The Bleeding Edge of Risk

In the day of helicopter parents, litigious lawyers and cubicle life how is a person going to experiment with a risk vs. reward model with relative safety?  Woodworking gives us an outlet to analyze, and take the risks that can provide great reward while avoiding the risks don’t.

One example is pushing a board through a saw. It doesn’t matter what type of saw you’re using, if you push the board through in an unsafe manner there is risk of losing limbs or digits. Yes, you may have to performed that action 100,000 times safely but the risk still isn’t worth it. Analyze the situation, determine the risk vs. reward and take action. You should cut the wood using a push stick, or any other safety tool to reduce the risk to acceptable levels but still get the work done.

Now, let’s examine dovetails. One of the hardest things I do when teaching new woodworkers, especially teens, is convincing them that they have the ability to cut to the line. Invariably they’ll analyze the situation themselves and decide, “I’ll just cut a little off and chisel back.” But, there is just as much chance they’ll butcher the work chiseling. You can’t put the wood back in once it is chiseled out.

Read the Rest on Popular Woodworking’s Blog

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DSC_5352For the past 4 years I’ve been going to the Southwest Area Turners Association Symposium (SWAT) held in Waco during the summer. This is the second largest turning symposium in the country and it is by far the biggest inspiration for me every year to try more and do better. Applying what I see and learn to everything from cabinet making to, of course… turning. I could spend the entire weekend exploring the 734 pieces in the instant gallery alone. The quality you find, designs you see, and level of execution is awe-inspiring. What’s more amazing is almost all of them were provided by attendees with a few from presenters. These are items that with a little practice and forethought even I might be able to create! (well, roughly create)

DSC_5356DSC_5345Most years I blast thru the gallery on day one taking lots of pictures and seeing what I think will be my inspiration piece of the year. And then it’s to the vendor’s area and lectures. But during each break I make it a point to go back in and linger. Giving yourself time lets you notice things that were so subtle as to be overlooked in a casual glance. I find that the more time I spend it’s these little things that keep drawing me back and holding my interest. The best ones are the pieces I didn’t even notice on the first go around because of their seeming simplicity but on closer examination your mind explodes as the execution is so perfect it hides the complexity and skill needed to accomplish the task. To me… that is quality art. A piece so perfect as to hold your attention and make your imagination go wild.

2One of the pieces that intrigued me this year was this small, slightly offset, turned box. At first glance you say, ‘oh, nice shape’, and then move on as you know how to make boxes and it only takes a cursory glance to register the overall shape for future use. But then on the next day I spend time some with it. I noticed how thin the walls are yet the weight is appropriate and nicely balanced. The flare down the sides was a graceful curve blending with a slight offset to create a visually different curve at all angles of the box yet the grain itself matched perfectly top to bottom when angled right. The base was sized just right to hold the off center weight of the piece. The clincher in the piece was the slightest of cutouts in the top. And then it hit me, this wasn’t just a single offset, it had a multitude! The forethought that went into this piece was phenomenal! I spent the next hour with this little piece in my palm (that’s how big it was) showing other attendees asking questions on how they thought she did it. Boom… mind blown.

Another piece I saw was a simple small platter. Curly maple that had a dye treatment to the rim. Sure in had a slightly different shape in that it didn’t use a traditional ogee but it wasn’t a piece I noticed my first time around. Or the second. Or even the third. It wasn’t until late in the second day did a little glint of light draw my attention to the rim. And there I was for 30 minutes racking mine and every other brain around me to figure out how this guy created this oblong spherical brass rim embedded into the ridge while maintaining depth. I think by the end of the day I figured it out but my theory is he used 3 different types of epoxy, hand braided brass wire, and formed it all into a mold in three steps just to get glint of light on the edge. I’m definitely going to try this in place of holly in a federal piece someday!

IMG_9049Can you tell my mind was swimming with ideas. And these were just 2 of the 734 pieces present. Another nice thing at SWAT is that several hundred of these pieces are given away! Yes, items you’d think would sell for several $100’s in a gallery are given away to kids with cancer thru the Beads of Courage Program. Woodworkers really are a generous bunch. The contributions took up 2 tables.

