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10 woodworking lessons learned

Greetings internet friend, and welcome back to my blog! In this special, non-weekly-update post I want to write about something I’ve been doing for the last few weeks and some of the things that it’s taught me. If you couldn’t guess from the title of this post, that thing I’ve been doing is working with wood and in this post I’m going to share ten lessons that I’ve learned frommy time in the garage. I started a few weeks ago with a cheap set of chisels, a saw, a rusty old hammer, and a hand plane that I’ve never successfully used to cut any wood.1 I want to share what I’ve learned in a few weeks of messing around in my garage/shop. All of these stories are in the context of my first project, which is building a mallet (or hammer) for myself to use on future projects. My understanding from watching a few YouTube videos is that it shouldn’t take me more than a few days to finish this project. At this point I am almost three weeks in and despite working on the project six days a week, I have still not finished building that first mallet.2

My goal for this post is to share some of the things that I’ve learned in my few weeks of woodworking and the parallels they might have to life in general. I started working with wood because my wife wanted me to take up a hobby that did not involve technology. This is half of the reason I am doing everything with handtools instead of power tools. If have met me and/or spent some time with me in person, you might guess that the second half of the reason why I don’t want to use power tools is that I can be a little clumsy and figure it’s harder to REALLY muck myself up with hand tools than with power tools. As of now most of my injuries are splinter-related and I’ve only done one bit of damage to myself bad enough to require a bandaid, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

I just want to add one final note before I get started. I’ve not even been working with wood for a month, so it goes without saying but I’ll say it explicitly anyway - I’m obviously a total newb and don’t know what I’m talking about yet! These are just the things I’ve learned in my first month. In six months or a year I plan on revisiting this post to see what I agree with, and what I learned. It’s important to write this with the perspective of a Joey (in the context of the cinematic genius that is Hackers not like a baby kangaroo) - someone who is new and wide-eyed. I want to learn everything, and what I’m going to share with you is just what I’ve learned so far.

Lesson #1 - “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something” - Jake the dog, Adventure Time

Adventure Time is/was a great show that had many valuable lessons to teach us. One of those lessons I mention above, and I have absolutely been learning this in my garage. So far I am on the fourth version of the handle for my mallet, and either the second or third version of the head. If I am being totally honest with you, dear reader, when I first started I wasn’t entirely sure how to make the chisel cut the wood. I’d watched a few videos from Wood by Wright on YouTube, and you can find some of that content here, and then I went to Lowe’s and bought some tools and wood. I didn’t even realize that the first couple of tries building the handle was hard because I used the cheapest, crappiest, and most crummy free wood that was given to me. It was full of knots and was really hard to work with. Once I switched to better wood the job got substantially easier. I will go into more detail on this point in lesson three, but it is important to share it here as well because in the beginning of doing something you may not even realize you are doing something stupid.

I thought I was doing something cool and using the free wood to make my mallet. I thought that every time I used it, I’d be reminded of taking something free and making it into something I would use for years. What I didn’t realize is that by using free wood I was making the job much harder. In fact, I would have kept struggling against the crummy wood if I wouldn’t have mentioned something to my wife, who suggested my problem might have been with the wood. It’s also worth mentioning here that sometimes sharing your frustrations with a un-involved third party can help you find solutions you cannot see! Their fresh eyes can help you see the obvious error that is right in front of you, because my wife has helped me out in this capacity more times than I can count.

Lesson #2 - Some of the lessons you have to learn will be painful

Unfortunately this lesson was one that I am not surprised to have learned. When I first got started I went to the hardware store and bought two A-frames (sometimes referred to as a horse, or horses) and a sheet of plywood to use as a workbench. That first weekend was when I (so far) hurt myself the worst. I was holding the block of wood I was trying to carve in one hand and using the chisel in the other. My chisel hand slipped off the wood and jammed in to my finger which caused it to start bleeding.

Up to that point, the longest break I’ve taken so far in the woodworking project was the wait until my wife and I went to the hardware store to buy a cheap vice that I could affix to the workbench. Cheap vice is the right word, beacuse what we found was $20 and does a decent job but to be honest it really makes me want to finish this first project so I can get the lumber to build a real workbench. I’ve since taken the last two days off because I’ve been sore and my hand hurt from the metal part of the chisel pushing in to my palm, so I figured I’d give myself an extra day to let the callous build and not push too hard.

