This is a section from A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects, which is available on Amazon. Over the next couple months, you will be able to read the entire book, and I hope that you like it enough to get tour own copy. Enjoy.
Looking For Commonalities
One way of making sense of your research is to look for commonalities in what you consume. These are indicators that you are seeing the best methods, because they are being used by more than one person.
The most commonly used methods are not necessarily the only way to make something, but they are common for a reason, and that’s because they work. As you research and consume information, looking for and noting these commonalities is a good way to know you are on the right track.
As you research, especially in the beginning, you are going to see a dozen ways to do just about everything. It can be a little tricky to figure out what way is the right way, or really what way is the best way.
Don’t worry too much, because if you can see the project completed using the methods that are described, then you know that their method has some merit. Another thing you can do though is to look for a couple sources that are using the same method, and see how their results look.
Odds are that the people using the same method are using a more common method, and that is comforting because it will likely have a very high success rate if you were to do the same thing in your shop.
Using methods that are widely accepted is a sure way to have success on your project, and if you do run into some trouble, you have more people that use the method that can assist you with questions, and get you out of trouble.
Another thing that commonalities can teach you is what type of wood you should use for a certain project. If most people are making humidors out of Spanish Cedar, then you can most likely be sure that the species choice is not going to have any ill effects on the project.
Conversely, if you can’t find anyone making a project with that species, then it’s more likely the species will cause some problem. There is a chance that nobody has ever made the project that way before, but with nearly seven Billion people in the world, the odds of you or I being the first person to make a Balsa Wood paperweight is probably pretty low.
Commonalities and lack of information can teach you a lot about what you can safely do as a woodworker, and what you might want to avoid. As you read several methods on making something, you will see the common themes or materials, or tools pop out at you.
When this happens, remember these connections and use the information for designing and creating your project.
There are typically several good ways of doing just about anything in woodworking. Just because something is common, does not mean it’s the only way that the task can be accomplished.
The thing that common practices do for a new woodworker is alleviate the stress that you may feel as you move forward not fully believing that the choice you made is the best one.
Commonly used techniques help reduce this anxiety, and in turn they allow your entire brain to focus on making the project the best that it can possibly be.
The Hunt Gets Harder Over Time
Really enjoy the learning process in the beginning of your woodworking journey, because this is the most impactful that it will ever be.
In the beginning, everything is an information explosion, because you are brand new and know next to nothing.
However, over time, as you learn more about your craft, the frequency of encountering mind blowing knowledge drastically decreases.
When you know nothing, everything new is a powerful piece of information. Over time, the powerful stuff comes much more infrequently, and you have to dig deeper to find the gold.
The finer the knowledge, the fewer the number of people that know about it. With less people knowing about it, there are less chances that any of them will put that information online or in a book.
In order to find these gems, and continue your learning process, you need to be ready to dig deep, and hold out for the less frequently shared tips and tricks. They are out there, and you can find them.
The big trick is to read deeper, and not skim. If you only gloss over the headlines and the bullets, you will miss the hidden gold in the details. After a while of learning, the headlines and bullets will do next to nothing for you.
It will be the details where you find your next information burst, and where you advance yourself as a woodworker.
When you buy books, you see this phenomena first hand. The first book you buy is a game changer. You learn new things from nearly every page, and you feel like your brain just can’t hold in all the great information.
It almost feels like you may never need any other resource, because the first one is filling in so many gaps in your process and understanding.
The second book will be transformational too, but not nearly as mush as the first book. This is for books on the same subject, like if you were to buy a few books on how to make a violin.
The third book is even less amazing, but you should still be able to find good information throughout. At least one thing per chapter for sure at this stage.
As you progress into books four, five, six, and so on, you find that you are pulling less and less from the text, and finding more and more repeats. This is because you have learned so much about violin making (or the subject that you are reading about) that you have very few gaps that need to be filled in.
You already learned the major process from the first couple books. You learned some finer points from the next couple, and then you only added a few more things with the next few.
The gems are still in there, but you already know them from another book. This is where you can get discouraged, and stop looking for new information all together. Make sure when you get to the top end of the project you are learning about, that you keep going, even if the process is slower.
It will take longer, but over time you will still unearth knowledge that will make you an even better guitar maker, pen maker, cabinet maker, or whatever style of woodworking that you enjoy.
