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View rhett's profile

What makes a master?

by rhett
posted 05-31-2013 11:54 AM

36 replies so far

View Kaleb the Swede's profile

Kaleb the Swede

1835 posts in 1995 days

#1 posted 05-31-2013 12:16 PM

Interesting question there Mr. Rett. I most definitely not a master woodworker; however I make my living playing guitar and teaching music. (I also have a Master’s in Guitar Performance although I don’t think of myself as a Master guitar player)

I have taken lessons with some of the greatest players on the planet. The greatest musicians I have encountered I always describe as they play the instrument, the instrument doesn’t play them. Complete poetry in motion.

My father is a master Diesel Mechanic when he turns a wrench it is just so, not too much not too little. He has been doing it for almost 40 years. He works the tools, not the reverse.

It’s not the tools that make a master however it’s the knowledge basis, the know how, the body reflexes when using it, overcoming the limitations and mistakes, and most importantly the ability to create a piece of themselves that lives on to something lasting. Take John Towsend and Sam Maloof for example.

These people don’t just exist; they excel every second of every day. That is some of what makes them masters

-- Just trying to build something beautiful

View Tennessee's profile


2873 posts in 2540 days

#2 posted 05-31-2013 12:42 PM

I started using master woodworker on my website only after people started referring to me as such. I don’t really think that way, I make as many mistakes while alone in my shop as I did ten, fifteen years ago. and I do prefer to work alone so I can think more creatively.
But I think the big difference for me now is I don’t force anything. I’ll stop and just study something if I have a problem, sometimes even walking away. But also, I always want to get back down in the shop to just be there with the tools, wood, the environment.
If it takes time, you just have to realize your limitations, your abilities, and as they say, “There is always another way to get it done properly.”

One other thing, about a year ago a fellow luthier told me that Paul Reed Smith of PRS guitars once said you have to build 25 guitars or so before you know what you are doing and can call yourself a luthier. When he said that to me, I was somewhere in the 40’s, and #56 just went out the door two days ago. I’ve got a major repair on the bench, (cracked neck), a customer has entrusted to me, but still, I don’t know if I would truly call myself a luthier. Our local museum is after me to display my other wares, we’re haggling on pricing. Still, all said and done, save for the advertising on my website that is for show only, I’ll settle for “pretty good woodworker”.

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

View Wdwerker's profile


333 posts in 2259 days

#3 posted 05-31-2013 12:48 PM

I think part of being considered a master is the ability to fix mistakes or work around them to save the project. We all make mistakes and avoiding them is a skill as well. Redesigning on the fly so that the final results are acceptable does take a good but of experience.

-- Fine Custom Woodwork since 1978

View Icemizer's profile


88 posts in 3565 days

#4 posted 05-31-2013 01:17 PM

A true master is only recognized by others never himself.

You can master certain skills, but that wont make you a master.

I consider myself a novice woodworker which is one step up from a dabbler and one step down from a hobbiest.

-- Say what you mean and mean what you say.

View redSLED's profile


790 posts in 1918 days

#5 posted 05-31-2013 01:20 PM

Becoming a master starts first with mastering your emotions. For some of us, that takes a lifetime.

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

View Charlie's profile


1100 posts in 2312 days

#6 posted 05-31-2013 01:28 PM

The mark of a master is not a title that can be instituted by the master himself.
And the master will be judged not only on his own work, but in the number of others to whom he passes his knowledge.

View helluvawreck's profile


31393 posts in 2892 days

#7 posted 05-31-2013 01:36 PM

I’m sort of a Jack of all Trades (don’t take the term literally but as used in common folk language); but I’m definitely not a master of anything and probably never will be. However, I sure do enjoy fiddling with my tools.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View bold1's profile


293 posts in 1873 days

#8 posted 05-31-2013 04:13 PM

When I worked as a mason our definition of pro versus amateur was a pro knows how to correct his mistakes. I believe a master knows how to avoid the mistakes in the first place.

View PurpLev's profile


8536 posts in 3674 days

#9 posted 05-31-2013 04:31 PM

I’ve always held the 10,000 count as the indication of becoming a master.

it takes practice, muscle memory, and lots of it as well as encountering issues and trying out different solutions to find what best suits your workflow.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View BigYin's profile


418 posts in 2442 days

#10 posted 05-31-2013 04:36 PM

A master is entitled toopen his own workshop and employ others.