This year SWAT broke every record with the exception of total attendance. More vendors, more instant gallery participants, more raffle entries, more raffle donations, more, more, more…

What I like so much about symposiums like this, be it turning or hand tools, is the breadth of people that come together from all walks of life. You have retired executives and extrusion workers, artists and accountants, oil field workers and optometrists all laughing, learning, admiring and ogling together with non of the barriers you might find in normal life. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, turning is a decidedly ‘white’ hobby and I haven’t a clue why.

IMG_9069What SWAT does so well is keep costs low. The event is organized by local clubs, each of whom host a room and arrange it’s presenters. Most have one nationally known ‘name’ instructor who puts on several presentations in a day and a couple of the clubs more talented presenters filling in gaps. All in all you got 24 presenters in 36 classes and 5 special interest groups. More than enough variety for the 880 full registrations sold.

Yet thru careful planning they still provide a pen turning area for first time turners, a ‘spouses’ area providing a chance to show off other crafts, and some really great food for the 3 lunches and 2 dinners they provide.

IMG_9010I’m also told they keep the costs to vendors low so you get a larger group and larger variety. It attracts locals such as the small sawmill in S. TX run by a lady and her friends in addition to the international brands who bring along crowd pleasing presenters such as Jimmy Clewes, Stuart Batty, Alan Lacer, and Carl Jacobson. The vendor gallery alone draws a huge crowd every year and since those people aren’t counted as registrants it’s likely attendance this year was way above 1000!

Because the place is so conducive for the vendors they contributed wildly this year to the raffle. I’d say they provided several times the value in prizes as SWAT did with the three grand prizes of Jet and Vicmarc lathes. All I know is the give-a-ways took well over an hour to get thru even moving at the auctioneers fast pace.

Next year is SWAT’s 25th anniversary and they promise it’s be the biggest one yet because they’ve been holding some funds back the past few years in preparation. They hinted that they will be opening up a few more rooms (each meaning another 9 classes and a special interest) and a handful more of nationally known presenters.

DSC_5301This year I went to see Lyle Jamieson demonstrating his hollowing techniques. I gleaned some good tips on reducing vibration, face plates, and using hunter style bits. Plus a simple pen laser makes blind measuring easier. Kirk DeHeer gave a nice presentation on using iron infused finishes and the patina possible. Kevin Felderhoff did a crotch turning that took advantage of a cool tail stock jam chuck that I just need to now make. Dennis Ford showed some small hollow forms. And Derek Weidman… ya, that guys brain works differently. I actually watched him turn a longhorn bull on the lathe. Or was he carving in the round. I was confused and in awe.

By the end of day 3 I was wiped out and all I did was eat and sit the entire time. Talk about brain overload. Which is a good thing as I now have an entire year to try out new things.

If you ever get a chance to go to a symposium or meet up like this make it a priority to attend. Even if it’s just to attend the free gallery of works.

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It’s the story man, the story.

1832 Market in Bastrop Texas on 1-15-16

This past weekend we worked a small local market in Bastrop. Having now moved close by this will likely become a standard market I’ll work monthly even though sales will likely be lower than desired. Hopefully I’ll be able to drum up some commission work interacting with this group regularly plus there is a local city museum being developed that’ll have opportunities for a ‘living museum’ that might open up so I’d like them to keep me in mind via all those live demonstrations.

I chose this weekend to work the event because it was their yearly chili cook off so there would be added traffic. A point of order, when working markets always ask about upcoming events so you can time your visit and get cross promotion.

The demo was tops as again and we sold a fair share of them in the event. But my Dad and I were also in production mode making them at top speed when an audience wasn’t present. He has a retail store in San Marcos that’ll purchase all the extras we make so while it’s slow… might as well make guaranteed sales even if it’s small ones.

Art sales where OK, left with a little under $400 after booth fees and such due to a few bowl and box sales. But the key thing is telling people that we’d be there monthly so they’ll expect us and telling the stories of the pieces we had on display.

Stories about where the tree grew, it’d history, the process we use to produce the work, and special features and such… these do two main things. Most importantly it increases the value of the piece in most customers minds thus making them happier purchasers and it develops an image of us as real craftsmen that at future dates they be more likely to remember when in the market.

In fact it is quite common for past customers to contact us to retell the story so they pass it along to another when they give away the piece.

