Friday, January 22, 2016

Many experts are wrong on most subjects most of the time!

This post has an apparently ridiculous and admittedly provocative title, but it is a firm conclusion I have come to after years of paying close attention to what experts say and it has been a real problem for me.

Why do I make this claim?  Well, actually, it has to be true because their advice is frequently contradictory and they often assert that the ONE RIGHT WAY to do something is their way, but their ways are often mutually exclusive.  The challenge is to figure out which expert is right on each subject.  Quite often, my conclusion is that several are right in part.  I have learned a great deal from a number of experts but I can also cite examples of where these same experts led me astray, sometimes with significant consequences.  How can this be?

I think there are several reasons.  First and foremost, I think there is no such thing as the ONE RIGHT WAY to do most things in woodworking and anyone who claims there is is, sorry about this, foolish.  It's pretty clear that there are numerous outstanding woodworking traditions across the world that have developed different "right ways" to do things.  If you are trained in one of these traditions, then its way of doing something is likely the right way for you.  Moreover, there are many variables involved in the case of an individual woodworker.  What is their workspace like, what is their woodworking background, what do they want to make, what are their preferences, how much money do they have ...?  To say that every woodworker should do a particular thing the same way is like saying that everyone should wear the same shoes.  Kinda depends on whether you are riding a horse or running a marathon.  Kinda depends on what your budget is and what style you like.  And so on.

As obvious as this may seem, many experts don't appear to understand this and are given to being dogmatic.  "I am a great woodworker, this is the way I do it, so this must be the ONE RIGHT WAY to do it."  Not infrequently, this gets carried to ridiculous extremes and they become indignant if anyone asks a question that could be considered skeptical.  At least for now, I will refrain from giving any of a nearly endless list of examples I have encountered.  My rule is that whenever I encounter an expert like this, I heavily discount everything they have to say from then on.  A real expert is wise enough to understand that there is no ONE RIGHT WAY.

For experts who have received formal training, either at a school or in an apprenticeship, it is easy to see how this happens.  They were taught to do something a particular way and, for the rest of their lives, this is the way to do it, period.  They can't seem to understand that they were taught in a particular time at a particular place.  Yet, these experts were trained post WWII, after the golden age of hand tool woodworking, and they don't seem to realize that their way isn't the way it was done in their own country 50 years earlier, let alone someplace else.  Sometimes, they don't seem to realize that it isn't true that no worthwhile tool or technique has been developed since they were trained, that there is no subject on which there isn't increased understanding.

So, what does it matter?  I think it matters because people are often led astray; their time and money is wasted or, worse yet, they get discouraged and give up.  Many of the techniques are just not appropriate for someone new to an area of woodworking.  Others just don't fit the style or preferences or workspace or whatever of a particular woodworker.  I have gone down dead ends because I listened to experts.  Of course, I have also made tremendous strides because I listened to experts.  The challenge is figuring out which experts to listen to on a particular subject.

Here is an extreme example.  I took a half-day class on sharpening card scrapers from an expert some years ago.  He is a graduate of a prestigious woodworking program and prominent locally, has all the creds.  He opened the class by insisting that the entire faces of your card scrapers have to be polished to a mirror finish, "so you could shave with them."  We proceeded to spend 3 1/2 hours attempting this and he then spent 15 minutes on burnishing, after which we all tried, failed to properly turn a burr and went home.  My first reaction was, "I think I will stick with sandpaper."  The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized his advice was absolutely ridiculous.  I watched many videos online, read whatever I could and I slowly developed the ability to sharpen a card scraper with reasonable effort.  The class contributed absolutely nothing.  You can bet your *** my scrapers don't have a mirror finish.  I have a mirror I use to shave.

Based on this experience and others like it, my rule is this:  If an expert tells you you have to do something a particular way but can't or won't explain why, ignore him.  Henceforward, this will be known as Margeson's Law.  :-)  Oh, and the corollary is "that's the way it has always been done" is not an acceptable answer, in part because it is likely not true.

So as to end on a positive note, there are many examples of experts giving advice in a much wiser way and I encountered one today that I want to recommend on the very subject of card scrapers.  I really like using scrapers but I tend to let them go too long before I go back and create a fresh edge.  Today I decided to do that to all of mine and I did an online search to see if I could pick up anything new to try.  I ran across this post by Chris Schwarz back in 2007 that I had somehow missed.  I think this post is excellent.  Look how it approaches the subject, acknowledges the many different methods, reaches out to experts and runs empirical tests.  His method, which is a variant, is sound and leaves a lot of room for individual variation.  It isn't a ONE RIGHT WAY article by any stretch.  I sure wish I had read this a long time ago.  Your needs may be different.  For instance, if you are into waterstones, this video by William Ng is great.

One thing that particularly intrigued me in Chris's post was something I had been pondering myself.  I have indicated that I am not about to put a mirror finish on the faces of my scrapers, no way no how, but I definitely see the advantage in having clean crisp corners between the faces and the edge of a scraper and the ways I have tried haven't been very satisfactory.  What about the ruler trick?  What if you used it on a scraper?  I had been hesitant to try it because, unlike a plane blade, you are going to end up putting a hook on the edge of a scraper.  Chris tried it and it worked, so I did too and it worked great for me.  Today was probably the best I have ever done putting consistent burrs on my scrapers.

Before someone writes this in a comment, you can accomplish the same thing by putting a mirror finish on the faces of your scrapers.  Yup, and if you want to do that, by all means, have at it.  There is no ONE RIGHT WAY.


  1. Coming from a Military background, I lived with my way or no way for 20 years. When I became a civilian again, the hairs on the back of my neck would immediately stand up if I heard/read, my way or the highway. I agree with you without any reservations, there is always another way to do anything. I've always been much more receptive to "this is the way I do it".

  2. thank you for your thoughtful, well-written and right on treatise! i'm constantly amazed at the arrogance of woodworker writers, some not that all experienced yet they are mighty with the pen. no discussion allowed!

  3. Good post, Andy. I like the teachings of people like Sellers, who will often show a few different ways to accomplish the same task. Whatever works best for you is the right way for you. But you have to work on it to figure out what works for you. Experience is the best teacher.

    There is so much information (and misinformation) out there that it is often tough to know what is "best". Until you try it for yourself!