February 2013 Archives

Fields of Woodworking Practice


[The other piece for the column that never happened.]

While woodworking is often treated as a single large subject in magazines, books, and web sites, it's comprised of a lot of smaller pieces. Many woodworkers are generalists, combining skills from several areas, as most projects require at least a bit of knowledge in several different fields.

The following list of woodworking practices isn't necessarily exhaustive, and it isn't necessarily the way that everyone would categorize things, but it might give you a basic idea of what's involved in creating projects that interest you.


While design can be a world of its own, many woodworkers prefer to work from plans created by others. Most design usually takes place at the start of a project, though impromptu design work during a project happens more frequently than many people probably care to admit. Designing a complex piece with wood requires more than an aesthetic conception of the final piece; it requires an understanding of the materials to be used, how they expand and contract over time, and how they can be connected so that movement doesn't cause problems.

Projects built strictly on the basis of looks may not last more than a few seasons, as the wood's movement distorts or breaks the piece. Of course, ugly furniture which lasts forever may not always be welcome either.


Strictly speaking, sharpening is metalwork, but having sharp tools readily available makes working wood immensely simpler. Dull tools are dangerous and frustrating. Hand tools often need to be sharpened to work at all. Many power tools use replaceable blades or carbide blades which generally require professional sharpening, so power tool users may just buy their sharpening.


Again, a lot of woodworkers just buy their wood, but some, especially turners, use found wood or have their own wood lots. (In that case, forestry is a woodworking skill.) A chainsaw is undoubtedly the easiest way to do this, but harvesting wood is probably the most dangerous aspect of the whole process. Between the saws and the falling trees, there are a lot of ways to get hurt. Careful drying of the wood is crucial to keeping your harvest useful for more than firewood.


Milling starts at the sawmill, where logs are turned into more manageable boards, and continues all the way through to the final sizing of components for a particular project. Power milling tools include saws for cutting wood, jointers for flattening a face, and planers for creating boards with parallel flat faces. On the hand tool side, saws and planes are the primary tools. (Riving wood, splitting it along the grain, is another approach, mostly used by chair-makers, coopers, and rustic furniture makers.)


Wood rarely comes in precisely the shape of the final project. Sometimes shaping involves molding a piece of wood or its edge with a saw, router, shaper, molding plane, or drawknife. Other times it involves steam-bending or laminating wood to fit a form. Extremely detailed shaping falls into its own category, carving, while shaping round forms is turning. Small detailed saw work is often called scrolling, after the scroll saw.


Carving comes in many different forms. Some projects are entirely carved, created by removing material from a block of wood. (Duck decoys are an excellent example of that, and chainsaw carving works similarly on a much larger scale.) Other times, carving adds extra detail to a larger project. Ornamental trim is often carved. There are an enormous number of carving styles and tools, both hand and power, available.


Scrolling generally refers to small and typically thin work created on a scroll saw, though some scrolling is larger and may be done on a bandsaw and other tools. A lot of scrolling projects (jigsaw puzzles, bookmarks, and decorative pieces, for example) stand on their own, without additional work except perhaps a coat of finish. Others are used to decorate larger projects, often as marquetry or inlay.


Turning is a kind of shaping, but generally considered its own discipline. Unlike most power tools, which apply moving cutters to wood, lathes spin wood to which the turner applies hand tools. Turning can be intimidating at first, especially with large blocks of wood, and depends enormously on the sharpness of the tools used, but doesn't require an enormous outlay for equipment. Turners can use green wood more easily than most other kinds of woodworking, and can often produce useful goods at a single session on the lathe.


Some projects are held together with fasteners, like screws and nails, but a lot of projects use glue and specially created joints that handle wood's seasonal movement more gracefully. The simple butt joint, sticking two pieces of wood together at a right angle, isn't particularly strong, but is common. More sophisticated joints include mortise and tenon, dovetails or various kinds, scarf joints, and dados, rabbets, and grooves. Common hand tools for joining include chisels, saws, and drills, while power tools include saws, routers, and drills.


Assembly isn't usually considered its own set of skills, and is probably best considered part of joinery, but putting all the parts together can be a challenge of its own. It requires understanding how best to glue, assemble, and clamp a variety of parts. It's easy to screw up an entire project at this step, especially if parts which need to be square aren't. Woodworkers also need to understand the seasonal movement of wood and how to compensate for it, keeping the furniture from tearing itself apart over time.


Finishing is a combination of patience and chemistry. Cleaning up wood surfaces so that they look good under a finish may require a lot of dusty sanding if they aren't smooth enough to start with. Scrapers can help a lot, as can planes. When it's time to apply the finish, woodworkers need to understand both tools (from brushes to pads to sprayers) and chemicals (varnishes, shellac, lacquer, paint, etc.). Many finishes are appropriate for some uses but not others, and a lot of them are incompatible with other finishes. Some of them are toxic and flammable as well.

Other disciplines

While not necessarily woodworking per se, there are a number of tasks performed as a part of woodworking. To take just a few examples, upholstering, caning, leatherwork, metalwork, glazing, masonry, and electrical work may all be parts of woodworking projects.

The skills you need and the tools you use may vary greatly depending on which of these fields are important to you. A turner may just need a lathe, band saw, and maybe chainsaw suitable to the scale of their largest creations, some turning tools, and some sandpaper and finish (if desired). A carver might only need knives and some finish. A cabinet shop might create a limited number of joints with dedicated machines and hardware and a single finishing process, while a more general furniture making shop might require skills and tools from all of these fields. The scale of your projects can make a huge difference as well.