So if at all possible remember the story of your pieces, especially if you do the harvesting yourself. Not doing so is the same as throwing away both cash in hand and future sales.

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Tool Storage for the Rest of Us

Tool storage – is it the most controversial subject in the craft? People have debated it. Great books have been dedicated to it. Philosophies have developed and wars fought over it (well, at least flame wars). I’m quite sure many woodworkers spend their entire woodworking careers pursuing it.

Here, I’m going to put the subject to rest. In my opinion, the cheapest, most efficient and flexible way to organize and protect tools for the majority of woodworkers is to just hang ’em on the wall. The literal and proverbial nail in the wall to hang your hat works equally well for chisels, planes, saws and whatnot.

I say it’s the most efficient method because storage, organization and use are all rolled into one. There is no forethought on what tools must be removed from a chest or drawer then temporarily stored on a bench or shelf for the task at hand. When it’s on the wall, you just grab it, use it and put it back. You won’t forget where you put it last because it’s always in the same spot. It’ll always be ready and waiting for use. It’s this efficiency that I love so much.

It also completely eliminates the traditional woodworking characteristic of an underdeveloped object-permanence due to the refusal to leave the “sensorimotor” stage. No more, “where did I put that?” Undoubtedly, those who don’t store tools within eyesight end up with drawers filled with the same screwdriver, tape measure, chisel and uneaten snacks. All drawers eventually become junk drawers. It’s an evolutionary fact.

Read the rest and see the video on Popular Woodworking’s Blog.

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The first weekend of the year.

In an attempt to keep y’all updated on weekly market news I’ll quickly describe the markets worked so far.

The first weekend of the year I attend a market I’ve been very consistent with so people expect me. The Barton Creek Farmers market. I did something this time I’ve never done. Had a sale. Specifically an inventory reduction sale. Over the past 4 years there have been some items that just haven’t moved or that I wasn’t to proud of. Some items that have become devalued due to damage at events, storage, transportation and such. So since I want 2016 to be the year we go a bit upmarket with higher value items I decided to put ridiculously low prices on items I wanted gone. Thus the first ever for wortheffort inventory reduction blowout sale.

It was a success in that it got rid of items that hadn’t moved, eliminated most all my ‘lower market’ merchandise. And got a little cash in hand.

We sold a little over our target goal of $500 per set up selling only clearance items. But January, especially the first weekend after the holidays, is as a rule horrific for sales so this was pretty good. Plus the weather was COLD!

The next day I worked Hope Farmers Market in East Austin and sold the last of my clearance items. But we barely covered the booth fee and such so this ended our weekend with about a $400 loss on our goals.

This is to be expected in January as discretionary money is likely gone after the holidays.

Next weekend I’m working a very small Farmers Market in Bastrop TX with exceptionally low inventory and am attempting to try a new market in West Austin around the Bee Caves area.

More news to come.

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How much do you need to make at a market.

Success is not absolute. What some people deem a successful event others consider a complete and utter failure. It all depends upon what you want out of an event.

I know many woodworkers who enjoy the experience of working an art show. We spend an inordinate amount of time in our shop alone with our thoughts. The social interaction with new clientele and the family atmosphere developed with other vendors has an intrinsic appeal to many. Even if they don’t make a single sale it was an enjoyable way for them to spend the day. So success is determined by the experience.

That is a perfectly acceptable attitude.

There are others that utilize markets to ‘dump’ product to support their hobbies. (Yes I use that ‘dump’ term derogatorily.) You’ve enjoyed the experience of making new and exciting stuff. Learned new techniques and expanded your skill set. The reward is creation and thus sales goal is to be able to continue making. I’m willing to bet more than half of all casual vendors at events, which includes an inordinately large percentage of woodworkers, fall into this category. If you every hear someone say “It supports my hobby.” they are likely in this category.

I have to admit this category of artist very often makes some incredible products and I’m completely jealous of their skills and talent. They might take an entire weekend perfecting a bowls carvings or weeks applying dozens of coats of finish to a box. Maybe a project takes days of work spread out of months of time. And it is the experience of creation they enjoy and the product is almost secondary to the pride of accomplishment at level of execution.

