Tools Don’t Replace Talent or Time

August 5th, 2009 by
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rockerOne of perks of being Woodworker’s Journal’s “field” editor is that, every now and then, I actually get out into the field. Sometimes I’m headed to trade shows, but the trips I enjoy even more involve getting together with other woodworkers to see how they do things. In addition to meeting some really fine people and taking care of a photoshoot, I often learn a thing or two about myself in the process.

Case in point: A while back I had the pleasure of spending a couple days in the shop of a world-class woodworker. Since he’s not the sort of guy who would probably want the attention, I won’t name names. But, he’s truly a master of the Shaker and Queen Anne traditions. Over decades of woodworking, he’s built numerous juried pieces, taught classes extensively and has written many books about woodworking and craftsmanship. But, in spite of that resume, he’s a humble, unassuming guy. Here’s the sort of fellow who speaks only when he has something thoughtful to say. He’s salt of the earth and gracious, through and through.

And boy oh boy, can he build furniture…

I wondered, on the drive to his place, what it takes to build museum-quality pieces. What would his shop be like? Since I’m more-or-less a “machine” woodworker, I anticipated seeing some impressive tools. Surely he’d have a nice inventory of machinery. But when he opened the doors to his cinderblock garage, my expectations couldn’t have been more off the mark. His shop was utilitarian and spare. Several of his machines came from a time about 25 years ago when some manufacturers were putting plastic where metal should have been. Definitely not the finest hour of tool-making. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there was any cast iron in his lathe. Yet, he uses it to turn one spindle or leg after the next. His hardest-working benches were knocked together from 2x lumber, and his favorite dovetail saw has a couple wedges shoved into the handle to keep it from pulling loose. I’m pretty sure there was a mallet encased inside the duct tape that held it together. It’s the one he reaches for to chop perfect dovetails.

As I watched him work, I was reminded of a simple truism about woodworking—one I should think more about in my shop full of “nicer” tooling. Skill has very little to do with 220 volts, micro-adjusters or the latest bells and whistles. Top-shelf machinery is wonderful, and I love it as much as the next tool junkie, but it’s no panacea. The only way to become a better woodworker is to work really hard and really often at this craft, with whatever tools you’ve got. Mastery takes time… plain and simple. Oh, and maybe a few wraps of duct tape.

Catch you in the shop,

Chris Marshall, Field Editor

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