I don’t teach classes very often; a few times a year at most. While I really enjoy teaching, I’m not crazy about travel, hotels or unknown sources of food. I don’t actively solicit teaching jobs, but when somebody calls or takes the time to send me an e-mail, I usually say yes. I don’t think I’ve ever repeated a woodworking class, so I don’t have a polished schtick. I just show up with my tools and wood and try to stay a step or two ahead of the students. Last week found me in Indiana at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, leading a full class in the construction of a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley No. 369 Morris chair.
If we had been filming a reality TV show it may have been called “Mortising Marathon”. In each chair are 44 mortise & tenon joints; through tenons in the legs and arm, standard joints in a couple of places and angled tenons at the lower side rails and tenons that angle the other direction on the curved back slats. The school boasts an incredible array of equipment, and a dedicated and helpful staff. Try as I might, I couldn’t stump Doug and Zane with my requests for more setups, jigs and tooling. These guys know their stuff and I’m grateful for their help.
A few years ago I was teaching at MASW along with Jeff Miller and Larry Williams and Don McConnel of Old Street tools. I enjoy being around guys with that level of experience and talent. There is always something new to learn, even something as simple as learning not to get directions to the restaurant from Larry. We went out to dinner one night, and after I finally found the place with the airplane that used to be on the roof we talked about the challenges of teaching.
We agreed that the hardest part is teaching what’s important and what isn’t. When do you fuss over a thousandth of an inch and when do you let a larger increment go? When do you pick up a hand tool instead of firing up a machine, and when does it make sense to take the opposite course? When you have that many joints to make in a limited amount of time there isn’t much room for poetry or romance, you need the ability to make a decision and keep going.
The best part of the week for me was watching folks who had never done anything like this practice and get better at it. If nothing else this chair provides an opportunity to get a lot of practice. And it isn’t just the technical parts that need practice. It’s easy to sign up for something beyond your experience and another to pick up the saw and cut to that line that you know is in the right place because you checked it, double-checked, then checked it three more times just to make sure before you asked three other students and the instructor if it looked right to them. It can be frightening to risk ruining a hunk of wood that you’ve spent a day working on. The investment of time and effort makes that a valuable thing.
It’s always the first one that takes the longest and presents the biggest challenge. When that one is complete the next one isn’t exactly easy, but you have the experience of what worked and what didn’t, what sped up the process and what slowed it down. What things the instructor said actually helped and what you might as well have ignored.
That’s the challenge of learning woodworking; wading through the abundance of information about different tools and techniques and discovering the ones that work for you by trying them out. Then you can jump in over your head with the confidence that you’ll likely swim to the surface before you drown. Most of woodworking comes down to cutting to a line, even if that line is on a piece of dense thick wood or across a curved surface. If you never take a risk, you’ll never accomplish anything, and hopefully that guy at the front of the room can show you what to do if and when you miss the line.