The main goal of many of this type vendor is to just be able to continue and grow in the craft. So if they are able to make enough money to cover the costs of production or buy a new tool to make even better stuff they are happy. And that is success in their mind and perfectly appropriate for their goals.

Unfortunately these groups are your competition and if you are trying to earn a living off of your effort you start out at a disadvantage. Accept it, deal with it, learn, and work to overcome it. I forget where I heard the saying but it’s quite common and rings true. Striking out on your own to make and sell provides you the freedom to work three times as hard, twice as long, for a fraction of the income.

Despite that, if you can make it work it’s a nice way to exist.

So having said that lets discuss what a person trying to earn an income needs sell in order to say an event was a success.

I’ve worked hard lately and made major changes in order to reduce my costs of living and operating my business. So I’ll use my personal numbers to illustrate a point. You adjust to your circumstance.

There are large costs in setting up a booth at an art market. Commonly these include tents, tables, displays and all the labor needed to organize, design, and build such items. I’m making the assumption with my numbers that you’ve already got these items, deducted and monetized them, and thus they don’t count as a cost in my numbers. But if you are just starting out understand this might be hundreds or thousands of dollars. Same with vehicles, tools and material to make that first inventory. What I’m going to discuss is ongoing costs.

Here are my assumptions used to determine my break even sales:

  • retail price is double material cost
  • you wont sell more than 10% of inventory on hand in any one event if you plan properly
  • total rent/mortgage/insurance/utilities/maintenance cost/repairs of your living + work + storage establishment(s) is $1000
  • you have a set vehicle expense (payment, insurance, maintenance, fuel, etc…) of approximately $800/mo.
  • your work week is a 5 day 40 hrs, (add about 10 hrs per event worked (with a goal of working 2 day events on the weekends) on top of that.
  • booth fees plus buying food and water at the event averages about $70 per day set up
  • your goal is to earn only $1000/mo above and beyond basic living/work expenses.
  • you work the event alone and pay yourself minimum wage to work it.
  • you want 2 weeks off a year

So lets add up what you need to sell in dollars to meet these fairly meek goals.

  • $250 a weekend to make your income goal of $1000/mo.
  • $250 a weekend to cover facilities
  • $200 a weekend to cover vehicle expense
  • $90 a weekend day for min wage hourly pay per person working (10hrs x $9) (1 person)
  • $70 per event for fee and sustinance

So far we are at $860 in sales to work a weekend event. Now if you work two events that means you need $475 in sales per day (remember you add another $90 in labor)

Here’s the heart breaker. If you are using a pricing model of selling your work at double it’s cost to produce then you now need to sell $950 each day of a weekend to make your life goals.

In all seriousness, what I’ve layed out here could easily describe a retiree needing to earn a sustenance living. A situation I see very frequently on the circuit.

Now take away all income expectations (like those who are just ‘supporting their hobbies’) for someone who just wants to work a Saturday market once a month what must they sell in order to meet that goal.

Well paying for your hobby still requires overhead expenses such as a place to work, materials and such. Supporting your hobby for me means it doesn’t cost you anything other than time. So I’ll use the same numbers as above minus any income. I’ll also say they only work 1 event per month because that seems pretty common for this type of seller.

You would need to sell at least $1040 per time you set up. Anything below that and your hobby is costing you money.

Now does anyone want to look at the numbers for an individual who just enjoys the atmosphere of a market?

You will quite often hear me talk of a $500 an event break even point. This is because I don’t use the ‘double costs’ pricing structure because many times I collect free material. So when I work a market until I hit $500 I am paying the difference for the privilege of being there. $500 is the equivalent of a goose egg.

After reading all this what are your thoughts about trying the art/farmers market scene yourself. Do you see how the measure of success you set for yourself can affect both your enjoyment of the event and success of others?

In the next article I’ll talk about picking markets I see will give the best chance for success.

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New direction for Blog

In the last quarter of 2015 I started including a new segment into our Monday Lunch Discussion video series I called ‘Market News’. The numbers show a small group of people are interested in this. So for 2016 I’m going to blog much more about this topic and our experience during the year and just have a quick blurp in the video series showing the stuff we’ve built. This will allow me to go into more detail and show actual numbers.

