used in your bench.

4 – Magazines.

You need to get a few subscriptions at first, then you will probably whittle that down to Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking or just about any English woodworking magazine.  It is best not to be the first to mention what woodworking magazines you buy.  This puts you quickly into the ‘wrong’ category of woodworker depending on whether you’re talking with a Neanderthal or Norm-ite.  Hybrid woodworkers don’t really care, they’re just happy to have something else to buy, the more the merrier for them.

Be sure to scatter these around your living space to inform all visitors that you are a serious craftsman who is on top of the latest tools and techniques.  The pinnacle of success as a woodworker is to become an editor of said magazines followed closely by having an article published followed distantly by having one of your creations displayed in the ‘reader projects’ section.  If this is achieved, be sure to leave the magazine on your coffee table open to your page.

5 – The digital world.

If you’re reading this, then you’re already half way there.  You’ve found the woodworking blogosphere, where woodworkers show off their work after carefully photoshopping the mistakes out of their studio quality photographs.  Bloggers are a lot like those boring people at parties who prattle on and on and on….hmmm.  Comment on a few blog posts, throwing in references to the tools you recognize in the background of their photos and you will win a new friend that you never have to actually meet in person.  Occasionally you will find something that is actually interesting and useful on a blog, something where someone has been brave enough to show everyone how they failed miserably by doing something the wrong way and can now confidently call themselves an expert on doing it the right way.  Extra weight is added if an injury was incurred whilst failing.  When you’re ready, start your own blog with wood or woodworking in the name.

Then there’s Sketchup.  No, this is not a condiment.  This is a free computerized drafting system where woodworkers can design and build virtual projects without ever having to set foot in a dusty shop.  You are required to be in awe of anyone who can produce a Sketchup plan.  You WILL be in awe of someone if they actually end up building it in wood!

6 – Wood.

Despite being sixth in the list, you still need to buy wood to be a woodworker.  It’s ok to have the tools and a workbench and a blog with lots of Sketchup models of Greene and Greene inspired furniture but you will have to have a stockpile of lumber to be taken seriously.

You can’t just go down to the home center and buy some plywood, no, no, no.  You have to make your acquisition of lumber as difficult and painstaking as possible.  This has to involve at very least driving an hour or two to a lumber mill.  The one exception to this is if you drive your new pickup truck around town after a bad windstorm collecting downed trees which you will split and hew yourself to be stacked in your shop to air dry for as long as humanly possible.  Ideally you never use this wood, it is like a trophy to all other woodworkers.

Regardless of how you get it, you’ll need a stack of lumber in various sizes and varieties.  It is important to have something exotic that requires a permit to be cut down and exported and is difficult to pronounce properly.  Good examples are Padauk, Wenge and Chakte Kok.  Ask the oldest person in the lumber mill how to pronounce them for you before you try and use them in conversation.

7 – Style.

We’re not talking about clothing here, though you should ensure you have a good supply of plaid shirts, jeans and suspenders.  Cargo pants are ok if you are more of the metrosexual type, but they should not look too new.  What we’re really talking about is furniture.

You’ll need to know the differences between Greene and Greene (the extra e on the end is really there to conjure up visions of The Olde Tyme Woode Shoppe), Stickley, Federal, Chippendale (not the cartoon or the dancers – though this makes for a good inside joke at woodworking shows) and Modern (what is modern?  I don’t know, your best bet is to ask George Walker).  Contemporary stars in the world of woodworking style include Maloof and Krenov, it is mandatory that you build something inspired by one of them early in your woodworking career.  ‘Inspired’ is a trendy way of saying that you copied the design but got the proportions wrong.

You should read a lot about one style and buy a coffee table book or two on the subject to keep your magazines company and intrigue your guests.

8 – Woodworking shows.

You must go to each and every woodworking show you can.  You should get to know the guys who work the booths, they’ll be at every show and being able to call them by name will make them more likely to give you a deal on whatever they are selling while giving the other show-goers a reason to check out your plaid shirt.  If the person in the booth has a name that matches the company’s banner behind them you’ll know you’ve found a quality vendor…spend more time here.  Avoid the booths with ‘booth babes’.  Well, you can go and you can look, but don’t buy anything from them, you’ll have buyer’s regret almost instantly when the booth babe hands you over to her grandmother who will run up your credit card faster than you can say “pins or tails first?”

