The best way to learn woodworking is by making mistakes and then learning from them.
Practicing new woodworking skills over and over will allow you to eventually master them. That is as long as you don’t simply learn bad habits and incorrect techniques and keep repeating them.
How to acquire basic woodworking skills
Before you can practice woodworking skills you first must learn how to perform the techniques associated with those skills. Woodworking is a great hobby, but it can be frustrating if you feel incompetent when using your tools. Take heart, however, because this article will show you some of the best ways to learn new woodworking skills.
Seek a mentor for feedback
Once you have practiced a new skill such as cutting dovetails several times, show your work to a more experienced woodworker and ask them to critique your work.
Even better, ask if you can become their apprentice!
Nothing beats having a mentor show you in person how to do something, then guide you as you attempt to perform the same task. This hands-on experience alongside an experienced woodworker will help you to dramatically shorten your learning curve and have you on your way to becoming a mentor for another aspiring woodworking!
Be prepared, however, because a lot of woodworkers are to the point when providing advice. So don’t be thin-skinned and feel offended by any constructive criticism you may receive. Instead, use the review of your work as an opportunity to improve.
Formal woodworking classes
One of the quickest methods for you to learn woodworking may be taking formal classes.
Many local community colleges and universities offer adult education programs at night or even full-time degree programs in woodworking. These courses are usually taught by master craftspeople who are experts with many years of experience in the woodworking field.
I took an evening woodworking course several years ago at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which vastly improved my skills and introduced me to woodturning. I made the candle stand table pictured below in the class. While the table is not perfect, it was my first attempt at woodturning, something I may not have ever tried had I not taken the class.
Dedicated woodworking schools are another excellent option for formal training. The Marc Adams School of Woodworking (MASW) in Franklin, Indiana, and the North Bennett Street School in Boston, Massachusetts, are two examples of dedicated woodworking schools.
Marc Adams’ school offers weekend, one week, and two week-long courses on everything from basic joinery to period furniture reproduction. Classes run almost year-round, with four to six courses offered each week. Classes are taught by some of the most well-known woodworkers in the world. I’ve not been able to make it to Marc’s school yet but doing so is on my bucket list! Check out the YouTube video below for a tour of the facilities at MASW.
The North Bennett Street School offers both full-time programs that require an application and acceptance for admission as well as single continuing education courses for amateurs. Graduates of this and similar schools can be equipped with the skills to do practically any type of woodworking they desire, and many become full-time professional woodworkers.
While full-time enrollment in a degree program may not be the best option for someone just getting into woodworking as a hobby, it does offer lots of options for those who want to pursue furniture making and design and other woodworking specialties as a life-long vocation.
Other great options for formal woodworking training are classes taught at local woodworking tool retailers, like Woodcraft and Rockler stores, courses put on by woodworking or woodturning clubs and associations, and at makers’ spaces that have opened up across the country.
Makers’ spaces offer not only classes but also provide access to shop space and woodworking tools you may not have yet purchased and interaction with a community of woodworkers of different skill levels.
A great example of a maker space is Make Nashville, located in Nashville, TN. This maker space offers classes and workshops in many different areas in addition to woodworking. So, if you decide woodworking is not for you, you can be exposed to other interests like ceramics, metalworking, electronics, etc.
Click here to access a maker space searchable directory on Make magazine’s website.
Informal learning with family and friends
Woodworking is often considered a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be.
Sometimes, one of the best ways to learn something is to do it with another person. As the saying goes, two heads are often better than one!
See if any of your family members, friends, or neighbors are interested in going down the woodworking journey with you. You can then combine resources to buy and share tools and shop space. Agree on goals that you want to accomplish together, like learning how to cut mortise and tenon joints. Practice these skills together until you both feel comfortable performing them.
Use your newly-learned skills to work together to build the same project together. You can decide if you want to build one single item, like a piece of furniture, together or if you want to build multiples of the same thing, such as cutting boards for Christmas presents.
Barter your labor for instruction
A unique way to gain skills and experience with woodworking is to offer to trade your labor for some instruction and shop time in a local cabinet or furniture maker shop.
Perhaps a cabinetmaker doesn’t like to do shop clean-up duty but doesn’t have the staff to delegate to it. Offer to sweep the shop a few hours a week, change sanding belts, or clean saw blades and router bits in exchange for a few lessons on skills you want to learn.
The cabinetmaker gets a cleaner shop, and you get training from a professional. Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up opening your own shop or going to work with the cabinetmaker down the road!
Use books, magazines, TV Shows, and YouTube as woodworking education resources
I have learned a great deal about woodworking from books, magazines, TV shows, and videos. And you can too!
Thousands of woodworking books, magazines, TV shows, and videos have been published or produced over the years. In fact, searching for “woodworking books” on Amazon.com returns over 10,000 results. There are 289 results for “woodworking videos” and over 20 different woodworking magazine subscriptions for sale on the site.
My collection of woodworking books exceeds 160 titles, while I have around 1,000 issues of different woodworking magazines.
Some of my favorite woodworking magazines are:
It is true that the information I gained from reading is all “book learning”. However, books and magazine articles have provided great guidance on acquiring many of my skills as well as delivering inspiration and motivation to continue to get better at my hobby.
I believe the Internet has had a profound impact on the hobby of woodworking. Never before have aspiring craftspeople had access to such a vast and varied amount of information about the craft.
Whether they are online courses on Instructables.com, websites from around the world (including WoodworkingJunction.com), woodworking forums, tool manufacturers’ websites, or YouTube videos, you will find countless online resources about any imaginable woodworking topic.
Of course, you can’t always believe what you read or see on the Internet! Ask ten woodworkers how to do something and you’re likely to get 15 or more responses. However, you should quickly find a consensus as to the best methods to attack a woodworking problem. For example, some woodworkers will argue you should cut dovetail pins first while others claim cutting the tails first is the only way to go. But whichever side you take, you can find information on how to make the cuts.
One of the things that helped me to learn more about the hobby was watching shows like The New Yankee Workshop with Norm Abrams, Woodworks with David J. Marks, The Woodwright’s Shop with Roy Underhill, and The American Woodshop with Scott Phillips, and Woodsmith Shop. As a side note, I have met all of these guys while attending the International Woodworking Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, on different occasions. They all are as down-to-earth and personable in person as they seem to be on TV.
I’m excited about a new woodworking show, Rough Cut with Fine Woodworking, that will be airing on PBS stations beginning in April 2018! Check out the program’s webpage here for episodes and show times.
Now get out to the shop!
This article has presented several options for learning more about this great hobby of woodworking. So don’t let the fact you may not know much at this point stop you from getting out to the shop and making sawdust!
As Edmund Burke once said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”