Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Learning How to Learn


Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.

Educators like to argue they face an uphill battle in the classroom every day of the week.  For some it is a struggle to explain their material—the periodic table of elements is no easy sell.  Others have to make the incomprehensible understandable—try chaos theory sometime.  And then there is the teacher condemned with just plain mundane—English grammar. But on one thing they will all agree, none of their students learn in exactly the same manner.

Some of us absorb through the written word, others yearn for a lecture complete with blackboard and an opportunity to take notes, and a special few only learn through in-depth investigation and writing long papers. Oh, and don’t forget the visual learners—who long for PowerPoint and a lot of pictures.  Just to make things even more difficult, there is a whole set of us who requires a “hands on” experience before claiming to be educated.

That last category includes most of us who would like to be craftpersons.

I, for one, need to sharpen that plane, cut the plank and drive nail or screw before arguing the concept has sunk into my cranium.  

A fancy phrase would be “experiential learning,” but that is too all-inclusive.   “Experiential learning” applies to everything from marriage to child-rearing.  “Hands-on” suggests sawdust in the air and shavings on a shop floor.  In which case, I am a “hands-on” student.  

This is why woodworking schools come with work benches and a chance to make your own mistakes—once, twice, three…even four times.  The only way you learn to properly employ a Japanese saw is to be condemned with using it for everything from cutting mitered joints to a bagel fresh from the toaster.

Try the latter trick out of your spouse or children’s sight. It’s a good way to learn the saw’s abilities and a great way to draw blood if the coffee has not yet kicked in.  I will say this—here’s experiential learning—a Japanese saw cuts bagels far more quickly than a serrated bread knife and leaves a much smoother surface upon which to ply cream cheese and a bit of smoked salmon. Hint, hint, don’t use the saw to cut salmon…your blade will never smell the same again.  Not that I would know…just saying, don’t do it.

(Sidebar—I can’t pass on this one—my father once used a bandsaw to slice up frozen salmon remains for crab pot bait.  Worked like a charm, until the “dust” melted.  The shop smelled more than a bit rank for weeks.  Fortunately he passed on that lesson, I have found no need for a hands-on version of that educational insight.)

Thinking of band saws, bagels and slicing.  The next time you break a blade here’s a fun project that will justify spending $35 on a replacement.  Take the broken blade and cut it into 14 inch lengths.  Then drill a 1/8 inch hole dead center, one inch in from each end.  Next step, take some 1 x 4 inch pine and cut 15 inch lengths.  In each piece of pine cut a notch 1 and 1/2 inches deep by 12 inches long.  This should give you a long u-shaped lengths of lumber.  (Here’s the tricky part…pay attention to the orientation of the cuts for the future bagel blades that is to follow.) Cut a blade width slot in both legs of the “u” to accommodate the band saw blade remnants.  Be sure the saw edge is facing up along the broadside of your u-shaped boards.  Fix in place with wood screws.  You now have the perfect bagel or bread cutter.  

That’s hands-on learning you can use to impress other woodworkers or the local handyman.  I don’t think it will sell as well as the Scandinavian butter knives in your own kitchen, but maybe your spouse likes that really rustic look mixed into the culinary equipment.  

Hmmm…really went off on a tangent here.

Back to my thought on learning.  As a craftsperson there really is only one good way to learn.  And that is by doing. Be it in a classroom or the solitude of your own shop.  My own experience, classrooms are great for object lessons, but intimidate those of us who don’t like to make mistakes in front of others.  I prefer to create future firewood in private.  In either case, the end result is the same.  You have learned another skill the only way our predecessors knew how to impart their wisdom—pick up a tool and try it yourself.  Hands-on learning.