Monday, February 6, 2012

Get woodworking #1

As many of you know, this week we are all supposed to post ideas to help folks get into woodworking.  This is a subject I have been thinking about for some time and I have some unorthodox ideas.  Being closer to my own starting point than many experts, and having a background in education are advantages, at least in some ways.

As an economist, I am inclined to think that the major barrier to becoming a woodworking hobbyist is high barriers to entry in time, money and skill.  Stop and think how much it would cost you in time and/or money and/or skill to replicate your tool collection.  Think how much time you have invested in acquiring the many skills involved to use the tools effectively and, if you have taken classes, the cost involved.  These barriers to entry are a substantial deterrent, discouraging many who are interested.

So, my contribution to the discussion is thinking about how to lower these barriers to entry, in large part based on my own experience.  We need to radically simplify, get down to the minimum things for beginners to learn at first.  Remember the 80/20 rule?  My suggestion is that it is a mistake to start building things right away.  Think about learning golf.  Would you just go out and play?  I think it is better to get some lessons, in person if possible online if not, and spend a fair amount of time at the driving range and practice green first.  The goal should be to minimize the barriers to entry in time, money and skill.

Sharpening is a gateway skill without which you cannot enjoy woodworking and cannot do good work.  I personally wasted a great deal of time, money and effort trying to sharpen effectively when I began.  Expert discussion is often not helpful because techniques appropriate for experts can be extremely frustrating for beginners and opinion is sharply divided among many alternatives.   I think the place to begin is learning how to sharpen a chisel so that it is very sharp.  I'd argue that most other sharpening is an extension in some way.  The method needs to minimize the time, money and skill required.  We want early success.

For obvious reasons, sandpaper on plate glass is the least cost and simplest.  Yes, you will graduate but this is the method to begin with.  Sharpening a chisel on a piece of sandpaper mounted on plate glass is as inexpensive as it gets.  What about a honing guide?  Freehand sharpening of chisels is too difficult for beginners.  My opinion, and this is controversial, is that the best honing guide is the Kell.  It is extremely well made and easier to use than any alternative I am aware of.  Here's an expert opinion I respect: Why a Kell guide?  Ron Hock speaks highly of it as well.  My own experience confirms their opinions.  I think a beginner can have better success with this guide than any alternative.  Yes, it's expensive but the saving in time, the success you can have without a lot of skill and the money you can save by not pursuing multiple approaches makes it worth it.  Compared to powered methods, it's cheap.

Finally, and this will be very controversial, I would not have the beginner flatten the back of the chisel!  If it's already flat, great, leave it alone.  If not, use the ruler trick.  I know this goes against the majority opinion.  My reasons are explained very well here:  Don't flatten the backs of your chisels.  Flattening chisels is too time consuming, too frustrating and too difficult for beginners.  You don't need to do it.  If you want a flat back, do what I did and buy premium chisels that are already flat, but you don't need to.  Otherwise, forget it.  I realize many of you will violently object, so I'll save a detailed justification for replies to comments.

Ask yourself this question:  Do you know an easier way to get a beginner going with sharpening?

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