The School of Woodworking

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This article is from Issue 98 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The lessons don’t stop at layout, joinery, and finishing

Having worked wood for some 45-odd years, my fat head is stuffed with knowledge about wood structure, joinery, geometry, fractions, tools, finishing, and thousands of other woodworking-related things. Much of it is even correct. But what amazes me is how many life lessons the craft has also taught me along the way. They include patience, resourcefulness, perseverance, self-confidence, and a lot of other things that no school teacher or textbook could have instilled in my rebellious young mind. 

Problem-solving skills rank high on the list, gained from things like having to design a multi-functional kitchen workstation that suits two cooks, that can be built in a crowded workshop with available tools, and on a specific budget. Oh, and it has to be done by Thanksgiving, in three weeks. Now there’s an equation for you.

Of course woodworking is also fat with physics lessons, as anyone knows who has toppled over while testing the balance of a new chair mock-up. And working in the shop can certainly demand mental alacrity. For example, when something falls off the bench, you have a split-second to decide whether or not to break its fall with your foot. Quick! Was that your expensive try-square or a freshly sharpened chisel? The wrong answer could be a lot more painful than a rap on the knuckles with a ruler. 

I don’t consider patience one of my defining personal characteristics, but I do know how to bring it into play when necessary, having practiced it during interminable sanding sessions. (The trick involves disciplined daydreaming.) And the perseverance developed while working my way through complicated projects has served well when faced with other daunting life challenges. And every victory—every early project that looked pretty good and didn’t fall apart—contributed to my budding self-confidence. 

I find that I have even developed language translation skills from interpreting various tool manuals. I’m not proficient at it yet, but I can almost make out the meaning of “In time of dismantling frequently, operate this procedure according to the opposite order of proper misadjustment.”

This craft can teach moral lessons too. One of the first pieces I ever built was a small side table for my parents. It was a humble piece, but that didn’t stop me from bragging about it. My mom loaded it with heavy potted plants before we sat down to dinner in the kitchen. In the middle of dessert, a loud crash came from the living room. Talk about “Pride goeth before a fall.” 

Anyway, I’m glad I enrolled in the School of Woodworking, and that I managed to pass most of the courses. Wouldn’t my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Schulte, be proud? I can almost hear her muttering, “Well I knew he had potential anyway…”


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