12 July, 2016
Never, ever believe that you can't do something! The only limitations you're subjected to are those of your own making. Whatever it is that you want to learn, you can do it. To quote Neil Peart (I'm a huge Rush fan) "Throw off those chains of reason and your prison disappears." Examples.
When I was getting into woodworking in my early twenties, I had very basic skills. I've written about that subject in previous articles. I got caught in the "trap" of thinking about power tools. I had to have a table saw, a planer, a router, a router table, a biscuit joiner, a dovetail jig for the router... I was influenced by the resources available to me at the time. "The New Yankee Workshop", the endless stream of magazines and such. The internet hadn't really taken off at that point so these were my only references. I made do with the tools I had and the tools I could afford. It never occurred to me that I could do just as well without electricity. The younger version of me frequently said things like "The plan calls for dovetails and cherry. That's way beyond my skill level." I was limiting myself. I spent more time worrying about the jigs I would need to build for my power tools than I did making stuff. Cutting dovetails by hand? That was only for the masters. Hogwash!
As resources on the internet became more numerous I started to see new ways of doing things. I started to go out on a limb and just try new things for the hell of it. As far as woodworking is concerned, my watershed moments were learning how to sharpen tools and getting my first jack plane. I bought a set of decent chisels and a No. 4 smoothing plane early on but was disappointed with those tools. My "sharpening" was, again, limited by my own brain. I thought I needed sharpening jigs to get accurate tool geometry. Wrong. Once I finally learned what "sharp" means, I never looked back. Sure, I bought a sharpening jig, but I used sandpaper instead of stones for years. I also didn't worry about whether I was getting 30 degrees on that chisel or 29 degrees. I stopped myself from getting bogged down by so many unimportant details. I learned what "sharp" actually was and then I taught myself to sharpen tools consistently. Period. The writings of Christopher Schwarz led me to the jack plane. Through him I learned that I could flatten boards and/or reduce their thickness with a jack plane. Learning about the use of jack planes led me to some other basic tools. The marking gauge for one, winding sticks another. Both of those simple items (easily made) worked in conjunction with a jack plane to make stock flat and true. That exercise led into hand saws and the maintenance of hand saws. The saws led into dovetails. Dovetails, marking gauges and sharp chisels led into new things. Things snow-balled. It's to the point where I hardly use any power tools for woodworking. I'm not crazy though. The table saw isn't going anywhere. But, I threw off the chains I had put on myself and just ran. "I like that bookcase. I'm going to make it with nothing but hand tools." So I did.
I've also been carving wooden spoons for a few years now. I never thought I would have been carving spoons. I tried it once back in the '90s while on a camping trip, but I was trying to replicate what I saw in my Mom's kitchen. Factory produced spoons. Not exactly the right thing for a young man with a pocket knife. Fast forward about fifteen years and I start seeing (and following) a blog by some guy named Peter Follansbee. I'm not going to explain Peter Follansbee here. Google is your friend. Anyway, I read his articles on spoon carving and it caught my interest. "Oh, so you rough it out with a hatchet. Makes sense. Hook knife? What the heck is that used for... Oh, yeah. scooping out the spoon's bowl." I got a couple of hatchets off Ebay but couldn't find a hook (or spoon) knife. This was just before spoon carving gained popularity and just before the cottage tool makers sprang up. So, I made my own hook knife. From experience I had gained from junior high and on, I knew that I had to start with some sort of tool steel. Something that could be hardened and would hold an edge. I found a bunch of sharpening steels (used with kitchen knives) in a box of junk someone dumped at the shop. Perfect material and it was free. I had never made a knife before but I knew how to anneal steel, work it into shape and then harden it. The first attempt didn't work, but I learned from it. The second attempt worked so well that I still use that hook knife. I made a couple more hook knives just to try different things. One was good, the other not so good. I then proceeded to make spoons. Each spoon I made taught me different things. I also learned that I could grab a branch that had fallen off a tree and make spoons out of it. I gave them away as gifts. I was not prepared for how well they were received. People love handmade items like spoons. Each one is different. I've never even had another person's hand carved spoon in my hands. I only read about the subject and then went for it. A hatchet, a couple of knives (and a spokeshave which is easier on my aging hands than a lot of knife work) and some fallen limbs... It's satisfying for me and it makes other people smile when I give them a spoon.
Metalworking has been mostly the same story. Aside from the core skills learned in school, I haven't had anyone to show me things. It's all been from reading. Try something new, fuck it up, try again. Keep pushing the limits and learn new things. There's no reason you can't do the same. If you find something that catches your interest research it a little and then do it. You'll fuck up often but you'll learn from those mistakes and move on. Each time you learn something, you'll find other things you weren't aware of and that will lead you down other paths. Just don't limit yourself.
You can build furniture with power tools, you can build furniture with hand tools or maybe mixing the two. It doesn't matter. Just try it. You may fuck up and have nothing but firewood but rest assured, you're not the only one. I have all sorts of projects that have never seen the light of day. Just remember, there's more than one way to skin a cat.
Some woodworking resources. Christopher Scwarz/Lost Art Press, Peter Follansbee, Paul Sellers, Roy Underhill.
Some metalworking resources. Keith Fenner, Keith Rucker, Adam Booth, Tom Lipton, MrPete222 aka Tubalcain.