-- ... Never Apologise For Being Right ...

View MrRon's profile


4795 posts in 3269 days

#11 posted 05-31-2013 08:03 PM

When asked, what is a master craftsman, I have to revert back to the Japanese artisians who make swords, drums and other craft items. I can only compare one to a true master. I believe a Japanese master, devotes his entire life in the perfection of a skill, one that he can repeat day-in and day-out without thinking. Mistakes are not allowed. Any error would result in starting again from scratch. This would be perfection at it’s extreme, but in our non-Japanese society, a master would probably be one that is aclaimed as such by one or a group of masters who are in a position to judge. I am not a master, so I am not in a position to judge. All I know is he can do better work than I can. He may be a master in my eyes, but maybe not to others.

View LoydMoore's profile


105 posts in 1982 days

#12 posted 05-31-2013 08:33 PM

I have scraps of paper that say I am a Master Machinist, Master Die Maker and certified master metrologist. With any one of those scraps of paper and $4 I can get a really good cup of coffee down at Starbucks. IMO my woodworking skills are far superior to any of those certified skill but not a day goes by that I don’t see a project on here that makes me say “wow, wish I could do that”. In other words, observing what others do humbles me and causes me to keep striving to be better.

PS; I also have a Master of Public Administration but based on what I see on a on the news every day, I think the bar for that designation is fairly low.

-- Loyd, San Angelo, TX

View quicksilver's profile


195 posts in 2613 days

#13 posted 05-31-2013 08:43 PM

I feel that the loss of the journeyman and the apprentice relationship has severely damaged many industries.
Then again, at least in America, the big box stores and the currently most advertised furniture company has brainwashed the public into price first.
Chicken or the egg????
I found the Finewoodworking galleries of the West and Northwest and dreamed.
Now I visit LJ’s and dream. What a great site.
Thanks all

-- Quicksilver

View Gary's profile


9333 posts in 3459 days

#14 posted 05-31-2013 08:44 PM

A person must be keenly aware of his emotions and the desires of the wood. Just look at this project and you will be able to see how a true “Master” works

-- Gary, DeKalb Texas only 4 miles from the mill

View Loren's profile


10476 posts in 3674 days

#15 posted 05-31-2013 08:56 PM

View widdle's profile


2069 posts in 3024 days

#16 posted 05-31-2013 09:18 PM

.Not sure what quantifies a person as a master….I think what makes a master is learning from anything , anyone or anywhere that relates to ones craft…

a little off topic , but as a carpenter and builder i think i probably worked with at least a hundred other carpenters, builders, and clowns over time, and like to think i took something from everyone of them…( no i am not a master)..But now in trying to be a woodworker, i find it frustrating to not have that boss /co worker or skilled employee to learn from in real time…Tricks of the trade dont happen on the internet or books..imo.. That being said..i will sweep, stay out of the way and fetch lunch to any furniture makers within an hours drive of Venice .Ca…no joke..

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

4948 posts in 3986 days

#17 posted 05-31-2013 09:23 PM

In am soooo pleased with the answers. Self deprication, humility, knowledge, confidence, willingness to share, and all the others qualities stated surely do make a master.
I have dealt with those who would not/could not share, tutor, etc.
You guys have nailed the qualities dead on. You are to be applauded.
Rhett, this is a great post.
On the lighter side———
Why haven’t any noobies called me today? :)))


View UncannyValleyWoods's profile


542 posts in 1890 days

#18 posted 05-31-2013 10:18 PM

I was told once that young students of Japanese wood workers were sequestered from their parents for 10+ years while they honed their skills. The parents were alerted to the fact that their child had reached a master skill level once they received a package in the mail containing a hand carved box with an un-broken roll of 100 feet of plane ribbon inside. Each created by their child. Always that this was awesome.

-- “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” ― Lenny Bruce

View shipwright's profile


7992 posts in 2824 days

#19 posted 05-31-2013 11:41 PM

I’m not sure “master” means anything any more. In the days of guilds , apprenticeship / journeyman time / production of your masterpiece / acceptance by the elite of the craft led to becoming a master.