You are required to buy something at the woodworking shows.  Clamps are a safe bet.  Buy them in pairs and when anyone asks you should respond with “you can never have too many clamps”.  Laughs and back slaps are guaranteed.  Enjoy this newly formed friendship, they might be the next person working in a booth that sells you a Kreg pocket hole jig, at discount!

9 – Woodworking schools.

You might think that with all the tools, magazines, books and shows that you’re a pretty good woodworker already.  You would be wrong!  If you’re going to fit in, you’ll need to take some classes.  It’s best to start small with a few hours at your local Woodcraft or Lee Valley store.  You will be in the company of other plaid clad Hybrid woodworkers looking to build skill or impress their spouse with a finely crafted pepper mill.  Once you feel better than the rest of the people attending these seminars, you need to move up.

In the world of woodworking we are fortunate to have two acceptable schools, one on each coast of the United States of America.

If you’re in the east, you are likely also a Norm-ite and get the added benefit of developing your New England accent by attending The North Bennet Street School in Boston.  Hopefully you bought a crew cab truck as you’ll be living out of it while attending this school unless you are already independently wealthy.

If you’re in the west, you are likely also a Neanderthal and will need to learn how to make Krenov inspired hand planes by attending The College of the Redwoods in California.  You’re main goal is to live as close as possible to The Gamble house in Pasadena, even though it is almost a 10 hour drive.  Your truck is still new, so you should be ok with that.

Other schools are ok, but none will get you the ‘street cred’ that these two will supply.  A cunning way of getting around this is to ‘visit’ said schools, allowing you to accurately say “I went to both The North Bennet Street School and The College of the Redwoods.”  No one will question you, they won’t risk alienating someone who might be the best woodworker they’ll ever meet.

10.  Actual woodworking.

This is by far the most important step.  All kidding aside, you’ll never be a woodworker if you don’t get out into the workshop and build something.  This week, bloggers galore are throwing their two cents worth in to help people get woodworking.  With the loss of shop classes in schools and the rapid offshoring of furniture making we are creating a generation of people who may never hold a hand saw, chisel or rough piece of timber.

If you know a young person who shows the slightest interest, take them into your shop and help them build something.  Let them take the lead and gently steer them if they are going off course.  Make the experience a positive one for them and be their biggest cheerleader when they show off their creation.

While you’re at it, get out there yourself.  Valentine’s day is next week.  Turn a pen, make a box or a gravity defying wine bottle holder for that special someone.  Make an end-grain cutting board…you have to make one sometime and the world needs more of these, trust me!

For more inspiration, jump on over to Tom’s Workbench for a roundup of this week’s Get Woodworking posts and be sure to say hi to Iggy.

Go…turn off the computer and throw on your plaid shirt…oh, and don’t forget, there’s no tool more  important than these->safety glasses!  Shop safety is the only thing you should be ‘worrying’ about, everything else is fun…get out there and have some fun!

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9 responses

  1. Great post, it was truly LOL. And yes, I’m guilty on all 10 counts.

    February 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm

  2. I’m voting this post as the Best Get Woodworking post. I’m in my office and have had several people wonder what I’m laughing about! Thanks, Ian!!! Great lunch read.

    February 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm

  3. Great post, Ian. I know all the styles except Modern. Do you think that’s an important one to know, or can I just skip it?

    February 8, 2012 at 10:11 pm

  4. Thanks guys, this was a fun one to write.

    As far as Modern is concerned, I’m not sure but I’ve heard that you can get an inkling of what it is by wearing a blue shirt while meditating in a recliner who’s name is unpronounceable due to all of the Js, Vs and the occasional Umlaut. That ought to at least give you an ikea…oops, idea.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:18 am

  5. Too funny…because it is sooooo true! And yup, I try to avoid saying, but whittled down to Fine WW and Popular WW. 😉

    February 12, 2012 at 12:04 am

  6. All kidding aside, this post helps a novice like put what I have been reading in perspective. Thanks!

    April 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm

  7. very informative and funny. I find woodworking a great way to relax. I took woodworking while in school and didn’t learn very much. unfortunately it was just a hangout class for kids who didn’t want to do much. My father in law got me back into it. But its good to know about events that take place for people who are serious about it.

    May 19, 2014 at 7:17 pm

  8. Jim Pell

    Great Website with wonderful references for woodworkers. Another great source of informations on Woodworking Education is Charles Neil’s site: http://www.cn-woodworking.com.

    August 11, 2014 at 8:01 am

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