Introductions, and a Question About "Apprenticing"

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Blog entry by Tom posted 07-02-2008 07:20 PM 854 reads 0 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Seeing as how I just joined and haven’t any woodworking projects to discuss, I thought that a little introduction might be appropriate. Here goes:

I graduated from college with a degree in Computer Engineering in 2006, spent a season working as a wilderness ranger in the Sierra National Forest in California, then returned to Virginia to start my “career.” For the past two years, I’ve been sitting at a desk nine hours a day, five days a week, hating every minute of it. The salary has kept me more than comfortable, and my boss has been pretty accommodating when I need to take some time off. As an avid climber and mountain biker, I tend to keep my evenings and weekends packed and thus maintained a fairly satisfactory work-life balance. So I’ve stuck with the job.

Last fall, I befriended some local farmers who were building their own home. I started lending a hand on the construction or around the property a day or two each week. After a while, they invited me to move out to the farm and live in the 90-year old cabin they’re moving out of, and I couldn’t think of a more ideal environment. After 9 months, the new house is nearly complete, I’ve moved out of my apartment in town and should be into the cabin by the end of the month.

As I’m sure everyone here understands, there’s something incomparable about working with your hands, even more so when you’re outside and close to the earth. Its something I took for granted when I was a ranger, and had somehow forgotten during all time at a desk. My time at the farm “sowed the seeds of discontent.” I grew more and more dissatisfied with my job and decided I needed to take some time off to gain some clarity and perspective. So I road-tripped through the Southwest for three weeks, climbing, biking, and spending time with a few of my best friends. During a five-day permaculture course in New Mexico, I was swept away by the positive energy of my classmates. People of all ages and backgrounds, excited about their lives, excited to learn, excited to embrace new challenges. It was cathartic. I thought to myself, ”Self, why are you still working a job you hate? What do you really want to do? What are you scared of?” And self had no good answer.

When I got back from my little journey, I put in my notice. The office is pretty short-handed, so I gave them six weeks instead of the usual two. But that six weeks is nearly up. Next Friday, I’m gone. I’ll be living and working on the farm, with a little part-time software consulting work to pay the bills. I’ve had a life-long interest in woodwork, but never the means or expendable time to pursue it. Now I do – a biking friend has basically given me the keys to his wood shop, which is pretty expansive (he runs a little furniture- and cabinet-making shop on the side). I’m going to work in trade (free lumber!) for a local sustainable timber harvester, felling trees and milling logs a couple mornings each week.

So long story short, I’ve got the hookup of a lifetime. I feel incredibly fortunate at this opportunity and am determined to learn as much as I can, diversifying myself between a few different types of work and still maintaining a little time for my biking and climbing addictions.

I’m considering this little venture to be something of a secondary education, one that’s going to take a lot of work and dedication. Experience being the best teacher, I intend to work wood so that I can grow as a woodworker. I suppose my question to the group is this: What kind of ‘syllabus’ would you design for a foundation in furniture building? While I’ve plenty of resources to go to with questions, this is no apprenticeship, I have to determine what and how I’ll learn. Where to begin?

9 comments so far

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4339 days

#1 posted 07-02-2008 07:51 PM

syllabus….heck it is hard enough just keeping up with what the universe throws at me. Get the basics. I found a teacher really speeds up the learning process. Basic design, cut list, rough cutting, glue up, machining, assembly, finishing, hardware. Working with hard woods, soft woods, plywood’s, melamine, laminates, varnishes, lacquers, stains, glazes, spraying, wiping. Band saws, table saws, lathes, drill presses, shapers, dust collectors, routers, nail guns, miter saws…jig saws. Chairs, tables, cabinets, trim work, doors, hutches, dressers…colonial, mission, arts and crafts, modern, rustic…small motor repair, sharpening, trouble shooting, juggling…sales, book keeping, estimating…basic legal crud…coffee time…remembering when you have just cut a $200.00 board 2 inches short just how much you love your job…then you might want to specialize.

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4339 days

#2 posted 07-02-2008 07:52 PM

heck i forgot handtools, planes, chisles, scrapers, hammers…..........

View Don Newton's profile

Don Newton

716 posts in 3643 days

#3 posted 07-02-2008 07:53 PM

It sounds like you’re livin the life. Knowing how to build things is one part of woodworking. Knowing what to build is another. “Boxes” are a good place to start. These run the gamut form blanket chests to carved 9 shell Newport style secretaries. An example of advanced woodworking would be chair building. And, lets not even get started on turning. What style of furniture would you like to build? Build what you like, notice the details, find out what makes each piece speak. In short, do your homework. If you are building professionally you won’t have as much flexibility. You will have to build what is commercially desirable. As far as construction the best way to learn is to resore existing furniture. Don’t reinvent the wheel, study how others have done it and improve where you can. Sorry if this reads like a shotgun blast but a disorganized mind is a terrible thing to waste. Foremost GOOD LUCK!

