Letter to a Young Woodworker


It’s a common refrain among novice woodworkers that there is a lot of contradictory advice out there. Hand tools vs. machinery. Oil stones vs. water stones vs. Scary Sharp. Japanese vs. Western saws, chisels, planes, etc. Roubo or not Roubo (that is the question). Local vs. exotic woods. Professionals vs. amateurs.

The potential for polarization can be off-putting, and I’ve spoken to novices over the years who find our tribalism intimidating. (That tribalism is often compounded by the limits of our ability to communicate over the Internet.)

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. The craft of woodworking is complex and diverse, full of ways to grow and learn. It’s a life-long pursuit, and few paths are patently wrong. As individuals we make choices that further us on our paths. Each of us must make our own choices, but we need not see each other’s choices as repudiation of our own. (The converse is also true: we need not seek each others choices as endorsement of our own.)

While there are few patently wrong ways to get started, there are some pitfalls and some false starts that well-intentioned woodworkers can guide you past. Here is what I would say as one of those well-intentioned woodworkers:

Find some friendly people who are excited about their craft. Maybe it’s your local woodworker’s guild. Maybe it’s a buddy from work. Maybe it’s a family member. Learn what you can before investing too much in your own tools.

Don’t spend your money on cheap tools. After an exciting start in my dad’s shop, I tried to fill my own shop with the first tools I could afford, and struggling with them was worse than not having them. If you don’t have a generous family member, that’s reason enough to join your local guild. The Kansas City Woodworkers’ Guild has a variety of excellent, well-maintained tools, both machines and hand tools, and plenty of members who are excited to share what they know.

Don’t worry about not knowing something. This craft takes a lifetime to learn, and there are many ways to achieve excellent results. Be open to coaching. A good coach will help you learn quickly. A good coach is not necessarily a master of the craft. The best coaches are observant, analytical, communicative, and able to adjust their demeanor to match your temperament. Most of all, they are generous with their time and experience.

Choose projects that fit (and advance) your skill level. Projects that are too easy lack challenge and leave you bored. Projects that are too difficult lead to anxiety. Moderately challenging projects grow your skill and leave you feeling excited.

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