Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review of Paul Sellers' Working Wood Course

As readers of this blog know, I am working through the book and dvds that comprise Paul Sellers' comprehensive introductory course on hand tool woodworking.  I have watched all of the DVDs at least once, read the book and completed more than half of the projects, so this seems like a good time to offer a review.

Bottom line

For those of you that don't want to read the entire review, this course takes on a real challenge:  to introduce and then develop a comprehensive set of basic hand tool woodworking skills.  The book and DVDs are clearly the work of a master educator as well as woodworker.  While it would be better for a beginner to take a comparable course in person, this is the next best thing.  It has a lot of value as well for self-taught intermediate woodworkers who want to fill in gaps in their knowledge and hone their skills.  Some of it was review and reinforcement, but I found value even in those cases from watching and reading about his methods and perspective.  Though somewhat expensive, the $159 price is justified by the value of the product.  The book and DVDs work well together so it is worth purchasing the entire package even though they are available separately.  The book is well written.  The  DVDs are marred somewhat by over-the-top special video and audio effects but are otherwise excellent.

Full review 

Seven DVDs and a book designed to work with them make up the course materials.  They don't assume the student has any woodworking background and the course is structured so that the student can get started with a minimum set of tools.

What about the intermediate woodworker who is already acquainted with much of this material?  I found it highly worthwhile and am going through the course in its entirety.  Many, perhaps most, of us are self-taught.  There are gaps in our knowledge, tools we own that we don't get the most out of, habits we have that aren't ideal, tasks we fall back on machines for because doing so is quick, easy and habitual.  I have not felt that reading or watching any of the material was a waste of my time.  I think it is especially valuable for someone transitioning from power tool to hand tool woodworking.

There are some inherit problems with a home study course like this for a true beginner.  I think that someone with no background would find this course quite daunting at the very start.  The two major problems I see are sharpening even the minimum tool set and needing a bench.  These are problems that in-person courses can solve by providing benches and sharp tools and is a big advantage of them.  Paul does tackle these subjects comprehensively in other sections of the course and does an excellent job.    He devotes a DVD and 100 pages to sharpening everything from saws to spokeshaves to scrapers.  For the most part, the presentation is excellent, although in one case I found the method so sophisticated I haven't yet attempted it:  sharpening a gouge.  He sharpens one in a minute or two on bench stones using a method that requires you to simultaneously maintain the bevel angle, roll the gouge from side to side and follow a figure-eight pattern on the stone, all at a speed that is breathtaking.  I tried it on a board to see what would happen and ended up in a puddle of spasticity on the floor (not literally, but you get the idea).  You can read about how I chickened out and devised an easier method in my earlier post.  I haven't given up though.  Maybe someday.  I think this does illustrate the problem for beginners though, because the gouge is one of the first tools he introduces.  As for the bench, he has a really good design and devotes an entire DVD to constructing it, but this is not something a beginner can attempt at first.  I think there is a need to come up with some kind of interim solution to get started.

These inherent problems aside, the course proceeds in a logical, well-thought-out way through shaping and then joinery.  Paul's presentations are uniformly excellent.  He is very articulate, exuding passion for great woodworking and demonstrating a patient, step by step approach to teaching the skills.  It's clear that he loves what he does and is very committed to sharing what he knows.  I came away with something each time I watched him perform things I knew how to do already.  This is the value of seeing someone do something rather than just reading about it.  One of the truly unique things he emphasizes is using most of your senses in woodworking.  I find it very convincing and, for example, have found it surprisingly worthwhile to listen carefully while I am working wood.  No more music playing.

A main emphasis of the course is learning to create three joints:  the housing dado, the dovetail and the mortise and tenon, each in its basic form.  A well-conceived project is presented for each joint.  His approach to these joints is quite different in a number of respects from anything else I have seen.  Even if you don't adopt his methods, I see great value in being exposed to them and think many of us will adopt at least some of his practices. As an example, his technique for making tenons resulted in shoulders that were dead on first try!  He eschews mortise chisels altogether and uses bench chisels in a manner that is surprisingly quick and effective.

The production values of this course are very high.  The videos and still photography are excellent and the book is printed on high quality paper.  Paul's presentations are uniformly excellent, both as to substance and clear communication.  The one criticism I offer is something I have read a number of times elsewhere.  The special audio and visual effects on the DVDs are . . . inappropriate and quite jarring.  It is so incongruous to keep going back and forth from Paul in his workshop at Penrhyn Castle to what appears to be a simulated airplane electronic cockpit with whooshing sounds and ominous music thumping along in accompaniment.  Here's a sample.  You do get used to it, although this is the one thing I would most like to see changed in any future DVDs he makes.  Compare it to this sample episode of his online course.  What a relief!

Paul Sellers is an iconoclast, which some find unsettling.  He has strong views and doesn't shrink from expressing them forcefully.  Personally, I find this refreshing.  You don't have to accept everything he says to benefit from hearing his perspective.


  1. Thanks a ton for doing this review. I've been eyeing this course for a while and trying to decided if it's worth the investment. Interestingly enough, the trailer and the overproduction put me off a bit. I'm glad to hear the content is worth it.

  2. You summed up my thoughts on his book and dvd perfectly.

    I'm a member of his on line master class as well as another well known woodworker. Paul's approach is much more relaxed and therefore more enjoyable to watch.

  3. I'll be the lone, dissenting voice on the internet. I much prefer having all the transitions. The DVDs seem like they were made both to educate and entertain woodworkers. Normally it is so dry watching woodworking videos. I'm glad some people are stepping up the production game to the next level, as I feel these things matter to the final product quite a bit. Not to say that more simple, staid productions aren't good too.

  4. I got the series last year and I'm still working thru it. He's also started a Master woodworking class on line which is the same as the dvd series but this is project based. He's filled in a lot of gaps for me and I agree he is a master educator also.

  5. I like the series also. I wish he were around when I started and would have loved to have the videos then. I also agree with Darren above. Give credit to the filmmakers, they make woodworking sexy. As my sister-in-law said once when she saw an episode of New Yankee Workshop, "like watching paint dry." Aritsan Media makes beautiful films. I also agree that for a total newbie, the series may present some confusion as where to begin exactly. But I guess that's why he has a school also.
    Take it easy,


  6. I also agree, I really like Paul's teaching style, and the fact that he stands by his opinions. I really like how he makes it look easy, without making it mysterious. He really does prove that you can do it too, watch me, do it like this, there you go... Some things in woodworking make me feel very aprehensive, but Paul's style helps me realize I'm blowing my fears out of preportion. Also I like the fact that he shows you how to get started with a basic tool set. Sure you could use mortice chisels, but if you don't have them don't worry, pick up you bench chisels and get to work. What I really like as well, is as he is working, there are times where I'd be saying to myself "man, a close-up of that would be...." and then BAM! There's a close-up, but not any close-up, but you can see atoms being split by the chisel, it's that close.

    All that to say, I agree with your review.

  7. Thanks for the review, it was very well thought out.. I just received the first book, Working Wood 1&2, as a birthday present and can't wait to get started. I can already tell that I'll likely be purchasing the companion DVD set as I set out on the first projects.