-- Don, Pittsburgh

View Harold's profile


310 posts in 3872 days

#4 posted 07-02-2008 08:49 PM

Now this is a personal opinion so it must be taken with a grain of salt. Although we all walk the same path rarely are we in the same place at the same time.
So here’s my thoughts, Syllabus is the wrong word for me personally, you can create a syllabus for a career, but your future, your life can’t be summarized or planned so easily. If we chose working with wood as a career, much of the joy possible is already compromised, but if we allow woodworking to chose us as you have been chosen the future is truly limitless. The things you love will be expressed in your passion and it will become relevant. This relevance to our surroundings is where truly unique works begins. Not only the trees outside your door, our local community but also the times in which we live. Dennis is correct in that a good teacher can share the fundamentals, I was taught in an unconventional manner by an old painter, debates regarding a better way to join wood were not an option. I struggled with this, perhaps as a result of my youth, or maybe just because I was prideful and I thought I could figure out a better way to do something. But after several years I finally realized what I was doing had been done that way for centuries, for millenniums, accepting these “basics” allowed me to create anything I would dare to imagine. So as Dennis mentioned, hand tools enable an intimate relationship with wood and this is wonderful beginning. I am not a traditional woodworker by any means but for me I know of no other way to impart my personal feelings, other than a chisel. That’s just me, I have seen several projects posted here by others that I know are somewhere else on this common path, but that have embraced the marvels of today and their work is literally amazing. Their attention to detail is truly an art, although many would object to the title of Artist. So you are at the head of the trail and we are all scattered out on the trail ahead. you will have to chose how you get down that trail, regardless of what you decide someone will be nearby to help if you need. Impossible dreams are the foundation of our bridges, our pyramids, these dreams led us to the moon and where they lead in the future is up to you. A box is wonderful place start, if for no other reason that you will understand that we all stand outside.

-- If knowledge is not shared, it is forgotten.

View OutPutter's profile


1199 posts in 4014 days

#5 posted 07-02-2008 09:10 PM


I recommend starting with small boxes too because they give you the chance to start with rough stock and practice squaring it up, making it flat, joining the sides, creating a top and bottom, etc. Plus, if you work it right, you can make your first project a box and your last project a box. wink, wink ;-) Check the projects that are tagged “Box” and see what I mean about the huge opportunities to practice a lot of different skills. You will appreciate them more and more as you progress.

Also, I would caution you about turning woodworking into your vocation instead of just a hobby. I’ve found that most folks who start out with a hobby can ruin the enjoyment when they try to make a living at it. On the other hand, if you work with wood for the pure enjoyment of it and it turns out to be a living, you can do what most succesful people recommend. “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Good luck on your journey. I hope to see your progress here.


-- Jim

View RobS's profile


1334 posts in 4331 days

#6 posted 07-02-2008 09:30 PM

There’s a good book on the box building routine….ScottB started on it here
In that post he has a link for the book.. Check it out if that’s the way you want to go.

And welcome, I think you’ve found the right site.

-- Rob (A) Waxahachie,TX

View Tom's profile


3 posts in 3640 days

#7 posted 07-02-2008 09:38 PM

Thanks for all the feedback. I don’t intend to turn wood working into my primary form of gainful employment by any means, but I tend to be somewhat intense about my hobbies and could easily see it growing to be my largest pastime – that being the case, I intend to do it well. Should it stop being enjoyable, I can’t imagine why I’d force myself to continue.

And Harold, I agree that syllabus is not a good word. I suppose my question would have been better articulated. The biggest concern I have is simply what to build. I want to avoid being overly ambitious but also challenge myself with new difficulties. There are so many incredible pieces to take inspiration from, its hard to keep those goals on a leash sometimes. I suppose I have an initial project list that is long enough to keep me busy for a couple months – I probably shouldn’t worry until that gets exhausted; but do they ever?

Time to get started!

View bfd's profile


502 posts in 3831 days

#8 posted 07-02-2008 10:32 PM

Hi Tom,

What is on your list? Is there one project that speaks to you more then others? I personally find each project that I work on is a building block for the next meaning that each project I take on I learn something new and challenge myself to do so that way any future projects will be that much better. Sounds like you are on an exciting path.

View Betsy's profile


3391 posts in 3920 days

#9 posted 07-03-2008 04:03 AM

Start with a box. Everything is a box, cabinets, dressers, tables, benches, almost everything has some sort of box in it. Don’t start with a really complicated first project. You’ll probably get discouraged.

Start small and work up. Don’t expect perfection on that first project. Don’t obsess about every little detail, get a few right and work up from there. Keep that first project so you can compare to the 100th and see how much better you’ve gotten.

Don’t get stuck doing one thing. If I never see another Adirondack chair it will be too soon. (I’ve made about 50 sets and am sick of those darn things!)

Even if you work with power tools, make sure you incorporate hand tools as you go. You’ll thank yourself later. The hand tools make the power tools work better – trust me. :-)

And if nothing else, remember to be patient this is a time intensive sport we are in.

Good luck on your new life experiences.

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

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