Trying My Hand

by | Jan 20, 2014 | 13 comments

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had to remind myself that’s it’s January. A few bright and mild days and a little chipping up in the trees had put that unmistakable hint of Spring in the air around here so I was almost pleased to see a thick blanket of frost covering the floor this morning. Pleased, because I was starting to worry we wouldn’t get much use out of the stove Richard had gone to the effort of fitting last weekend.winter 3When you’re busy in the workshop the need for a stove is a lot less than I had expected and I realised that yesterday when I decided to go with my urge to pick up the freshly tuned plane left sitting on the workbench. Richard has often said that creating a new setting for the hand tools which is entirely separate from the business and workbenches allows him to enjoy it all very differently and I’ve started to see what he means. Everything feels less pressing and much more relaxed – just like a hobby.
I used to feel like this many years ago when I’d potter alongside Richard and carve a little something or make miniature pieces of furniture and I remember my first and last attempt at cutting dovetails well; I had to force the joint together fiercely despite it having many large gaps.
PIneWhilst I’ve always had a great fondness for making things when it comes to woodwork I’ve naturally left it to Richard and stuck to my own area of knowledge; the designing and history. This gives a good balance between the two of us but as any crafts person will know, the processes are very closely linked and we’re often bouncing ideas off one another. I understand wood well enough to design well but I feel there’s a lot I could gain from taking a more practical interest.
Yesterday whilst deep in thought about this I started planing a pine board. Once I was taking some full length shavings I remembered just how addictive this was and it made me wander if I would be able to try my hand at those dovetails again soon.  I looked down at the pile of shavings I’d made and felt that for now I was quite content at simply making those, it was therapeutic. Athough I would like to expand on this soon and maybe making furniture isn’t out of the question, it would be fun to learn and with all the tools in the workshop it would be an opportunity missed if I don’t give it a try.

I’m aware of course that I could be cheating; I’d picked up a beutifully tuned plane and hadn’t even thought about setting it up or the need to sharpen. If I were doing this on my own it would be those parts which I’d find the most daunting. I also have a feeling that the very solid nature of the workbench was a big help – of all the benches I’ve helped assemble, oil and wrap this was the first time I was able to appreciate one for what it was and it did look all the more beautiful for it. Richard explained to me last week how he needs his Little John bench back at the other workshop but I’m wondering now if I could make him change his mind as I think I’d like to keep it where it is! If I’m successful then maybe I’ll be able to start out in a little woodworking journey of my own and perhaps even start my own journal at the side of this blog.


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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

    Your observations about the separate workshops are very true, it is sometimes nice to shut the door on “Work”, and open the “Free time” door, somehow you do not feel that you are stealing time from yourself. As for the Dovetails, well,you will know when you are ready for them. As you say,there has been a feeling of Spring over the past couple of weeks, with Butterflies flying,and Violets in bloom,but then today was cool and misty,until lunchtime,then the sun came out again,we will soom be able to work outside again.

  2. thekiltedwoodworker

    So glad the title of the post does NOT mean you attempted to square up your hand!

    It’s funny how, when woodworking isn’t your livelihood, it doesn’t take much to keep you out of the shop for a month or two. It starts small, missing an evening here and there because of an appointment or a meeting. Then you somehow go a whole week without stepping into the shop and, before you know it, you’ve not made plane shavings in a month!

    Fortunately, it just takes one trip to the shop to get something you need for a (wife’s) project and you suddenly have the urge to get back into it. You reclaim your precious shop time once more and pretty soon you’re back to getting dirty looks from the spouse because you’ve neglected to help fold the laundry because your unrestored #5 needed a little more fettling…

    “I had to force the joint together fiercely despite it having many large gaps.”
    – a dichotomy many of us have experienced, to be sure.

  3. Rich Prehn

    I agree with both you and Richard that hand work should be separated from machine work, if at all possible. I live in a little apartment over my wood shop, a shop that is devoted to the business of making cabinets and sash for middle income residential housing. Table saw, planer, joiner, shaper, etc. plus that spawn of the devil, plywood. Dust, noise, low level anxiety, and general mayhem are my impressions of this shop. As I near retirement I had thought, for my own sanity, to devote more of my time to hand work, and contemplated squeezing a hand bench into the shop somewhere. But no, mayhem and handwork do not go together, not in my book. So I am now constructing a big heavy bench which I will shoe horn into my little apartment, along side my kitchen counter and television. It will mean moving wood up and down the stairs but it is a price I, and my back, are willing to pay for tranquility. So, I say “go girl.” If I can do it, so can you.

