The Myth of the Self-Taught Craftsman
At a recent seminar I was teaching I found myself telling a fellow craftsman that I mostly taught myself what I have learned about woodworking. It was an easy way to get the idea across that I did not go to school or take seminars for most of what I have learned about wood working. But later on I thought about that and regretted not responding more thoughtfully. I had been teaching all day and was a bit tired. But what a pity I didn’t tell him the truth. I have so many teachers, I am not sure I can even count them all. In fact I am not even sure I always knew at the time that I was getting a lesson.
Learning happens all the time and comes from sources I don’t always recognize, much less honor. One mysterious learning experience I remember fondly was from 1985. I had spend two and a half weeks apprenticing with Dave Sawyer in Vermont. I was not all that excited about learning Windsor chairmaking as my heart was with ladderbacks. But I had heard rave reviews about Dave and his mastery with ladderback chairs. Hearing later that he had moved on to windsors did not sway my interest in his tutelage. I signed on. It was a wonderful time of intensive learning. I remember clearly what he said on the first day was after hearing me talk about my work and techniques: “Well, Brian I can certainly teach you something about efficiency”.
Every day I was there I waited for the efficiency lesson. But Dave never talked about it again. When the apprenticeship ended it was time to get back home to work on some ladderback orders that were quite late by now. I had to set aside the Windsor dreams for a couple of weeks and get back to my old ways. As I did so I found that something had shifted in the way I was working. I don’t know why, but for some reason those chairs took me only about half the time it took me before my apprenticeship. I was mystified! How could I be faster at ladderbacks not having made them in three weeks! What did he teach me? 24 years later that remains a mystery. I was not consciously doing anything different than before my visit with Dave. Clearly something had changed. I recently told him this story and he just laughed. All I could do was laugh right along with him.
A couple of years later I had a completely differently learning experience. I had reached a point of frustration with my spokeshaves, planes and my drawknife. I believed I should be getting much better finishes right off the tool than I was able to achieve. I wanted the kind of finishes Krenov talked about in his books. I had never seen such plane work as he described, but his writing made me a believer and I wanted that experience.
Over the years I have had the good fortune to meet very skilled craftsmen like Garret Hack, Chris Becksvoort, or Conrad Souer, and others who have stimulated my thinking in conversations about why we do things certain ways. I learned a few additional great tips on planning from Deneb Pulchalski and band saw tricks from a local woodworker, Lothar Bauman. Even my own students have opened my eyes to fresh perspectives that have helped me learn again in areas I had become complacent.
I have had many experiences where I made breakthroughs that I can’t explain as a lesson I saw coming, or a teacher I heard explaining a technique. But I was taught from somewhere. I have also “figured things out” in the solitude of my shop with no human speaking to me then. But the teacher was not absent. Sometimes the teacher was the wood itself, or the spokeshave in my hand. There were lessons leading up to that that allowed me to see what the wood was trying to teach me. Some of those came from books, articles, or another craftsman. I had learned enough to know how to look at what was happening in a useful way and I was paying attention for sure. I was also patient. But I was being taught, not teaching myself. I don’t think this is just a matter of perspective or semantics. I think that in looking at what is happening as teaching one’s self you focus on mental activity that often just gets in the way of truly paying attention to what is happening at your bench.
If you instead think of the wood you work with as a teacher or even the tool you are using as a teacher, you are far more likely to take in what is trying to be taught to you at the moment. You will also more likely tap the source of knowledge that all your human teachers draw from in helping you find your way.
I write this partly to honor those who have helped me see. But also to point to what is the richest source of understanding about woodworking any of us has. It’s free and it’s right there on your bench.
I have gotten in to the habit recently of starting my classes by telling the students not to believe anything I tell them. I am not sure how they take this. But I do this partly because I have seen the tendency of students to take what an instructor says as gospel and not explore the questions that arise around the subject of why a technique works or why wood behaves a certain way. I prefer now to direct students to the source I learn from.
When other craftsmen have told me how to do something I try it their way and I learn something. But I don’t know it just because they told me, I know it now because I applied it myself and experienced it working. Then I will often try variations of that idea to find out how far it goes, letting the material and the tool teach me what it will. This is what I want my students to do. To learn. Not to just listen and believe me and call me a teacher. But to use what I am saying to direct their learning from the source that will always be there for them. No need to pick up the phone or go on line. Pick up that board and pay attention.
Well of course I use the phone and internet when I am stumped. I have a shop full of routers, but use the wireless router in my office more than any of those. I get a lot of information that way. Other humans can be very useful in helping you cross a gap in your ability to make connections between failure and its likely cause. But you will only know that when you experience it yourself.
I recently enjoyed a very stimulating conversation with Brian Green from Veritas about sharpening planes. We started the conversation at a show in Atlanta where we were both teaching sharpening and it continued through e-mails for a week or so eventually being joined by Garret Hack. It got me to look again and a little deeper into an old technique I learned from Alan Boardman and Gerry Glaser from California. And my sharpening is still improving as a result of yet more paying attention to the materials and how they respond to each other. The conversations stimulated further investigation. But the learning is happening in my hands and at my bench.
There is no conclusion to this. In fact a conclusion is not the goal. Just more learning and getting closer to understanding what sharpness is and how to achieve it. For any other technique or problem I want to master it’s the same journey of exploration. When I think I have concluded something I stop learning until I find a limit to what I thought I knew and I have to let go of the conclusion and get back to paying attention and learning. That is what keeps my work and my experience alive and rich: the constant exploration of an infinite little universe right in my own shop. It’s great to have expert friends to call on and I am greatful for their input. But mostly they help to confirm that what I am looking for is all right there waiting for me to see it. Your teacher is always there asking you to pay attention. It’s pretty darn exciting when I think about it that way and it takes the focus and any credit or pride away from me and puts the attention where it belongs. This mysterious material we all love to work with is a source of abundant knowledge if we can open ourselves up to it. Sharing our observations is where reading, writing, and talking play an important role in this exploration. These human interactions are a lot of fun too especially when everyone is paying attention and committed to the same goal. I think that pretty much includes all of us.