Designing To Learn

by | Aug 12, 2016 | 11 comments

Cutting joint after joint isn’t the best way to learn.

At least not in my opinion. After a lovely sunny, Sunday afternoon, all you’ve got to show is twenty-odd, randomly dovetailed corners. Some neat, some shite, some alright.

You’ll sit and think about these twenty-odd dovetailed corners, and you’ll realise, ‘I could have had a few boxes made, ready for use’.

If you’d made the boxes then you’d have also broken up the repetition with other jobs, like ploughing a groove for the bottoms.
Also, with the repeat joints you’d probably notice that your twentieth, randomly dovetailed corner, isn’t any better than the second or third. Probably because you got bored. Your interest dropped, it started to all feel a little pointless, you lost focus, and of course stopped formulating and learning.

Dovetailed project

Learning In Context

I think one of the best ways to learn is through doing it in context, in other words, build projects. They don’t have to be all that complicated, instead they want to be designed to educate. Designed with a focus.

Want to learn how to cut dovetails?
Make a small pencil box or the like. Don’t do something with a million joints. Remember, you’re learning. A few joints will do, and allow you to focus heavily on them. You’ll be cutting that second joint slightly tighter than the first, because of that slight gap you noticed, etc.
The better you get, the longer your attention span becomes as you’re not focusing so hard.
It also helps to try to avoid jobs that you’re not intending to be your focus. Keep that pencil box small, so you don’t need to prep enough wood to build a galleon.

Learning with small focused projects gives you a purpose to practise. You’ll put a lot more pride in to it, and you’ll want to get those dovetails right, because if not you’ll have to look at them every time you reach for a pencil.
Rather than the twenty-odd corners, simply make one or two sets of test dovetails first. These will ensure that you understand the processes, ready to jump in with your piece.

sawing to a line, repeated practiseLearning Through Repetition

I’m not saying that you should never have a random repeat session. Sometimes it’s essential, like when you first start woodworking and you’ve never even held a saw.
At this point, it’d be a good idea to draw a load of square, straight lines and saw to them.
Do it for ten minutes a day if possible. But once you can saw to a line, you’re ready to cut dovetails.

I still do this from time to time and I’ve been woodworking all my life.
Only a short while ago I used a Japanese saw for the first time. I had a repeat session, cutting test line after test line, before I got the gist. And you might also remember from the post on frame saws, that it took me quite a while before I got confident with it.

So repeating absolute basics is essential, but as soon as you can cut to a line and take a continuous shaving, get a project on the go.

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About Richard Maguire

About Richard Maguire

As a professional hand tool woodworker, Richard found hand tools to be the far more efficient solution for a one man workshop. Richard runs 'The English Woodworker' as an online resource and video education for those looking for a fuss free approach to building fine furniture by hand. Learn More About Richard & The English Woodworker.


  1. Bob Groh

    I like your suggestion and your reasoning. Going to do it from this time on.

  2. Duane Peterson

    I’ve just one question, what do you mean by “cutting to a line”?
    After I scribe the line I put my saw teeth on it and saw and if I do it right there is no line left and the cut is square and plumb.
    Thanks for your time

    • Michael Ballinger

      I think ultimately he means that you can control the saw well enough to cut where you want it to with relative precision. I never split the line by the way, instead I cut on the waste side but as tightly to it as I can.

  3. Henry Fiacco

    This all makes perfect sense and is what I’ve been doing for a while now. The only downside is that my work area had become cluttered with boxes with progressively tighter joinery…. But then again, I may have all my Christmas presents ready to go ahead of time

  4. Meikel

    I fully agree. In fact I actually need a project to be motivated. I find it pointless and dull to just do repeating exercises without a deeper meaning.

    My first project was a small board to hang my keys. It also had a shelf to put my cell phone and the company badge on. It is pretty rugged and – well – ugly. But it features a stopped housing for the shelf. I learned a lot. And it does its job quite fine since some time now. It’s just four boards, but I learned sawing, chiseling, planing. I even used a router plane. So far it didn’t fall apart. Hmm.. on a second thought: It’s not ugly and I’m quite proud of it.

    To trick oneself into the repetition, one can also sneak it into the normal construction process. Do some straight and plum relieve cuts in the waste before cutting the dovetails. Plane an edge square which is sawn off and squared (again) later on. Normally you’d skip that of course, but in the beginning it provides some repetition exercises with the motivating background of the small project. “Training on the job” as they call it.

  5. Eric

    I have been doing just this lately and have really enjoyed the process. I typically build scaled down versions of larger projects I am interested in building someday.

    Great suggestion Richard!

  6. Judith

    I completely agree. I’ve done a bunch of practice joints, but I’ve realized I really learn only in the context of an actual project. Something about the fact that what I’m doing matters brings everything home.

    • Michael Ballinger

      There is something wonderful about standing back and looking at something you’ve made imperfections and all. I’m nearly finished making a boat bed for my kids and many joints I cut for the first time on it. It’s very rewarding ????

  7. Eric D.

    Last picture made me cringe and I hear a voice in my head saying : “He is not doing it right” 🙂
    I have very little woodworking experience but I learn enough about my Japanese saw to know that you want to use it like japanese do. And holding the wood vertically for a rip cut, like you do on the picture, lead to complains I read a lot, about “not seeing the cutting line”. Another common complain is about having to blow saw dust from the cutting line.
    Whatever your tradition is, you obviously want to see where the saw enter the wood: from what I understood, traditional Japaneses woodworker lies his timber on low trestle, and cut it “from above”. I imagine that then, they can kneel near the work for precision work, or stand over it and give powerful stroke by holding the saw with both hands.
    I prefer to stay quite general here.I like the tool precision and its super thin kerf so it motivates me to continue searching how to better use it for myself.
    I spent some time looking on youtube for some advises after buying this saw and found a lot of contradictory suggestions among “westerner” woodworkers. I still miss a good definitive reference on the subject but I guess it is hard to find it without understanding of the japanese language.
    (and sorry for my not so good english, I am only french 🙂

    • Alex Paterson

      Hi Eric

      Your English is much better than my French. Does holding a piece of timber vertical not allow the dust to fall away so that the lines can be seen? I was taught years ago to start a rip cut with the piece angled away from me and to cut from alternate sides with it angled away from me until the cut was established. Once the cut was established the piece was rotated 90 degrees, held vertically and the cut continued. Rotating the piece 90 degrees meant it stayed vertical and that less pressure was needed to hold it upright in the vice (reducing the risk of bruising the wood). Cutting a line from above using trestles was for site carpentry or pieces of timber that were too long or wide to be held in a vice. I was also taught that cutting between two lines allows the sawn faces to be planed to the marked lines, but always felt it was somehow cheating because I didn’t need to be as accurate as when sawing to a single line, even if it is a very practical way of making sure that there was enough left to true-up the sawn pieces.

      Having said all that I’ve never used a Japanese saw so claim no expertise or experience of them.

  8. Colin Dale

    Hi Richard & Helen
    When you will be launching the details for the plane build?


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