  4. Paul Chapman

    Give it a go, Helen. I’m sure you’ll love it and the process of making stuff can only help your design work.

  5. Bernard Naish

    Dovetails just need practice with good tools and a good method. Richard can supply the last two essentials.

    Practice on scraps of wood does not seem to help much so I suggest you make a few boxes. The exception is gaining experience with sawing to the line and I suggest you cut a dozen marked out lines every day when you have time. Concentrate on holding the backsaw losely and letting it do its work. You can hear when the saw is working well as it will whisper to you rather than groan.

    I am certain you can do it!

  6. Kevin

    Hello Helen! After hearing so much about you, it’s great to hear from you! It sounds to me like you definitely have the urge to try your hand, so I advise to go ahead and do it. Not only will you find it therapeutic and rewarding, it will help you to understand more about the process itself. If Richard needs Little John at the other shop, perhaps a good first project for you would be to build your own bench. This way you can fit it to your needs. Good luck, hope to hear more from you

  7. mike murray

    I struggle with even a pencil drawing of things I want to make. You’re a long ways ahead of most people in that respect. You have the knowledge and skill set to do the design proper.

    As far as picking up different hand tools and learning to use them goes, that should come pretty easy to you, especially with your knowledge and exposure to wood and tools.

    I have a feeling that you are way more capable than you make it sound.

    Anyway, I know I would be interested in following your progress through a project.

    Great blog post by the way.

  8. Vic Tesolin

    I would read that journal! Exploring any craft is so exciting…good for you Helen.

  9. e

    Ah… dovetails. I enjoy dovetails, mostly because there are no rules other than that they hold satisfactorily and that they satisfy you. My first dovetails are still in service and in full view (mailbox hanging on my house), and I have done many more since. The first look OK, but are not perfect. I had the advantage of coming from metals trades, so the fit was natural for me: test it and trim it til perfect. Pencil mark rather than dye mark, but the same idea…. Fit and look for the smudge. pare the smudge off and try again.

    Not necessarily the cabinetmaker way, but it worked. Now, I am much closer to dead on and the fit doesn’t require marking, as I have learned to read the wood better. Use a fretsaw for roughing rather than a chisel, and in maybe another 20 or 30 years, I’ll be good.

    For now, I am ok. Would never have got to ok if not for the first one, and if not that all were for a purpose, so I couldn’t walk away. The need was, simply, the old mailbox fell apart and the post won’t leave it on a table.

  10. Gary P

    I have to disagree that practicing dovetails on scrap wood does not help much. It helps a lot. Doing something over and over again, will, give you the results you want. My problem when learning was I had to force myself to slow down. When I finally did I was able to make very nice looking dovetails. If I can, so can you. Best of luck in what ever you decide to do.

  11. Jeremy

    Go for it Helen! When the mind is open it’s time to learn! Let Richard manage all the fiddling, you just have the fun bits, if it doesn’t stick you’ll have only fond memories, and if it does then the chores don’t quite seem like work once you are down the slope. Often beginners see things in a way that ol’ timers miss, so I know I’d love to hear your experiences, especially if as well written as this post.

  12. Doug Nicholls

    The last dovetail joint I made was at school in 1968! I know have a batch of boxes to make for family with lots of dovetails all quite intricate. I am looking forward to the challenge. But first I have to complete my new workbench from slabs of wood donated by my neighbour. And this also means eventually fitting Richards leg screw vice. As I don’t work with my hands at work its a real treat to just try handcraft in my workshop and use a different part if my brain. The relaxation factor is high too – until I make a mistake !

  13. Michael Forster

    Go for it,l Helen!
    During my training as a joiner I was, with cruel irony, nicknamed the dovetail king because of the number of gruesome, failed practice joints littering my bench! I just couldn’t even get close. Some years later, I abandoned the trade and went to music conservatoire where my tutor taught me a practice system that, decades after that, I decided to apply to dovetailing techniques (having also got a decent saw in the meantime). It’s now my favourite joint to cut and I feel a tinge of disappointment when a client commissions a box with corners jointed differently! Even now, having lost count of the number of saleable dt joints I’ve cut, I still get that buzz when I see and feel it tapping together nicely – especially the houndstooth variety that I recently added to the repertoire.
    I also share your pleasure in hand-planing – something else I had to relearn and find therapeutic.
    Good luck with it – don’t let Richard have all the fun!


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