Friday, 9 September 2011

Learning Curve - Habits

As a none practical, handyman, DIY type person learning woodwork as a hobby, here are a few things I have realised during my steep learning curve over the last month or so since beginning working with wood.  Most of these points you read about and are common sense, but I still had to go through the learning process myself before I got that 'ah now I get it' moment of realisation ...

Like most physical activities the process of building something can be subdivided down into smaller components. For example the thought of building a complete table to a beginner can be quite daunting (remember I am talking about someone who has never built a thing out of wood in their life), but by considering the tables components almost as separate projects things seem to become easier. 

A tables components might be table top, table legs and table skirt. Building each component can also be subdivided down into smaller processes such as marking out and cutting to size. By making each small sub process repeatable you quickly find yourself developing skills by habit and getting better and better each time you do them.
To start with (I found) using a pencil to mark out seemed 'normal' and the marking knife seemed both a little strange and a little clumsy, you cant even see the knife lines as easy as a pencil! But it didn't take long before I realised just how much more accurate my lines and cuts became when using a marking knife. By forcing yourself to use the knife (even if you use the pencil to darken the knife line) from the beginning, it quickly becomes a habit to reach for the marking knife instead of the pencil. Therefore, put a marking knife at the top of your shopping list when considering what tools to start with.

If two pieces of wood are accurately marked out and cut to the correct size (and shape) joining them together with a bit of glue becomes a lot easier, so (for me at least) learning these two components alone has been critical in actually finishing a project that at least 'fits together'. Ok, my projects may not be finished (another sub process) to the highest standard but their completion has at least given me enough enthusiasm to continue learning.  

Assuming a beginner has somewhere to work and a suitable surface (bench) of some kind to work on, I think the very first projects a complete beginner should build are a bench hook and a shooting board. Similarly, what tools should a beginner buy first? Tools to build a bench hook and shooting board should be the answer!

The bench hook being a simple project allows cross cutting with a handsaw to become at least easier and a lot more accurate. It wont replace bad technique or a faulty saw but it will help immensely by 'forcing' you to saw in a repeatable way, meaning your body will learn to saw better by repetition or habit. As a beginner it's therefore very important to 'listen' to your body when sawing - is your posture forcing you to cut at an angle at the end of each stroke? Taking things nice and slow for the first few projects will ensure the habits you develop are good ones from the start . It's harder to 'unlearn' and break a bad habit than it is to develop a good one!

The bench hook also serves as a 'warm up' in marking out and cutting before starting your next project...

Once you have your bench hook you can then use it to help build a shooting board, which does have to be built accurately to work properly. These two projects will become your best friends and suddenly initial cutting of components to size will become easy and stress free.

 You can cut close to your marking lines by using the bench hook and quickly bring the cut down exactly to your marking lines squarely and accurately using the shooting board.  Once you realise that this accuracy is repeatable you also relax as there is less risk of 'screwing up' and you find your sawing technique improves further from not being tense, relaxing your grip on the saw and not 'over trying' to cut accurately. A table with four legs all of exactly the same length is a wonderful thing to a beginner!

The last habit I have developed is making sure my tools are sharp and ensuring the act of sharpening forms part of my build process. After rough cutting wood for specific components, I lay out the pieces and spend a short while contemplating the next steps and what tools are likely to be used. Having those tools readily to hand and already sharp ensures I can concentrate on building and get into a 'groove', rather than stopping to sharpen. 

Sharpening is a 'gateway' skill that is absolutely essential when using hand tools and like the others has to be practised. I found that by investing in a good sharpening jig and some quality diamond stones my results became repeatable and not such a 'hit and miss' affair (like when I tried honing free hand).

If I do need to sharpen mid process then I force myself to do it sooner rather than later, again helped by having a sharpening process that is easy and repeatable. For example I know it's only going to take five minutes to sharpen my chisel and therefore only a minor inconvenience! 

However, as a beginner there is a period of time before you realise the tool is blunt or not as sharp as it could be. Is the grain in the right direction or difficult, is this wood generally hard to work with, am I doing it wrong or is the tool just blunt? By sharpening the tools before you start takes away this element of doubt and knowing you started out with a sharp tool any change in performance will be more obvious when the tool does get blunt.

In summary, the last month or so has taught me that sharpening, accurate marking and cutting were the three foundation skills required for me to develop further. Without these three core skills my wood working career would've likely to come to an end pretty soon! 

I would be very interested in hearing from other people what their own personal 'pivotable' points were advancing in their learning curves. All tips & tricks appreciated...

1 comment:

fairwoodworking said...

I like the way you use the term "gateway skill" although I feel that just about every activity in your wood shop other than turning on the lights and sweeping up are gateway skills to new and more difficult skills.