Lesson #3 - It is very important to start with good materials

Like working with wood, many of the things you do in life require you to use good material. It doesn’t have to be the best, but it can’t be the worst either. This lesson I learned when I was halfway through the third handle that I built for my mallet. I made an offhand remark to my wife that I wondered if the reason I was having so much trouble for the handle was that I was using cheap wood. I mentioned in lesson one that I thought it would be cool to use this piece of free wood that the dude at Lowe’s just let me have.3 My wife pointed out that might have been why I’d been having so much trouble.

When I switched to using better wood, many of the problems that I had been experiencing immediately went away. Don’t waste time using crappy material, invest in something decent. You cannot build as well or as easily on quicksand - why make life more difficult from the start? Think about your foundations in everything and decide if you want to use the cheapest or something decent to good.

Lesson #4 - Failure helps you succeed in the future

In my first few weeks of woodworking I’ve failed many times. I’ve mentioned a few times already starting over again multiple times on the mallet. Starting with a bit of really bad wood taught me how to work through knots as well as how hard to push the chisel. I learned that if the chisel stops and you wiggle it so it’ll keep carving the wood, the wood below that spot gets damaged so you have to go back and carve more out. While at first I was burned that I had keep re-starting the handle, in hindsight I learned more by fighting with that bad wood than I would have starting with something better.

Does this mean I am suggesting people who start woodworking, like I did, should grab really crappy wood and start hacking away at it? Absolutely not, learn from my mistakes! However, I would still not set your expectations sky high at first. By failing early, you can learn lessons that will greatly help you in the future. Failure also teaches you much more than early success will. I’ve written extensively on the subject of failure, including over on InfoSecJon’s website here by searching for “dcollins”.

Lesson #5 - It’s important to have the right tools to do the job

This lesson requires some caveats. Many people start getting interested in a new hobby and want to get all the tools right away, and I totally understand this impulse because I feel it too! However I have been taking the advice of Wood by Wright and only buying tools as I need them for each project. I never wanted to be in the situation of having a new tool and trying to figure out a project to use it for. Instead I’ve been waiting to buy tools that I know will help me immediately.

Having the right tools doesn’t just include getting the tools, it is also very important to keep them sharp. When you are only working with hand tools, having a dull blade makes an already difficult job much harder. I learned very quickly that starting work SHOULD include sharpening my chisels and if I don’t, it won’t be a very fruitful session or I’ll find myself sharpening after a few minutes of work anyway. This has required learning to sharpen which taught me about putting knicks in your blades, because I already did that not paying close enough attention - sorry 12 chisel!

It is here where I should also mention that starting with cheap tools is great. When you do something stupid and screw up your chisel, if the whole set cost you twelve buck you won’t be too burned when you do something dumb and muck up your tools. This also teaches you what not to do, which is even more helpful than doing things right the first time! You learn things like “metal on the handle will hurt your hand” and then your to buy list suddenly includes better chisels. :)

Lesson #6 - Things get faster as you learn more, but woodworking takes time

I have really hated learning this lesson, internet friend! My house is full of people who are impatient, but working with wood has taught me that you can’t always be impatient. While I will probably get faster in the future, using hand tools makes everything take longer, but also allows for more detail.

I have done almost everything so far with just my chisels and in doing this I’ve learned many things. From how to cut the wood, to the angles that you use when pushing the chisel through the wood, to whether you want any metal on the top of your chisel. As I mentioned at the end of the last lesson, if you are anything like me, you absolutely do not want any metal on the handle of your chisel. One of my favorite things so far is that these are only some of the lessons I will learn from woodworking!

Lesson #7 - You are getting stronger - you just don’t realize it yet

When you start something new, you aren’t going to be very strong at it, and this makes sense. Most people aren’t naturally gifted and just great at everything they first get started. With something like woodworking, you are building muscles and using parts of your body you don’t frequently use - I’m referring to myself here. After a few weeks of working, I’ve noticed that I can more easily push the chisel through the wood, and I’m noticing in the mirror that I’m starting to look like I’m in better shape. I realized this morning that woodworking seems to be getting a little easier because I’m getting stronger which in turn makes it easier to push the chisel through the wood. I’m also learning more about what knots look like and that it requires a bit more effort to deal with them. This is not something that I planned on when I started, but rather an unintended benefit.