You can read a little less if you want to, but always keep the door to learning open. Once you stop learning, you stop advancing, and eventually you will get bored of your project, or jump to something else when you were so close to being really great at the first project.
Something that you can do when the hunt gets really hard is to switch gears to a complimentary subject that is closely related to your main subject. This way, you still learn something that will advance your project, but you open a new level of learning so things are newer, and you make more discoveries more often.
An example is to research epoxy finishes if you are into pen making. Yes, it’s not pen making exactly, but an epoxy finish is a nearly permanent finish that will preserve a handmade pen nearly forever.
If you could apply a finish like that, and buff it to a really high sheen, you could make better pens, which is the goal.
Even though finishing and pen making are different things, the one makes the other better, so they are related, and worth studying. You might also look at studying resin casting, so you can make your own blanks.
Again, not pen making, but with your own cast blanks you could make very unique and desirable pens. This advances your pen making craft, and lets you have more fun learning something new in the process.
Another thing you can do if you are looking for more learning and you have gotten nearly to the end of your primary hobby is to look for a book on theory or a book that is about a famous maker of the project that you are interested in.
Learning about people, and learning about theory is a nice way to ignite the learning passion again, and still be inside the same subject.
For stringed instruments, there are lots of theory books that explain how the item works, how the vibration is created, transmitted, and finally turned into sound that we hear.
They have tests, data, research, and a whole list of things that would make a brand new instrument maker’s head explode.
However, for the experienced maker, this is all new information that can be directly used on the next build, or even the current build. It’s thinking stuff, not step by step stuff, but that’s the point you are at when the step by step stuff doesn’t do it for you anymore.
Learning about famous makers is another way to continue your education. Lots of famous woodworkers have their own books, and they discuss the lore, love, and mystery that surrounds the subject.
If you want to read someone waxing passionately on the virtues of the craft, these books are for you.
Over time, you are going to have to search wider and dig deeper for more knowledge. Make sure that when this time comes, you continue your search for good information, and keep on learning.
It’s through continuing education that you, little by little, become better each and every day. It’s the slow progression that eventually turns you into an expert woodworker.
My Personal Research Method
This is my personal research method, in detail, and is the exact process that I use to plan out a new project that I have never made before.
It’s a framework that you can bend and shape to the actual project you are attempting to learn, but if you follow this method you can be assured that you will have a working method in the end. This will mean a higher chance of success when you finally make the project.
This method was born when I was watching a very long movie about some very short people and a powerful ring. The characters all smoked these beautiful and interesting looking long stemmed tobacco pipes, and throughout the movie I wondered how they drilled a long hole through a curved pipe stem.
I practically missed the whole rest of the movie, because I was working out details inside my head on how I was going to make a stem like that. Of the entire project, the stem seemed to be the part where I was going to have the most trouble.
Even having not made a tobacco pipe before, I was confident that I could drill a couple holes in a wooden block and make that work, at least for appearances.
So began the research process. I scoured the internet looking at how pipes were made, and even found a few places that made and sold long stem pipes similar to those that I saw in the movie.
I was able to see that the stems were steam bent, in most cases, which I was not capable of doing in my shop, so I needed another method. I then started looking at things made from bent wood, and found some laminated rocker glides.
That’s what gave me the idea to make the stem from two long laminated pieces of wood, and glue them together in a curved press like they do when they make rocker glides.
The first hurtle was behind me, and the research continued for several more days as I had to figure out how to drill a pipe blank, what the best wood was for a pipe, how to attach the stem and bowl, and what to finish the pipe with in the end.
Once I had my ideas, it came time to plan it out on paper, at full size. Once I had my working design, it was off to the shop to make the real thing.
This is the condensed version of that process, and in reality it took me several weeks of looking online, reading about pipes, looking at a couple in person, and buying a book on pipe making, which was not as helpful as I anticipated.
It was through this marvelous process though that I was able to make the project with confidence, because I knew that my research was solid, and that I was going to have a good looking long stem pipe at the end of all my efforts.
That’s what kept me going, even when I was a little rough on some of the new woodworking skills that I needed to make the pipe.
The fact that I had done so much homework, and that I knew the methods and steps were sound is what allowed me to have a great looking and fully functioning pipe on the very first round.
My research method nearly always starts with an idea, or a curiosity. In the case of the pipe, I was curious about how they drilled such a long hole through eighteen inches of stem.
