How to Become a More Organized Woodworker
by Chris Black
I've heard some of you lament that you do not have enough time, tools, space or skills to practice the kind of woodworking you desire. Many times these subtle excuses serve as psychological barriers which get in the way of us doing any woodworking at all. Perhaps all you really need, however, is to become a little more disciplined in how you approach it.
Here are five bits of advice on how to get your woodworking more organized:
In terms of discipline, military garrisons and monastic communities have similar approaches to daily task organization. The structure of these societies lets you know when and where you're supposed to be and what you're supposed to be doing. Our lives have similar schedules although maybe not as strict or intense. If you break down your day into general time phases, you know when you're to be at work, when's dinner and what time you generally go to bed. Mixed among these phases are natural pauses or down time. The trick is to combine these pauses into a phase so you can work some wood or at least think about it.
I generally spend anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour in the shop every morning before going to work. In the evening my goal is to spend another 30 minutes in the shop. Maybe I'll just sharpen a tool or sweep up, but at least I'm in the shop and productive. I find it pleasant to think about my time in the shop during the day. Sometimes I use these mental vacations to work out a design problem or visualize a complicated assembly. Use your natural down times to mentally organize your finite shop for efficiency.
I find it extremely useful to plan and organize my limited time before I step into the shop. I like to use checklists I make during the day or the night before. These lists keep me on task so I don't piddle. They might be as simple as a finishing schedule or as complex as a detailed cut list. The point is to create efficiencies so you not only enjoy making the project but eventually complete it as well. The key to eating an elephant is to take one bite at a time and to keeping eating. The discipline comes from staying on task and not starting something else until the current project is done. Recently, I finished a wardrobe I started last winter using this method. It took 10 months but it's done. Do this and you won't have 400 half-finished pieces all over the shop.
With each project I try to learn something new. It's not always a conscious decision, but an overall attitude or approach I take. Perhaps you'd like to learn to hand cut mortise and tenon joints as an alternative to the dowel joints you're more comfortable using. Choose a non-critical part of the project and give it a go. You can even use your shop time to practice a new skill and not necessarily do any project. In thirty minutes a day for a week or two, you can learn to French polish, cut half-blind dovetails or anything else you wish. Woodworking skills are cumulative. They build on one another. Do this for a year and you'll be amazed at what you've learned.
We all wish we had the perfect shop. I've owned three commercial shops over the years, and I can guarantee you none of them was right. They either lacked proper heating and air conditioning, dust control, a decent finishing room or adequate space, and none of them had all the tools I wanted. In fact one shop we kept in my pickup truck. We'd roll up to a job, unload the tools and start building cabinets right in front of the customer's house. Not much fun in the winter or when it rained. Somehow though I managed to eek out a living and make stuff.
My favorite example of space discipline is in The Workshop Book by Scott Landis. One featured woodworker has his shop in the kitchen pantry of his apartment. He has to open a window to plane long boards. Granted he doesn't have any machinery, but he enjoys his craft nonetheless. Woodworking requires vision as much as it does space. Grab yourself a block of basswood and a penknife and go work wood.
I recently spoke with a fellow who told me that he had been collecting tools and machines for almost 7 years. When I asked him what projects he'd been working on, he replied none, because he didn't have all the tools he needed. He missed out on 7 years of woodworking because he thought he didn't have the right tools. He might not have been able to do everything he could have conceived of, but he was crippled from doing anything at all because of a perception of need. Remember my pickup truck shop? We were able to produce high quality built-ins with a circular saw, a chop box and a cordless drill. Just because your shop doesn't look like Norm's doesn't mean you can't enjoy making sawdust. My kids come up with all kinds of nifty projects with little more than a coping saw, a rasp and an eggbeater drill.
You don't have to become a monk or a marine to acquire discipline, but you do have to get in there and work some wood!
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