Lesson #8 - You must clean up your area - whether at the beginning or the end

Before I got married, I frequently had a mess around me. One of the smartest and best bosses I ever had used to say, “genius is seldom tidy” and I mirrored him in having a messy workspace. While it may not make sense to the onlooker, I had a system and reason for the semi-circle of crap strewn around as I worked! When working with wood, you start to accumulate little jagged bits of wood as well as piles of sawdust. This isn’t a great environment to work in, and it’s important to somewhat frequently clean up that work area. You can either do it at the beginning or the end of each session, and while it might feel good to walk past a pile sawdust on the ground, taking a few minutes to clean up at the end will save you from doing it at the beginning. It also makes it easier to work without interruption if you are starting with a clean area. You could also extend this idea to sharpening your tools, I think it makes more sense to do this at the beginning of a session, that way the tools will be sharp when you need them, not sharpened to sit unused. I found that if I forget to sharpen the tool before I start, I end up stopping after a few minutes to sharpen it anyway, so I started just sharpening the tools at the beginning of each session.

I feel like this is a valuable career lesson in particular, but let us quickly move on to the next lesson I learned from working with wood the last few weeks.

Lesson #9 - It is alright to look to others for learning

Woodworking is a very solitary activity. For me it consists of standing in my garage with a fan pointed towards me (remember I live in the desert) and a Jimi Hendrix bootleg jam session playing on my phone. Every cut of the saw, every push of the plane, every shave of the chisel is just me alone. I am figuring out what works by trying things. This doesn’t mean that all my learning should be in a vacuum. Instead, it is alright to take time to watch and learn from others. In these pandemic times, it isn’t always an option to do that in person, so instead you can use the magic of the internet to watch and learn. I’ve shared the Wood by Wright channel above, but you can find whoever you like and watch them. Now is a uniquely wonderful time to be alive because you can learn from YouTube, you can buy a course through Udemy or Pluralsight, you can take an online course from a university or community college (sometimes for free), or you can ask people on social media. All of this on top of just finding space and doing it yourself.

All of that is to say this - you don’t have to do all your learning by yourself. It’s alright to look to others once you get to a certain point. It’s impossible to know everything and it’s also possible or probable you will run up against the limits of what you can figure out by yourself at a certain point. Once you are there, it makes sense to look stuff up. Once I finish building my mallet and go to build my workbench, I am going to need to learn more about how to join the wood. I’ve not needed to know too much about that at this point, but when I get there I’m going to do plenty of research so my joins turn out right. I would hate to lose weeks of work because I tried to figure out everything by myself.

When it comes to bigger projects, it is alright to look to others for learning. I think this is a good life lesson, not just for working with wood or you career, but life in general.

Lesson #10 - All of the lessons above can also be applied to your career

Because the readers of this blog are really sharp (that was not intended to be a woodworking joke, but ha!), I wouldn’t be the least bit (this also wasn’t a woodworking pun, I promise) surprised to know that you already figured out the headfake in this article. While it is absolutely about working with wood, all of these lessons can be applied to your career as well. I didn’t originally plan it out this way, but to quote the famous line from Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.”

Bonus motivation

If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I’ve been having a rough week. On Tuesday I failed the AWS Security Specialist exam I spent two months studying for. At first I was discouraged and spent the day pretty butthurt. However, our family motto is “never give up” and after my day of being glum I came up with a plan. I’m going to pass the AWS Cloud Practitioner exam sometime soon, then I’m going to studying for and pass the AWS SysOps Administrator exam and THEN I’m going to sit and crush the security specialist exam. Until then, I framed my failed test result and hung it above the door of my office for motivation. My wife and I joked that I’m going to make the top of the wall in front of me a “wall of failure” where I’m going to hang rejection letters and the like, as a way of constantly being motivated. This appealed to me as a salty old punk from a gritty Navy town, but I’m still on the fence about it. It might be a bit too salty, even for me, but I will think about it more and decide later.