Now there are no real criteria except that I become cynical when someone refers to himself as one. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours many times over and I’m certainly no master.

-- Paul M ..............If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fibreglass trees.

View Loren's profile


10476 posts in 3674 days

#20 posted 05-31-2013 11:54 PM

If you get the result you planned to get, every time,
you are on your way I would say.

With woodworking, if you slow down and plan things
out you can learn to build impressive work through
patience and grit. Finishing projects is the more
important discipline.

Frank Klausz commented once that that the difference
between an amateur and a pro is speed. Both can
get excellent results but the skilled pro can do it
a lot faster.

View JamesT's profile


102 posts in 1938 days

#21 posted 06-01-2013 12:28 AM

As a chair maker, when I think of master, I think of Sam Maloof and my great uncle Frank Tabor

-- Jim from Doniphan

View rhett's profile


742 posts in 3693 days

#22 posted 06-01-2013 12:55 AM

Excellent graphic Loren.

Great responses everyone. Like any title given to a person, it is subjective and open to debate. I think we all agree that it isn’t a self promoted position.

Reason it even came up is because I saw website recently, where a 23 years old guy is touting the title “Master Woodworker”.

Not sure what is worse, the fact he thinks he is a master or the fact being competent at a vocation makes you a “master” to the masses.

Good Discussion, Thanks

Be Good

-- Doubt kills more dreams than failure.

View Tony_S's profile


871 posts in 3109 days

#23 posted 06-01-2013 01:06 AM

Great post Rhett.

I don’t really think there’s a true answer to your question, but If I had to describe what I think a Master woodworker might be, I think your description sums it up the best for me.

One thing I don’t think anyone has mentioned to this point is passion. A deep soul passion for what they do that bleeds into every step they take.
And…a true love, respect, and understanding of the material they work with.

An old saying comes to mind…
Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

A true craftsman and master never goes to work.

-- It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Aristotle

View Dark_Lightning's profile


3165 posts in 3135 days

#24 posted 06-01-2013 01:43 AM

Love that graphic of Loren’s, too. Loren, I also like your later post. I will say though that I have studied how to reduce mistakes, as I really don’t like having things go wrong and tried to learn how to make fewer, whether it’s writing work instructions, cutting a board, whatever. One thing I have learned from my investigation is that truly experienced workers in a given field only make fewer mistakes compared to tyros.

I think if you want to be called a master, you have to be recognized as such by a discriminating group of peers. Every person I’ve ever heard self-proclaim mastery has seemed to be a charlatan. I had this discussion with my supervisor at work awhile back- He tells me to sell myself better on my performance appraisals. My attitude (and response) is that the people I work with should be talking to him about my performance (good or bad), not me. Some of the people at work get promoted to supervisory positions to get them off the shop floor so they don’t break stuff. My attitude is, I’d rather that when something goes wrong, people would say, “Where the hell is Steve, this kind of stuff never happens when he’s here!”. Must be why I’m in the same paygrade for ten years now. But I’m not about to go break something just to get paid more money.

-- Random Orbital Nailer

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18290 posts in 3702 days

#25 posted 06-01-2013 02:58 AM

If you have an uneasy, sort of naked feeling when not in the company of your tools, you may be on the way to becoming a master. Your peers will let you know if you ever get there. Only peers are qualified to make the declaration.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Loren's profile


10476 posts in 3674 days

#26 posted 06-01-2013 03:12 AM

You know – this is a marketing question too.

I don’t declare myself a master craftsman but I know
people want to say such and such a thing was made
by this awesome master craftsman…. so there’s
this thing that people want to brag on.

They don’t want to say they hired a cabinetmaker –
they want to say they hired a master cabinetmaker
because it’s impressive.

I dunno – it’s an edge you can work. Design skills
show mastery the most, but there are stylistic
vocabularies that are not difficult to cop – Maloof,
Krenov, Michael Fortune – even art guys like Wendell
Castle. Sure, some of the stuff takes a lot of labor
to imitate, and then there’s the question of whether
you can sell it.

