Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Everything You Need to Know is Free

I try not to do "opinion pieces" on this blog, but today I am a little more exercised than usual by the profusion of people who want to sell you basic woodworking instruction and advice.

The Intertubes are awash with gurus, hucksters, and opportunists who want to sell you hand tool videos, online subscriptions, courses, plans, and who knows what. A lot of these people are not experts, and all of them are recycling the same projects and techniques that have been around for a century or more. Some of them have mastered the art of making you feel, for $19.95 a month, that you are a part of a select group. The hipster guy with dreads and new age beats, and the crusty English guy with his bucolic reminiscences of apprenticeship, are both selling you the same thing: Atmosphere. It's impressive, really.

So here is my advice to any beginning hand tool woodworker: Everything you need to know is free.

The best place to start is your local public library. You do have a library card, right? Because they would love to have your business. You're likely to find all sorts of things that aren't online. Of course, online resources are great too. There are lots of public domain books. There are blogs and youtube videos. Woodworking publications like Fine Woodworking and Popular Woodworking have tons of free resources.

But the most important thing is practice. Do you want to learn to cut dovetails? You don't need to buy a bunch a videos. You just need to read a couple descriptions of the process. You may find it helpful to watch a couple free 3-minute videos by Rob Cosman, Frank Klausz, or others (Kari Hultman has a nice one as I recall). Then you need to get some wood and practice, over and over, until you are proficient. The process for cutting dovetails hasn't changed for a couple centuries. Nobody has any magic  bullets that will substitute for hands-on, hard knocks learning.

Do you want to learn to sharpen a saw? Same deal. You don't need a course or a video. Head over to Pete Taran's Vintage Saws website and read the sharpening guide. Matt Cianci (on WK Fine Tools) and Daryl Weir have good online tutorials as well. Then make yourself a saw vise out of some scrap, get some files, and practice. Your first saw will probably look like crap. It will probably cut pretty well though. After a dozen saws, your efforts will be almost indistinguishable from those of the people who charge $50 per sharpening.

Now, am I saying you should never buy a book or a video? Of course not. I love buying those things, if it's something special, or just something that I think will be a fun read. But please, don't give some guy your money because you think only he can teach you to chop mortises and saw tenons.

I know I've included no links and very few specific titles in this post. Tough love, baby. Do your own research. To learn to make almost anything, you will have to pay, with effort, perseverance, frustration, and even temporary failure. But you don't have to pay with money. Save your money for tools and wood.


  1. Fabulous. Nothing teaches like the bench and the brain used in combination, along with some serious questioning of "what is it exactly that I want to make or do?".

    Free exchange of information with enthusiastic folks selling nothing is no more effort than the buying and memorizing. And the loop of experience is so much more rewarding.

    I can be called a George fanboy, but makers like George have no interest in trying to set up a recurring revenue from people. They are excited about being makers and they want to talk about it with people. The advice and opinion is priceless.

  2. Lol, dreadlocked hipster. I learned to cut dovetails from that guy's book. You understand why they do it though, trying to make a living with hand tools. Unless you're Chris Hall and have more skill than god its a tough row to hoe without actively selling yourself and the image.

    The ultimate way not to waste money on unnecessary videos etc. is simply not to have the money to waste. Necessity is the mother of invention. I could spend $900 for Inomoto's hikouki kanna, or I could learn to make my own.

    Great blog, by the way.