Turning to something much more positive, on Wednesday morning I finished watching this talk that I saw recommended by @EvilMog in a Twitter thread that I alluded to in the last paragraph, and it really motivated and inspired me! It is a little long (76 minutes or so) but it was a tremendously valuable use of my time to watch it, and I highly recommend it to everyone! It was the culmination of a lifetime of lessons that the speaker wanted to share with the world, wherein he talks about accomplishing almost every one of his childhood dreams (and spoiler alert, after the talk he gets the opportunity to do the thing that he hadn’t done yet) and it isn’t easy to do that in under an hour! In fact, it might not even be possible. So if you want to pause reading this article to watch the talk, it’s just an article - you can and should do that. I’ll wait while you go watch it….

Alright cool, now I’m going to write the rest of this paragraph assuming you invested the time to watch that video. That means you still have time and one last chance to stop reading this and go back and watch the video. Nice, now I know that you REALLY watched it, this is what I have to say about it. I wrote out a litany of notes because there were so many valuable things shared. I used probably ten sticky notes and will probably keep them around for motivation. Some of the things I like the most were the following, and in no particular order:

I think the last two are the most important, at least to me. It was a really bitter pill to read that I failed an exam I spent two months cramming for. It felt like a gut punch to feel like flushing $300 right down the drain (since I would not be reimbursed by my company for failing a test). As I mentioned above, we do not give up in this family, so instead of sulking I came up with a plan. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. I’m going to use the experience training and studying for the security specialist to crush the AWS Cloud Practitioner exam. I’ve been screaming through the study of it, and I got an 80% on the practice test after only one day of studying.

If I would have just given up, I would have been out all that bread for nothing. Instead, I’m going to work twice as hard and earn three certifications instead of just one. I’m going to use the motivation of that failure to drive myself even harder. This leads to the last bullet point above, which I think is the most important. Brick walls are there for a reason, they let us prove how badly we want things. I get the pleasure of talking to my bosses boss today to tell him about my failure. While at first I was dreading it, I’ve created a strong plan. Rather than complain about getting tricked by the test, I am going to show him a way for no one else to make the same mistake, and provide more reasonable expectations going forward. I used my focus on the failure to develop a strategy so that no one else would need to be in the same position I am.

Between these final two quotes you begin to see the formation of a really powerful idea. This week should have and easily could have been full of failures. It would have been really easy to allow the first failure to ruin my week and stop getting stuff done. In addition to failing the test I’ve been dealing with tech fail all week on top of that. However, I also managed to finished a crucial draft of the most important work of my life, create a plan, and generated over a hundred pages of documentation at work. It would have been super easy to make this week a throwaway week and just be bummed, but again, we don’t give up in this family and instead it has been very productive!

At this point I’m starting to ramble, so let me clarify and close here. Woodworking has taught me many lessons about life in the few short weeks of doing it. I’m marking my calendar to revisit this essay towards the end of the year and write a reply, to share what I’ve learned in three months. After that I’m planning on looking at it in another three months, so basically once a physical quarter I will check in with this essay and write a new one. I want to continually be sharing what I’ve learned on this blog. In addition to reading my weekly updates, you’ll still be able to get philosophical essays, political rants, and updates about woodworking.

Thank you for taking the time to read this long essay. If you liked it, there are other even longer things coming out soon, so check back soon! Click here to check out the previous post, and I hope you have a very nice day and a most excellent weekend. Cheers!

Also, here is a link to the previous post - I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of what I had going above. :)

  1. I am eventually going to fix this, once I have some better sanding tools. I think I have an idea of why it isn’t working and I’m going to work on fixing it as a future project. I need to complete my mallet and workbench first, but afterwards I’m going to make sure I fix that damn thing until it works! [return]
  2. Two things about that. First - lolz! Second, this kinda feels like another one of those Phillip J. Fry, “time makes fools of us all” situations. [return]
  3. I don’t know if there is supposed to be an apostrophe there - I think so, but if there isn’t I’m sorry, I’m writing this in vim and I don’t have a spellcheck! [return]