Back in the 1970s furniture builders (many self-taught)
were building all these laminated, sculpted pieces
that required a silly amount of material, labor and
sanding. Most of those people don’t build furniture
anymore – I think the style they worked in was
economically impractical and many of them probably
just got sick of being poor and moved on.

If you make a side chair and it’s $1500 or more
and all sculpted parts and sanded and oiled,
it’s beautiful, right? But maybe not so easy to
find clients who will buy more than 2 of them,
so this expressive craftsmanship is admirable
but not so salable. People will gush about your
mastery but they won’t buy the work too
often, so there needs to be a balance in how
fast and nicely things can be made. Guys like
Maloof and Stockdale carved out niches for
themselves with their design skills and exquisite
execution and commitment to marketing. Their
work is collectible and influential and they made
great money in the later periods of their careers.

View Woodknack's profile


11792 posts in 2406 days

#27 posted 06-01-2013 04:57 AM

Maybe when you’ve reached a point where others are imitating you, you are well on your way to being a master.

-- Rick M,

View kizerpea's profile


774 posts in 2393 days

#28 posted 06-01-2013 12:43 PM

Well I guess u could say painters are masters…..they know how to hide the mistakes of the carpenters….


View MrRon's profile


4795 posts in 3269 days

#29 posted 06-01-2013 04:11 PM

A master is one who is declared as such by people who are recognized as being masters in their own right. It is also a subjective belief. Some may think someone is a master, but that is just a personal opinion.

View rhett's profile


742 posts in 3693 days

#30 posted 06-01-2013 04:54 PM

That is exactly correct Ron, perception is the key.

It’s like when I was rock climbing, back in the day. I thought some of the guys I was climbing with were hard climbers, then I met Chris Sharma.

There is no doubt, when your in the company of an elite level anything.

Be Good

-- Doubt kills more dreams than failure.

View apprentice's profile


218 posts in 2185 days

#31 posted 06-02-2013 09:57 PM

My Grandfather always told me to do what ever made me happy and to do the best with what ever I had at my disposal, new or old, it doesn’t matter. He also said a job can never be perfect, only very good.

There are masters the world over, some 33 degree versions, who are good at keeping secrets, but like my Grandgather, I would rather help those who want to help themselves, and boy am I glad I did, now they are masters in their own right.


View Joseph Jossem's profile

Joseph Jossem

492 posts in 2294 days

#32 posted 06-06-2013 05:34 AM

I too was going to post this same question

A master recognizes his own skills and sticks to them and helps others..

here in hawaii I have met 1 master and not in woodworking alot of self proclaimed masters but no real ones here.

Main thing is respect for others work and talents.. apprentice.. illumanati are masters in theryre own world meet a few can only laugh now
I have met many “masters” best they sit aside and not get hurt or others hurt.The ones that are willing to help and welcome all are real..

I am a clown I will call my self a master when I die.

View MrRon's profile


4795 posts in 3269 days

#33 posted 06-06-2013 03:38 PM

Any of the following would fit the definition of craftsman />A true craftsman can make something out of a piece of 2×4 or a lump of clay that no one else can.
A true craftsman works out of love; not for profit. If for profit, then he is just a skilled worker.
A true craftsman is very modest. He never proclaims such.
A true craftsman usually gets recognized posthumously.

View Earlextech's profile


1162 posts in 2716 days

#34 posted 06-06-2013 03:57 PM

The designation of Master, in any field, used to indicate a level of education. Now that education is hard to come by, the modern world is not set up for it, it will be harder and harder to find any true masters.

-- Sam Hamory - The project is never finished until its "Finished"!

View casual1carpenter's profile


354 posts in 2501 days

#35 posted 06-06-2013 04:14 PM

My dad used to say that if you had to blow your own horn, it was not worth blowing.

That being said, a master is about skill, but also about confidence in their own skills and abilities. Allowing their work to proclaim the level of achievement combined with humility and realizing that learning is never complete. Seeing their work with a critical eye, reaching and striving for a level few can achieve.

Others have said it but with humility, a master can learn even from the apprentice at times. Confidence allows a true master to teach and pass on his knowledge with as much pride in the student as in any project.

View MrRon's profile


4795 posts in 3269 days

#36 posted 06-07-2013 04:17 PM

A true master never stops learning.

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