Future columns will explore all of these fields (though I should learn carving before I try to talk about it.) For now, I recommend using this breakdown as a guide to the kinds of things you might or might not be interested in doing, and especially as a guide to restraining yourself from purchasing things which sound fascinating but you don't really need. If you're setting out to make bookshelves from pre-surfaced lumber, you probably don't need an enormous lathe, a planer, or a chainsaw. If you want to turn bowls, a table saw and jointer won't likely be helpful. There is no single set of skills or tools appropriate for every project, even for those few with unlimited time, space, money, and patience.

Something more concrete


[This was to be the opening for a column in an online venture that never took off, back in 2003. Mostly posted here because it reminds me why this interested me in the first place. I have another I'll post eventually.]

"When one has made with his own hands any object of use or ornament there is a sense of personal pride and satisfaction in the result, that no expenditure of money can buy, and this very fact serves to dignify the task and stamp it with individuality." - Gustav Stickley, 1905
"I've never really believed that a really good craftsman is intended for a tremendous public... the craftsman lives in a condition where the size of his public is almost in inverse proportion to the quality of his work." - James Krenov, 1976

I'm writing in an open-framed cottage built in the 1920s, admiring the exposed beams, tongue and groove paneling, and stone fireplace. A fire in a cast-iron stove is keeping me nicely warm, and locally-made fishing equipment covers the walls.

Looking more closely, I'm writing on a laptop made in China. The fire is fueled with propane. The factories where the fishing equipment was made are long since closed. Finally, the house itself has survived (for now) thanks to its location and the fact that it's primarily used only in summer. It's beautiful, but filled with reminders that old ways of making things are rapidly disappearing.

I started working in wood because I wanted to do something more concrete than programming and writing. Woodworking combines the immediacy of programming with the feeling of holding a physical book at the end of the publishing process. As I've gone deeper into woodworking, I've found it offers much more than those familiar pleasures. Woodworking is a practice where people can combine craft, tradition, and sometimes innovation, while stepping at least partially outside of the usual mass production process.

Woodworking is in many ways an orphan of the industrial revolution, though it has benefited tremendously from the tools that industrialization has made available. The notion of an individual producing complete pieces has been in decline for centuries, and has survived primarily to serve the affluent, both in custom woodworking and as a hobby. The Arts and Crafts movements in Europe and the United States celebrated visions of people making furniture for themselves while that vision was becoming less and less tenable. Making things, especially for a living, seems to have become a strange and unusual notion over time.

Woodworking has many facets, and defining what precisely "woodworking" is probably isn't worthwhile. Some people consider framing houses, milling lumber, and building furniture in factories to be woodworking, while others draw the line at finish carpentry or furniture making. Some craftspeople specialize in one or a few aspects exclusively, like finishing, turning, scrolling, or carving. Some design their own projects, while others build exclusively from plans, and some spend their time restoring work that's long since built.

There are also constant tensions between woodworking serving function, woodworking adding decoration, and woodworking as fine art. Some woodworkers see woodworking as a vocation and some see it as a hobby. There are many divides beyond "hand tool vs. power tool" or which brand of equipment to use. Different levels of commitment, different approaches, and different styles of practice and thought make for some complex and very rich conversations.

Politics of a more conventional kind also divide woodworkers. Many online forums have either banned politics from the conversation completely or put it in a separate "off-topic" place. Hippie woodworkers and dittoheads argue about the state of the world like anyone else, but it is often especially difficult to discuss politics that affect woodworking directly: environmentally friendly sources of materials, the conditions under which tools are made and sold, safety regulations of various kinds, gender and woodworking, and the nature of the markets into which professional woodworkers sell.

There are a lot of misconceptions around woodworking which make these conversations much harder. A lot of people seem to think woodworking is growing easier, that new tools have answered age-old problems. While I enjoy it, woodworking isn't always relaxing, and projects are almost never completed as quickly as in the neat formats where many TV viewers experience woodworking vicariously. Thinking it's easy brings new people into woodworking as a hobby and fuels demand for tools, but also makes it hard for woodworkers to charge for their work at rates which reflect the learning and effort which goes into it.

I'm hoping that this column will reflect the enormous and sometimes uncomfortable diversity in woodworking today, as well as some of its history. It'll take a lot of columns to cover even a small fraction of what's out there. Relatively simple practical projects will complement more general discussion, though I don't plan to compete with the many books and magazines already covering so many aspects of woodworking. While I'm leery of much of the advertising surrounding woodworking equipment, I'll also point to resources I've found that work well for me. Figuring out what you need and don't need is important, for both skills and tools.

I am not an accomplished woodworker, though I strive to be one eventually. Hopefully this can help the column, letting me can share my learning experiences with you as they happen, reflecting on what worked and what didn't. I'm hoping to have a few interesting disasters to show at some point as well. Some of the columns will be demonstration pieces, showing how to turn wood into new and useful or interesting forms. Other columns will explore woodworking as a practice, and how it has evolved over the past few centuries as social, economic, and environmental pressures have changed it drastically.

Like the early Arts and Crafts idealists, I'd like this column to inspire people to examine how they consume things and reconsider their relationship with their environment. If you have the time and interest to work with wood, that's wonderful, and I hope to show you some new ideas along the way. If you don't presently have time or interest, I hope the column can widen your perspective on a practice which has survived despite its lack of economic viability. There will be plenty of construction and contradiction in the columns to come.

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