I believe this will open the eyes of many individuals with plans of woodworking on the art/farmers market circuit and what it’ll take to succeed. I’m not pretending to know how to be successful or offer a sure fire way to make a sale. But I will share what has worked, and not worked for us while also providing information I believe is helping us out.

So for 2016 I hope you’ll follow along on our adventures in the art market realm.

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Woodworking: A Tool for Developing Imagination

Like most latchkey kids who grew up in the ’80s, I watch too much TV. If you are ever in my shop you’ll likely see a small TV on in the background. Do I really pay attention to it? Not really. I’ll catch 10 or 15 seconds, remember the plot and move on. It’s white noise – my generation’s version of an “El Lector” (reader) in a cigar factory.

You’d be amazed what a random brain input can do for your thought processes while woodworking. This week, I caught a minute of a “House” episode where the good doctor saved a patient’s life by looking in a microscope, one of the most analog of diagnostic tools. The doctor’s young team was relying on data from every whiz-bang quad-billion dollar device known to the medical world – but it was Dr. House’s creative thinking that saved the day. The young team’s imagination was limited by their reliance on technology.

This got me thinking: Is technology having the same limiting effect on imagination and thought as George Orwell’s Newspeak language in his “1984?”

I saw something like this in the technology classes I taught in a high school. By the time they reach high school, you can divide most students into two classes: doodlers and non-doodlers. When it came time for using “creative technology” such as imagery and design programs, I found that the doodlers had a huge advantage over non-doodlers. In my opinion, it wasn’t artistic skill that made the difference, but an analytical imagination.

The doodlers took their experience and applied it instantly to the technology. They knew what they wanted to do and sought the tool within the program to accomplish it. The non-doodlers began by trying to find out which tools were where in the program and what they did. The difference is subtle, but it affects what is made.

The doodlers made complex items with themes and meaning from the get-go, while the non-doodlers made lots of boxes, circles and squiggly lines. Both groups were new to the programs, but the non-doodlers were almost instantly held back by the limit to their imaginations’ language.

Ever wonder why the “Maker Movement” has exploded? Look at the demographics. The generation who grew up learning by buying and assembling kits is now at an age where they have more discretionary income and are having kids. Guess what they’re sharing – the ability to buy and assemble parts and kits into stuff. Granted, they might hack those parts before assembly, but they’re still assembling ready-made parts.

Tell me that the limited creative language of prefab parts doesn’t stifle imagination. Where will the inventors of our next generation come from if this IKEA method of “you must adhere to what’s available” thinking becomes the norm?

The moral I took from the “House” episode was that if you need a doctor, you want one with a diagnostic imagination that’s not limited to what the latest machine will do. I want a doctor, or for that matter any professional (architect, researcher, scientist, etc.…) who thinks of technology as just a steppingstone to a larger goal. And I don’t want future generations of woodworkers to give up on  building a corner table because the box-joint jig only makes 90-degree corners.

The holiday season is almost upon us. So let’s do something a little different. This year, instead of a tablet or a smartphone, why don’t you buy yourself and your kid a weekend adventure or tool? Something to open up opportunities to practice and expand thinking creatively; something that’ll allow him or her to exercise the imagination in ways normal life doesn’t.

Being a woodworker, I suggest giving you and your kids the chance to learn something new. Sign up for a weekend class on basic joinery, then build a new bedroom set together – or a backyard Millennium Falcon treehouse! Whatever it is, make sure it’s a gift you can do together. It’s important to exercise and expand creativity, but it’s also important to demonstrate that this is a lifelong developmental process.

And in the world of Newspeak thinking, the kids with expanded creative resources will be the ones with a leg up on the minions.

Start prepping now. I’d like to hear your ideas on other woodworking gifts to share with the next generation with the goal of unlocking their creative thought processes. Share your ideas and thoughts in the comments section below and let’s discuss.

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Technology Wanted

Back in October of 2011 I wrote a blog post about the technology setup I used to start my online presence. At the time it was truly a bare minimum of hardware that was already a bit dated with some nice software. Things haven’t changed much. Same computer, same software, same audio…

My camera setup still consists of a smart phone but I do now have a 720p camcorder I got second hand from a pawn shop. The flip style cameras have all died. And my Nikon D70 (6mp camera from 2004) is still a wonderful device but isn’t capable of capturing video.

