My journey into (hand tool) woodworking

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mikefab

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Hi everyone, I ‘ve been ‘lurking’ around here for the last couple of years, and now it is time for my first post, which is a long one!

It’s been a long and interesting journey into predominantly hand-tool woodworking, complicated by the vast array of sometimes conflicting information and opinion which can be found online… I hope that by writing this down, it may help other people who are starting out to perhaps do things in a more efficient manner, and maybe save a bit of cash and frustration along the way. And if not, then it will just be cathartic for me!

2 years ago my wife and I decided that we’d like to take up woodworking, and thought that we should get some tools to get going with. We found an article by David Savage on choosing hand tools, and bought his DVD on the same subject. We looked at his introductory courses but £750 x2 seemed like a lot of cash, so we bought some more technique DVDs from him and some tools instead and decided to go it alone. At the time, the DVDs seemed to go into great detail, and emphasised a real need for precision, but didn’t actually point us towards making anything apart from a half-lap joint and two bits of wood butt-jointed together.

Then we got distracted with refitting our bathroom and a couple of other rooms. Then we moved to the far end of the country for a new job, and had a baby, so things went on hold for a bit.

I picked things up once we had settled in the North, and decided that I needed a workbench. I spent ages poring over the Chris Schwarz book, and eventually settled on something along the lines of the Holtzapfel Bench, but with a tool well and an old Record Vice. I’d fallen in love with the idea of hand-tool woodworking, but totally had the wrong end of the stick. I built the bench from rough sawn timber, preparing it all by hand. I’d read all of the online raves about setting up planes to make gossamer-thin shavings etc, but hadn’t realised that didn’t really apply to the early stages of timber preparation, so preparing all that timber took a long time! In fact the bench took 6 months to build around work and family commitments, but it came out nice in the end…

Then I discovered Paul Sellers. First of all his blog and freebie Youtube videos, but then his Woodworking Masterclasses website. I signed up at £10/month and have followed through various projects (dovetail boxes, chopping board, coffee table is in progress). WWMC was a bit of a revelation at first, it was great to be able to follow through step by step and actually make something. Sellers keeps things nice and simple and makes it all very achievable, but I don’t much like the style of his projects. I’d meant to go on his introductory course, but having followed the videos through I decided that it would be pointless to spend £900 on that. Paul likes to repeat that he can make anything with 3 joints (tenon and mortice, dovetail, and housing dado) and 10 tools, but that does make his videos a bit limited after a while. There are only so many times that you can watch someone chisel a knife-line into a wall, and I didn’t feel the need to spend a week watching him do that in person after seeing the videos.

I followed Paul Sellers for quite some while before twigging that all his stock was prepared by machine. Doh! He spends a lot of time promoting the ‘hand-tools only’ concept, and says that all you need is a smoothing plane to prepare boards, but often neglects to mention that he has a planer, thicknesser, table-saw, bandsaw etc to get all that wood ready. I’ve now found a local joinery firm who kindly supply me with hardwood, and they will also machine it to spec. That will make building stuff a much less punishing experience, without the need to spend weeks getting wood ready for joinery. Once we are finally settled somewhere I definitely hope to get a bandsaw and planer-thicknesser. Even Chris Schwarz is happy to admit he uses machines to take the drudgery out of his woodworking. Ultimately, I want the flexibility to be able to prepare and choose my own boards for each component, which impacts on the final look of a project.

My wife had been encouraging me to do a course, so I looked back to the David Savage courses. I quite fancied the box-making course, but the website had a stark warning about the risk of doing this without doing the previous courses. I phoned David up and spent a while chatting through my previous experience, and he was happy to arrange a jewellery box course for me. I was a bit nervous about going, as his writing sometimes gives the impression that he is rather cantankerous and possibly even totally intolerant. I spent the week before re-watching his DVDs, practicing dovetails, and the day before I travelled I sharpened all my tools to the best of my ability.

I met David when I arrived at Rowden and he was charming. Really not the irascible tyrant I thought he might be! He checked over my tools and they seemed to pass the sharpness test. Having said that, this didn’t stop him teaching me his method of sharpening (freehand on a waterstone with fairly frequent regrinding on a bench-grinder), and I have to say I am a total convert. My tools now get sharper, quicker, and difficult timbers which I thought were near impossible to plane cleanly at home are now being planed beautifully! The bench-grinder is on order and never again will I waste an evening rubbing a blade up and down on numerous sheets of coarse abrasive paper! He was pretty surprised to hear I’d not yet learnt to sharpen my saws (“as far as I’m concerned you don’t own that saw until you’ve sharpened it yourself, and I’m going to teach you now…”!!), I think this highlights the flexibility of the course.

