I’ve had a somewhat combative view of education since high school. Things didn’t go so well for me then. This was the mid-eighties in a small town in central Pennsylvania. There was backwards stuff going on in the town as well as the school. It wasn’t progressive. A lot of the teachers were close to retirement.
When I went to art school education finally started to make sense. I learned you could research and study the things you were interested in and follow leads just to see where they ended up. I became a good, hardworking student again. When I was in high school I knew education should make sense. But, I didn’t know it firsthand. I guess I just felt, really strongly, there wasn’t any reason it shouldn’t.
I didn’t graduate college without first taking a year off and doing a little exploration. I was still a little skeptical of traditional education. My belief, if I can call it that, was that education should be very hands on and an exploratory process. Because of this thinking I’m self-taught as a woodworker. It just never occurred to me to go to school to learn woodworking.
At this point in my career I’ve started to realize with a class or a mentor here or there it could add a lot to the understanding of my craft. What first showed me that was a class I was given as part of my compensation for teaching a class at Snowfarm Craft Center in Williamsburg, MA. It can often be tough to figure out if there is a class that is appropriate and will be challenging enough to be worth taking. The first thing I saw of interest was a class in Japanese Joinery taught by Yann Giguère of Mokuchi Studio in Brooklyn, NY.
A large part of the joinery we worked on was various types of mortise and tenon. Nothing I hadn’t done but there were a few tweaks I could make here and there. Then we got to the good stuff. First the Shachi tsugi and then the Kanawa joint. We unfortunately covered these last two joints fairly quickly as most of the people in the class had cried uncle at this point.
It was great to watch Yann work. He was extremely confident with a chisel and the hours he had put in driving it to a line were evident. What probably ended up the most valuable to me was demonstrations and conversations I had with Yann about sharpening. Sometimes you need permission from someone you respect and who’s opinion you value. Keeping hand tools sharp is a lifelong skill that is best practiced with a lot of patience and an open mind. Keeping things simple is important. In so much of my early sharpening, many years ago, I spent a lot of time chasing after an edge from stone to stone. Looking back, I think my different grits were flattened inconsistently and every time I switched grits I was reshaping the edge of the blade. It’s not intuitive but in general sharpening is rough shaping and then once you have the edge and angle you desire, you’re doing light polishing to get to a fine edge.
For me woodworking is the following of a process that makes sense to the individual. I attempt to pay attention to the results I get and when I’m not happy with a result I look to add more information to adjust my process. I constantly adjust steps of the process to get to something that makes sense for me and my way of working. With this approach to sharpening I was at a place where I felt my results could be better and spending time in Yann’s class provided the information I was looking for to make adjustments that ended up giving me a better result.
Self-taught is a bit of a misnomer because in truth no one learns without help. The list of people that have contributed to my education is enormous. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to teach woodworking. Having to explain why you do what you do goes a long way in contributing to your understanding of the goals of your work and your priorities in creating work. At this point in my career being able to work under someone that spends a lot of time teaching is a tremendous benefit. It’s taken me a long time to be ready to go back to school.