Advice to My Younger Self

How to get a better start at woodworking

Did you ever wish you could climb into a time machine, travel back a few decades, and have a heart-to-heart with your younger self about woodworking? Or that you could at least send a letter back in time to help set yourself on the right path and perhaps save yourself some grief? What are the high points you’d try to drive home? We gave this time-travel challenge to a handful of experienced woodworkers we know. Here are their stories, along with a sprinkling of tidbits from a bunch of other folks.

A well-intended workshop interruption

Paul Anthony, age 62

Senior editor, Woodcraft Magazine 

Current home: Riegelsville, PA

Began woodworking professionally in 1974

Hey kid! Yeah, you with the long hair and earring. Could you stop planing for a few minutes so we could talk? Who am I? Would you believe me if I told you I’m you in a few decades? I didn’t think so. So let’s just say I’m the ghost of your woodworking future. Anyway, I don’t have much time, so listen up:

First of all, it’s great that you love woodworking. In addition to supporting you, it’s gonna teach you about creativity, focus, patience, pride, and humility. Some things you build will improve your life and the lives of those you love. And if you do your work well, it may outlive you to touch descendants you can’t meet. So here’s some stuff to think about as you make your way:

Soak up whatever knowledge you can from books, magazines, people—wherever it’s available. And, while you’re learning, don’t let anyone tell you that there’s only one right way to do things. Try everything. Revel in your mistakes. Remember that every screw-up is one more screw-up out of the way.

Speaking of screw-ups, quit kidding yourself that cheap tools are a bargain. In fact, the reason you’re struggling planing that board right now has nothing to do with blade sharpness, like you think. The problem is the poorly machined frog on that $25 smoothing plane. Same thing for those junk clamps over there that you’re always fighting during glue-ups. Better tools may mean fewer tools, but you’ll still come out ahead.

And those woodworking classes you’ve been considering? Take ’em! This business of learning absolutely everything the hard way is hobbling you big-time. Yeah, I know money’s tight, but let’s face it; there are certain, uh, recreational, expenses you could cut back on to save the money for classes.

There’s a whole lot more I’d love to tell you (like, WEAR EAR PROTECTION!), but I gotta go. You’d be tuning me out in a few more minutes anyway; I know you. So, back to the future! Oh yeah, make sure to check out that movie. It’s gonna be a good one.

Wise words from a stubborn fool

Ric Hanisch, age 72


Current home: Quakertown, PA

Began woodworking professionally in 1970

Hello there, young fellow. The good news, I’m here to tell you, is that you will surpass your expectation of not making it to 30. Your tail won’t be as bushy 50 years from where you stand now, but your tale will continue to gain a patina of nicks and gouges as well as depth and richness.

I know you’ve noticed that even as you study and gain skill with tools and think things through with maps and diagrams, you still make mistakes. It will be helpful to understand that those mistakes are your best lessons. Mistakes illuminate the way forward. Excusing mistakes by blaming bad luck is the real mistake. Recovering from mistakes and the unintended is an art in itself and one worth getting good at. Be assured, you are going to encounter the “Uh Oh” moment as frequently as the “Eureka” moment. And be aware that mistakes will happen not just in making things but in dealing with your fellow man as you develop as a person. Get good at building things and relationships. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of honest relationships with a network of folks struggling through their own mistakes.

While we’re thinking of relationships, get good at falling into the flow of working with others. To be able to pay attention to what is going on is key to working together. You’ll have noticed that everyone carries a unique and evolving skill set. You will find this enables you to be both student and teacher. When you are able to hand over the next tool or part with no words spoken, you’ll know you are being a help. Paying attention to adept hands using a tool can be worth a lot. I know you already regret not paying closer attention to Grandpop shaping iron when he had you cranking the forge as a ten-year-old.

Some mistakes come from acting on an assumption that proves untrue. Other times the root cause is faltering attention. Step away from those big power tools when you’re lagging or tired. You’ll want to have full use of all the fingers you have been graced with.

Keep making new things, and take heart in the notion that the act of making is a way to continue to grow as a human. Growth requires change, and you will change if you remain open to new experience. Go your own way you stubborn fool. See where it gets you!

Advice to a young woman woodworker

Nancy Hiller, age 56

Cabinetmaker, NR Hiller Design, Inc.

Current home: Bloomington, IN

Began woodworking professionally in 1980

Dear Nancy,

You don’t know me, but boy, do I know you. I’m your future self, writing from 2016; I won a fundraiser raffle at a science museum and got to send a letter to someone from my past. I chose you, knowing that your (our) life will be much better if you take the following advice to heart.

People are always telling you to take yourself less seriously. But you should really take yourself more seriously. I’m not talking about becoming a joyless drudge; what I mean is, your aptitude for design and building represents a viable lifelong profession. Stop seeing that work as something you just happen to be doing until you figure out your future.