This has been one of the biggest handicaps for me producing higher quality media on a timely manner. If you capture low quality then you can’t make it better. And if it takes a minute to process every mouse click and a day to render a the final product editing slows to a crawl.

So one of the areas your donations will help support is upgrading the technology we use to make the quality better and allow for more timely production.

I’m completely happy with the software I use. Even though it’s an older version the Creative Suite from Adobe still has more capabilities than I need or use. Our upgrades will strictly be hardware.

Our first upgrade will be a computer. To save money and get precisely what a video production system requires I’ll likely build this. Slow production has been my biggest frustration and handicap.

Second we’d like to acquire a modern DSLR from Nikon (I’m wed to the brand due to lenses) that can capture HD video and will accept a wireless audio system to kill 2 birds with one stone. The key feature I’m looking at here is record time because I’d like to be able to shoot 20-30 minutes continuously. It seems this capability is eeking it’s way down to the lower end models.

Lastly is probably the least expensive item. Lighting. It’d be nice to have enough shop lighting to not need but maybe one light box. My current setup is some fluorescent tubes duct taped to my scroll saw cart.

So when you support the school and see dramatic shifts in the quality of our output you’ll know what your donation allowed us to acquire.

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Taking Woodworking Classes on what You Already Know

*** previously published on Popular Woodworking’s Blog***

Continuing education should be a priority in your life – especially in areas such as favorite hobbies! The longer you travel down the path of a particular subject, however, you gain more knowledge and might feel a bit more advanced than available offerings. Many classes seem targeted toward beginners.

But as woodworkers, I think we’re lucky because in addition to raw knowledge, there is a kinetic aspect to our education. While you might already know how to make a box, taking a class from a master box maker and participating in that class “the right way” will return rewards. (Plus there’s an argument that by taking the specific project out of the equation, you’ll learn more because you focus on items you can use in any project.)

It really does do my educator’s heart good when I see the likes of Peter Follansbee and Frank Strazza taking classes from fellow masters in their specialized fields, then going on social media to share what a great experience it was and how much they learned.

I admit I’ve been slack in my own education these past few years as I worked on other little endeavors on an ever-tightening budget. So when our local woodturning club had a (not a raffle in the state of Texas) for a class with Jimmy Clewes, I jumped at the chance to throw in my $5. Especially because I’d never had a proper turning class. Clewes is a woodturning tour de force. He’s a “British-born-and-raised but now tried-and-true American” woodturner who seemingly is traveling the world on an unending tour on the demonstration and teaching circuit. If you ever get a chance to meet him, you’ll know why he’s in demand; he’s very entertaining and an excellent teacher.

The two classes I “won” were on turning a long-stemmed goblet and making a small box – two things I’ve done before, many times. So my first job as a student was to forget what I knew.

IMG_8820Woodturners’ tool grinds are personal. I really like my grinds. But the first thing I did was waste away $10 of steel to reshape my bowl gouge to match Clewes’. His class, his tools, his techniques. That way, when I mimicked his movements, his posture and his presentation, I had a better chance of experiencing the feel he gets as the tool interacts with the wood. And that’s the point of forgetting – to get inside the teacher’s “feel,’ no matter how much experience you might have.

For example, I’ve always used a fairly long straight grind on the wings of my bowl gouge; Clewes favors a somewhat shorter, more upright and pronounced curve. We both have reasons for our preferences, and both will get you somewhat the same results. But if I hadn’t taken his class and worked in “his” way, it’s unlikely I would have experienced the benefits – and disadvantages – of his grind and techniques. By being there, I got to witness his grip on the gouge, pressure differences between his hands, the angle of the handle and so forth – each of which affect the feel and change the results. (That’s something you simply can’t get from a video.)

IMG_8746That bowl-gouge grind and presentation are only two of the little tidbits I managed to steal from the man. I also learned Clewes’ approach to refining and sizing the inside of thin hollows; his use of the classic-grind bowl gouge as a skew doing a shaving cut; his method of negative-rake scraping using a swept-back spindle gouge. These are all now technique resources in my future work.

So my suggestion – no matter how experienced you might be: Take a class. Take a class even if you already know how to make the project. And forget what you know before walking in the door.

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