The course was absolutely fantastic with excellent one-to-one tuition from two experts (David and Ed Wild). They took me through building a beautiful oak box by hand, from precision dovetailing to lining it with cedar and polishing with shellac and wax. It was so good to spend a week in a real workshop, working with people who do this stuff for a living. I think that it is easy to get some funny ideas just reading forums and websites, and everyone who writes online has some sort of premise or prejudice which isn’t always declared. Spending time with professionals and students training to be professionals just injected a bit of reality into my online world and was totally inspiring. I really enjoyed the opportunity to wander around the workshops and see all the various projects in progress.

My real regret is that I didn’t go on a course sooner. I’d really recommend the courses at Rowden for anyone who is starting out. For a low-budget option, the woodworking masterclasses site is pretty cheap at £10/month and it will get you through your first few projects but will only take you so far. I reckon the David Savage recommendations on tools (free info on website, and a detailed DVD) are pretty good. He makes the assumption that stock preparation will be done by machine, and that you will use a router for some tasks. Sellers also makes some sensible tool suggestions (there is a “good tools for cheap” series on his blog), again with the undeclared assumption that machines are used for stock preparation. His focus is on buying vintage tools on ebay, but be warned that you may have to spend a lot of time restoring those tools. Obviously that decision will be dictated by your cash/time balance, but for me buying new was the way to go.

I still love working with hand-tools, and that will remain the focus of my woodworking, but there has to be some efficiency too. From now on I will get timber planed close to final size until I have the means to do this myself. The thing about a hobby is that you only have a limited time to enjoy it so for me it makes sense to spend time on the good stuff not the grunt work. Chris Schwarz suggests getting a cheap thicknesser (preparing reference face and edge by hand) in his Anarchist’s Tool Chest book, and perhaps that would be a good compromise which lets me retain control of board selection for future projects.

So in summary:
• There is too much conflicting information on the net!
• Pure hand-tool-only work is very labour-intensive!
• Get some tuition if you haven’t got someone else to teach you.

I hope that this is useful to someone out there….

Sorry I can't insert any links to the courses and blogs - I don't have permission to do this yet. I’ll try and post some pictures at some point.

Mike
 

StevieB

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Thanks for an interesting and informative post. I knew Paul Sellers from youtube but hadn't realised he did a subscription course as well. I believe Rob Cosman was offering something similar a while ago, but it was more expensive per month.

Steve
 

custard

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I'd second your recommendation for training, but unfortunately I can't endorse your David Savage recommendation. In fact the whole subject of training is a bit of a mine field. There are some terrific training options out there (Peter Sefton and Waters & Acland spring to mind), but sadly there is also some truly dreadful training on offer.
 

mikefab

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I'd not come across Waters and Ackland, rather closer to home than North Devon, although when we first started looking at the Rowden offerings we lived just down the road from there. I'm sure when it comes to training different styles and setups suit different people. Thanks.

Mike
 

Silverbirch

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Really interesting to read about your "journey" so far. I often read about the various courses which are on offer, but it`s not often you hear from anyone who has actually done one!

Ian
 

mikefab

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Here are some pictures of the finished box. I have more taken along the way, but perhaps they would live in the "Project Tours" forum.
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Thanks for looking!
Mike
 

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Scouse

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Hi Mike, that's a really nice piece of work and a great first post too. It's refreshing to find someone at the beginning of their woodworking journey who has a realistic and well researched outlook.

I think your summary just about summed up hobby and semi-pro woodworking in three lines; the net is both a blessing and a curse when you start out, as someone who worked exclusively with hand tools for twenty years, it is hard work (!) but worthwhile, and training is worth it's weight in gold, as long as it is the right quality training as Custard pointed out.

Looking forward to seeing more of your work

El.
 

Wabiloo

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custard":ydmdmewc said:
I'd second your recommendation for training, but unfortunately I can't endorse your David Savage recommendation. In fact the whole subject of training is a bit of a mine field. There are some terrific training options out there (Peter Sefton and Waters & Acland spring to mind), but sadly there is also some truly dreadful training on offer.

Would you care to elaborate? I've been very tempted by a week course with Paul Sellers or David Savage, and was about to book when I saw your post...
 
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