Learning Through Limitation

by | Apr 6, 2016 | 17 comments

build a handplane

The Hand Plane Build video is on its way – it’s currently being edited.

I’m in a unusual position for a learner.
I can observe Richard working, then pick up his tools and try for myself. I know the tools work well, and you could envy that. But the thing is, it takes away the one excuse that all novices need. I can’t blame my tools.

When things aren’t working I get corrected. Advised when I need to adjust the pressure in some way, or told to relax when my instinct is to hold tighter. And I get shown how to see errors before they become too big to remove – tiny glimpses of light that I wouldn’t have thought to look for.
I suspect I teach Richard as well, about how things should not be done.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been learning to make videos as well as woodworking. For this I’ve had neither expert guidance nor well set tools, so the experience has been very different.

We bought some old, used Handycams off Ebay for a couple of hundred quid. One of them flickered threateningly whenever it’d been on for a few minutes, but fortunately responded well to a gentle thump on its side.
I pointed the cameras at Richard, filmed, edited and then uploaded to YouTube. The colours and picture were awful, the sound even worse, and any movements were jagged.

A couple of years later and we had both our English Workbench and Spoon Rack Series filmed on those same Handycams. The flickering one failed to respond part way through the top flatten on the workbench, but I managed to coax it on to the end of the build before it finally died.

Despite the shoddy kit, we’ve been complimented for the production quality of our Video Series.
When you’re learning on your own I’d say there’s a lot of sense in matching your tools with your ability. Something I feel a lot of novices overlook as they feel it necessary to kit up better than any professional. The limitations of the cameras forced me learn the bigger picture. Not how to operate a camera, but about lighting, exposure and composition etc. If the cameras were complex, I’d have probably overlooked some of the important stuff and just got confused over buttons and settings.

At the moment I’m getting very much confused over buttons and settings as I get myself familiar with our new, more fancy filming kit. We’ve filmed the Hand Plane Build as a kind of warm up so you can (finally) expect this to be coming to the blog very soon. Richard’s previous discussion on the plane build can be seen here.

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About Helen Fisher

About Helen Fisher

Helen seeks to explore ways to live with greater joy & sustainability for both ourselves & the planet. Concepts which have led to the launch of her second business We Are Carbon. As the producer of our videos, Helen brings a unique perspective & injects life to our education ensuring it is both a pleasure to watch & easy to follow & learn from. Learn More About Helen & The English Woodworker.


  1. Chris Buckingham

    One thing has become apparent to me over the years, and that is the equipment sold to the “handyman” is by far the most difficult to use, this is usually because it is of flimsy construction and poor materials, if one uses a “professional” piece of equipment however, the build is much better, the design is more robust, and the control systems/adjustments are much easier to perform, so, if a complete novice uses a professional tool/equipment, he/she, will get along fine, but it usually takes far more skill than any novice has, to operate a “handyman/cheap tool, the moral of ths is, buy the best equipment you can afford, then add £100 more to that.

    • Jasper

      Second that.
      Even more so with toy tools for kids. Only good for putting them off handwork.

      • Kermit

        My daughter started hanging around the shop when she was 4. She told me she wanted a toolbox and tools for her birthday. “…but not that plastic Platskool stuff. I want real tools.” She’s 44 now and still has the toolbox and still uses real tools.

    • Greg

      Spend more than you can afford on tools labeled “professional” doesn’t seem like great advice. The choice isn’t between professional and useless, the objective should be tools that are fit for purpose and thats not necessarily the most “professional” available.

  2. Ricardo

    “In limitation the master reveals himself.” -Goethe

  3. Barry Lowis

    What you have achieved with your video equipment to date has been awesome Helen. Well done.

  4. Jasper

    I know what you mean – I learned photography using a separate exposure meter and a 50’s reflex camera (yes kids, a device without batteries). But a pocket Lumix-thingy is much handier.

    In my experience, it’s nice to have guidance from someone who will not be bothered by buttons or settings.
    One of my woodworking teachers was good because he didn’t teach much. He’d walk around the classroom, observing quietly, hands on the back. And suddenly appear next to you – right before you were to make a huge mistake. Asking: “Are you sure you want to do it like that?”

  5. Derek Long

    On the other hand, not having “instruction” allows you to think outside the box because you don’t realize there is a box there in the first place. My wife took up photography and has been widely complimented on her fantastic pictures. They are fantastic because they are unorthodox and she really had no idea what she was doing. She didn’t know she “wasn’t supposed to do that.” I like the videos done by you and Richard for the same reason: because they look “unrestrained” but not “amateurish.” They are refreshing and fun as well as informative, in my opinion.

  6. Paul Bouchard

    I’m big fan of your videos. I agree that it’s easy to think that fancier tools are the shortest path to good work. I think it can be a bit like golf clubs, or musical instruments, where you can spend a lot if time researching, spend a ton of cash, and if your results don’t meet your aspirations, the obsession eventually ebbs away and you’re left with load of “stuff”.

  7. Jim Beach

    Hi Helen,
    I have always carried out a little research first and then bought the best I could afford/justify. That process has served me well. When we are learning we don,t want to make it harder by compensating for rubbish equipment.

  8. James Whinfrey

    I wouldn’t have known you were using cheap, dodgy video equipment Helen. The quality of your productions has been outstanding. Well done 🙂


  9. Ian M. Stewart

    Ooohh – the Hand Plane Build. Now I’m excited! Thank you for all you do. Learning is a mystery to me, I just know I do it wrong for a long time, then after a while I do it better and after the longest time, I do it well but don’t know what changed.

  10. Neal Mangham

    Nice piece, Helen. I for one never noticed the glitches you did, because I have thought your work was already great! I do look forward to the Plane video, for which I’ve been waiting with bated breath.

  11. rimbo

    The latest of your videos is on vimeo. Are you in the process of switching to vimeo completely? If not completely, which channel is going to be updated first? Thank you for everything. I’m waiting for the hand plane video as I would wait for my firstborn son 🙂

  12. Mike Ballinger

    There’s a balance between cheap and nasty and cost effective but as someone else mentioned fit for purpose. I have some gorgeous brand new tools that were not cheap and I love them. They’re a great benchmark. I also have old eBay purchased tools that I’ve had to try and try to first learn about how to fettle them and then learn to use them. I’m very much still learning but the old tools have taught me far more than the expensive new ones. Buying good gear is great but it’s not everything.

  13. Salko Safic

    There are pros and cons in teaching yourself in anything really, you make a mistake and you learn from it and move on but the steps are at snail pace. If you had a teacher within a year you would of become proficient what it would take you two or three years to learn on your own. In the end will you know anymore by making all the mistakes on your own I don’t really know but sometimes it’s the only alternative one has.

  14. David

    I purchased a new hand plane from the store which cost $30 thinking it would be great for my new woodworking hobby (I’m a beginner). I was dismayed to find it didn’t work. The 3 videos posted about the cap iron helped me immensely, and I’ve been able to get my plane working like a champ. The cap iron required hours of work to get it to a point where it was working well.
    After working through these troubles, I have a much greater appreciation for the tool than I think I would have had it worked out of the box. Now I can’t wait for the wood plane builds to be ready, as I plan to use my cheap plane to build an array of wonderful wooden planes. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the inspiration.


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