I know you care about how others see you, even if you wish you didn’t. You’re happy dressing in old jeans and work boots in your 20s, knowing that people see you as an artist chick who works in a trade dominated by men. But you worry that once you hit 40, this look will suggest “uneducated slob.” Enough with the anxiety about how you’re going to look in middle age. If you’re so concerned about what people will think circa 2000 when you go to the grocery store with sawdust and glue on your clothes, invest in a shop apron to keep yourself clean.

Oh, and your hands won’t just be stained and worn; they’re going to get bigger. Like any other muscles, those in your hands will grow with use. There will come a day when a carpenter asks you out to a bar and remarks (loudly) that your mitts are as big and strong as his. That’s a compliment.

I know it seems inconceivable that you’ll reach 55, but you will. And by then, attitudes toward the trades will be very different. Sure, in 1980 people look down on furnituremaking as “mere” manual labor: an occupation for those who did poorly in school. But in 30 years, many tradespeople will have college degrees; the association of manual work with a lack of education will disappear. More importantly, the trades will be honored as work of genuine value—the kind that’s satisfying and meaningful to engage in.

It will even be considered cool to be a woman in the trades. Pretty ironic when you consider that the guys you work for now don’t even want their customers to know they employ a woman in their shop!

Don’t look back…but don’t forget

Andy Rae, age 58


Current home: Asheville, NC

Began woodworking professionally in 1970

To the young artist who inadvertently fell in love with wood and now wants to work it, this is your future talking. We only have a short time, but I want to share some stuff with you to help get you started off well.

Wood? Tools? Techniques? All important, yes, but paramount is your attitude. First, pay attention to all safety warnings, and learn what they mean. Your body, especially your hands, will thank you. Second—and I know you’re hungry for information—please take everything with a grain of salt: There’s always another way. That woodworker you admire who extols a certain approach or technique? By all means, try his advice; if it works, copy it and call it your own. If it doesn’t, stash the details in your apron pocket and practice something else. In time, you’ll find your own way, made from bits and pieces of your past, and then assembled and honed into a razor-sharp future. Remember: It takes time. Patience is my third counsel, grasshopper.

Now that your head’s on square, let’s list the nitty-gritty stuff.

  • Gain proficiency in the four essentials—design, material, joinery, and finishing. Competency comes first; nuance a delightful second.
  • Buy top-shelf tools. They’ll last longer, and you’ll be happier much longer.
  • Slow down. Speed is a fickle ally who complies only when your mind is calm. Walk to the tablesaw, don’t run.
  • Wear comfy clothes, and remember to tuck in your tie…or ponytail.
  • Splinters, cuts, and bruises shall pass. Skin loves to grow.
  • The final coat shows all flaws, so check your work in the beginning and in the middle—not at the end.
  • Welcome your kids into the shop. (Oops! Am I flouting some essential time-travel directive here?) It’s good therapy, and it makes ’em smarter.
  • Yes, you can make that… and it’ll take longer than you expected.
  • The business of woodworking is a hard way to make a living, particularly when a project balloons into extra hours. ’Nuff said.
  • Practice the organizational arts: I’m in your 14th woodshop as I write this.
  • Remember your woodworking ancestors. You’re standing on their shoulders, so take advantage of their collective wisdom. Some day you’ll pay it forward too.
  • Have fun! (You already know this, but it’s always good advice.)


We asked some other woodworking elders what they might note to their younger selves on a postcard sent back in time. Here are a few bits of pithy advice:

Right away, learn as much as you can about the nature of wood as a material. Knowing how to calculate wood movement, identify problematic wood, and gauge strength, along with understanding grain structure will make woodworking a lot more enjoyable and ensure that your work lasts for generations.

—Jeff Lohr, Schwenksville, PA;

Don’t be shy about taking on repair work—there’s a lot to be learned. Did the furniture fail through poor workmanship, faulty design, or wrong choice of materials? Or perhaps all three?

—Simon Watts, San Francisco, CA;

Work deliberately. Slow down, think carefully, and plan things out before picking up your tools.

Learn to simplify. Beware of over-engineering jigs and fixtures, which can be a waste of time.

—Bil Mitchell, Riegelsville, PA;

Power tools are great, but they can’t do everything, and they’re not particularly good at nuance. Learn how to use hand tools right away, especially planes. They’ll make your life a lot easier and your work a lot nicer.

—Geoff Noden, Trenton, NJ;

You’ll find that being a furnituremaker is a tough way to make a living, but it’s also very rewarding. You’ll be very fortunate in that a lot of people will like your work enough to buy it. Don’t forget to be grateful for that.

—Jim Probst, Hamlin, WV;

Learn how to sharpen, dammit! It’s not just some aggravating task to do as quickly as possible; it’s important. Investing time to learn proper techniques, and putting out money for good equipment is really worth it. Also, wear ear protection, will ya? This hearing loss is really a drag.

—Tim Snyder, Sandy Hook, Connecticut

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