In other projects, it came from seeing something I liked, and deciding to make a little better example for myself. The beginnings are always from an idea, which is more than likely going to be the same for you.
The steps you take in between may be different based on your personal preferences, but as long as you follow something loosely resembling my research method, you can be assured that you will at least end up with a middle of the road example of the project you intended to build.
Once you have an idea, it’s time to begin looking at examples of the project. If you are thinking about making cabinets, look into cabinet making online. For the first while, just look at pictures.
Look at finished pictures, and pictures of the building process. In this phase, you are trying to learn about the process, and identify any areas that you might need to find further resources about.
In the cabinet example, you may not have a ton of experience with a router table and raised panel bits. You can switch course and start learning about that part of the build, because if you are going to make nice looking cabinets, you can use a raised panel router bit set to accomplish that.
Once you knock out the extra learning, return to the main project and look for more roadblocks that you will need to overcome. As you run into each of these, perform more targeted research until you are confident that you can perform the needed step, and then go back to the project again.
Repeat this over and over until you have identified and solved all of the problems that you believe you will encounter in the process of building the project.
Once you have done that, go through once or twice more, watching different videos, or reading different sites, and try to make sure that you did not miss anything really important.
The goal of the initial look is to figure out the materials, joinery methods, fasteners, glues, commonly used species of wood, and anything else that you need to know in order to make the project.
Leave no stone unturned, and be able to answer any question about how the project is made.
The last thing you want to do is end up half way through a project and have to solve a big problem. Small problems are going to come up, but big problems should be planned out long before the first cut is made.
At best, you will lose some time as you figure out what to do in order to get around the problem, and at worst you may run into something that you can’t solve, and it either severely delays the project or stops it all together.
Now that you have the process figured out, it’s time to move on to the design. This is where having a swipe file, and following woodworkers on social media is important.
Now, all you do is look through the example pictures, the things that you really liked, and the things that you would like to design out of the piece.
Select the parts that you like, and remove the parts that you don’t. Start drawing on paper, and sketch out the plan for your piece.
This initial plan does not have to have anything more than loose measurements. If you are thinking about a 24” by 36” box, there is no need to factor in the board thickness and the joinery to change the values at this point.
Right now, you want to get an overall look at the built project in the paper world. It’s also a good idea to sketch it out proportionally to what it will be in real life. It does not have to be full size, but scale it down so that you can see it as it will be shaped when built.
Work out any design issues that you have at this point. Make sure that you like how it looks, and that it has the features that you want. This part of the process can take a while, so don’t worry.
Now, take your working drawing and plan out how to make your joints, and what your exact measurements will be. From there, you can extract a cut list, which is just a list of the pieces and the sizes that you will need. Then, you can start building from your plan and your cut list.
This is a basic overview of my method, and you may have a different approach that you develop over time. As long as you get good results from your research, you are doing the right thing, even if your methods are different.
If you work on a new project, try to do some research in the beginning. This way, you can avoid mistakes, and build a better project faster.
This method works really well for me, and it fits in with the things that I already do as habit. I keep a swipe file already, and have done so for a number of years. I also follow lots of woodworkers online, and look at lots of pictures of completed projects.
This gives me a constant barrage of woodworking inspiration and information to jump with.
My start up time is faster than many others, because I consume so much information all the time. I may not have made a rolling pin before, but I sure have watched one being made, and learned about the materials needed.
I can’t say that I actually made one, but I am already ahead of someone that has done zero research. My journey will be shorter, and over time as you develop the same habits, yours will be shorter too.
This is where the planning phase and the research phase intersect. Some amazing things can happen when you consume a lot of information about woodworking on a daily basis.
After a while, you are going to be exposed to so many projects that it almost feels like you have some experience making them. While you don’t have the physical experience, the mental head start is worth a lot of time and energy.
As a chronic researcher, you will notice that you are involved in a lot of projects through your reading, videos, and the people you follow. This builds up a vault of information and you are constantly adding to your knowledge base about woodworking.
Watching someone make a goblet on the lathe a few times, seeing how the blank is glued up, and learning about the tools puts you in a better position to plan. This is because it’s not the first time you have seen the process. Again, the massive consumption of information puts you ahead.
Where someone else might have to start at the researching and figuring out stages, you can skip right past those and go right to planning. You, because of the information you choose to surround yourself with are now able to draw from that source.
