One of the ways to improve your woodworking skills has more to do with your mindset than your skill set. If you aren’t willing to do things you’ve never done before you won’t improve. That’s a simple concept, but it doesn’t mean you should dive into the deep end of a major project. Instead, you should practice the things you haven’t done before. If your practice is successful you gain experience and hopefully confidence. The average woodworker is reluctant to practice, it’s one of the quirks of woodworkers. The best things I’ve made are not only things I hadn’t done before, they are things that took a while to figure out how to do. In the picture below are a few of the practice joints for the Gustav Stickley No. 70 Music Cabinet I built a few years ago.In the finished cabinet there are four of these joints in the door. At the other end of these parts is a tenon with a mitered shoulder. To put the entire door together each joint has to fit and the length in between the joints has to be exact. It’s a complex assembly and my approach is to figure out the series of steps, along with the order of the steps to get from a pile of sticks to a pretty cool door. The idea is to boil the problem down to where each step is manageable and repeatable.Early on in my career, the idea of working as efficiently as possible was planted in my head and took root. It isn’t enough to be able to do something once; consistency is of equal importance. In every situation there are several ways to make the cuts. Much of the problem-solving can be done mentally, but more often than not, you need to cut some wood in order to make an informed decision. How do you know if this is faster/more accurate/more repeatable/more pleasant than that if you don’t try and compare?The photo above shows the beginning of a recent practice session. If what is on the horizon comes through, I will be making at least four and probably six of these in cherry. One big question I had was whether or not to waste the background with a router (faster but riskier) or by hand. I also haven’t carved in cherry for a while. So I went out to the shop, used the widest piece of cherry I had on hand and tried it out. The goal wasn’t to make a finished carving, it was to assess the process, find the tricky parts and make the likely mistakes on something that doesn’t matter.I also spent some time getting to know this particular design. I consider it time well spent. In addition to knocking the rust off my carving chops, I learned where I need to be especially careful, some cuts look easy but aren’t and some that appear difficult are really simple. When the time comes to do this for real I’ll have more confidence because I’ve replaced conjecture with experience. I also know what to do
if when things go wrong and what repairs will or will not work. Life in the shop is a lot easier when you’re not doing something for the first time. Above average woodworkers know this and know the value of a little practice. It isn’t a waste of time or materials, it’s about being prepared for the real thing.