You already know the tools, the materials, and many of the techniques. Now, you get to start from farther ahead than others who are just trying the project for the first time.
Even in the beginning, you can build up a vault of knowledge and be able to pull from it as needed. It does take time, but there is no better time than now to start the learning process.
Some people plan a lot, and others hardly plan at all, but the best land in the middle. You can lose a lot of time planning too much, especially if you are not good at making decisions and sticking with them.
You can also plan too little and end up ruining a lot of wood as you try to figure it out on the fly. While these are the two extremes, they illustrate the pitfall that each extreme leads towards.
There is a happy medium to be found between the two styles, and over time you will find what makes you the happiest as far as researching a project. The important part is that you at least do some looking around to see what you need to make a project that fits within the parameters of what is considered normal.
For example, a quick bit of research will tell you that a baseball bat is not made from Pine or Balsa wood.
These woods are too soft, and even though the bat may look great, the project will not function as intended. If you go right into a project like that because you thought it didn’t matter, or you though it looked like Pine on TV, then you are going to be very disappointed when you hit your first pitch and the bat breaks into pieces.
Sometimes, a very small piece of information is really important to the build. If you do nothing for research, then you risk having put in a ton of effort that will not create a positive outcome.
You owe it to yourself, and your frustration level to research as much as you can before you start a project, simply in order to work out the design kinks.
From a few simple searches, you will find out what the project is normally made from, what kinds of joints are used, what fasteners, and what tools you will need.
From there you can design the project, work out the details, develop a list of pieces you need, and then start building. It does take a little longer up front, but in the end you will have a much more pleasing building experience.
Even spending an hour just going over the basics mentioned already can save you that hour many times over. A loose plan with at least the wood type, joinery type, tools used, and rough size is a good start.
Make it a habit to get at least those bits of information figured out every time. After the success you see from that small amount of research, it will lead you to wanting to know even more before you start.
Nothing Beats Time in the Shop
Of all the academic learning that has been discussed, it’s important to know that there is nothing that can substitute for time spent in the shop. All the books in the world will not make you a cabinet maker until you actually make a cabinet.
You will be very educated on the processes, materials, and tools, but until you bring forth a completed guitar from your own two hands, you are not a cabinet maker.
The same goes for research, coming up with ideas, and making project lists. Until you actually go out into the shop and make some dust, you will only be able to advance your skills so far.
The shop is where you take the academic learning and start building hands-on experience. Through the combination of these two learning methods, you end up with woodworking wisdom.
I had a guitar teacher that once told me that there are two ends to the spectrum of guitar playing. Those that play from their head, and those that play from their heart. A head only player knows every scale, every mode, and every possible technique to play the guitar perfectly.
The heart player knows none of that, he only knows what sounds good. While the heart player may not be able to play a C major scale in the first position, the head player struggles playing something that people enjoy listening to.
He said that as a new guitar player, instead of playing from your head or your heart, you should play from your neck.
That piece of advice is very easily transferred to woodworking in general, because a head full of information is nice for conversation, not very practical. Also, a shop full of projects without being able to communicate effectively and intelligently about the craft is no good either.
Instead of being a hundred percent passion or a hundred percent academic, try to land somewhere in the middle.
In order to reach the middle from all of the research and reading that you have been doing so far, take some of that learning into the shop. Even if you are only thinking about trying one technique, or working through one set of directions.
Go out and try that one thing, and start building physical skills and muscle memory for woodworking.
Most people live really busy lifestyles, and woodworking is not a full time job. As a hobby, the time that you have in the shop may be limited, though you may find that you can do much more research and academic learning.
This is still a good thing, because the more you know, the easier the hands-on part will be.
Feel free to spend the smaller time slots reading or watching videos, just remember to schedule some shop time to try out those new ideas.
Armed with a lot of information, you will avoid more mistakes in the beginning, and you will have a much easier time accomplishing the task.
If you can get a couple small sessions a week in the shop, or maybe only one, you can apply that hard studied knowledge and become a better woodworker. Plan your time, and you will have the time you need.
Part 29 – Wrap Up
I hope you liked Part 29 of A Beginners Guide to Woodworking: Helping New Woodworkers Make Better Projects. As you can see, this is a different kind of beginner woodworking book, and I encourage you to get a copy for yourself so you have it all in one place.
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