I’m often asked about my start in woodworking. And my standard response is, “My teacher, Werner Duerr, taught his program just like his apprenticeship in Germany. In the first days he taught us how to sharpen and use planes, chisels and hand saws. Once we had the basics of handwork down, he started teaching us how to use the power tools to speed up our work.” It’s a simple answer to a fairly complex question, however.
In high school I chose to attend my local vocational-technical school solely because of Werner and what he could teach me. From my sophomore through my senior year, I boarded a bus at my home school immediately after lunch and headed to the VoTech for an afternoon in the shop with Werner and my classmates. Throughout the three-year apprenticeship, we had theory class every Tuesday (mostly) and we either had skill lessons or worked in the shop the rest of the time. Theory only lasted an hour (or so), when we had it – a class within a class, as it were. We had text books and homework and all the things that come with your standard class of intellectual pursuit. Since the time when I was a small child, I’ve always loved reading books, and the text book for Werner’s class offered a way to rapidly expand my understanding of woodworking.
My love of books, and what I could learn from them, carried over into my life beyond high school. Period furniture and how to make it has been an all-consuming passion for me since I was twelve. I even went so far as to start a business in 1985 that dealt in antiquarian books about the decorative arts and architecture. I stocked (and collected) thousands of books on furniture and how it was made. I even owned a first edition Chippendale Director with all the additional plates that comprise the second and third editions. High style Chippendale furniture was the stuff that drove my passion for a very long time – just the thought of challenging my budding skills with all that carving was irresistible.
Spending as much time as I have in the last few years writing about carving and the other woodworking techniques I’ve learned and developed has caused me to reflect a great deal on my career. Having spent decades with my nose buried in books I’ve come to realize the vast majority of my woodworking knowledge came from being in the shop doing it. Werner only devoted one hour a week to book-learning us; we spent the rest of the time with tools in our hands. Reading about the carvings I wanted to do, and how to do them, took up approximately the same percentage of my time compared to actually being in the shop trying to carve them.
While I don’t regret the time I’ve spent reading about woodworking and furniture, because there’s always more to learn, I’ve come to realize that reading is not an end unto itself. While you can intellectually understand the materials, construction techniques and design, you can’t truly get good until you put that understanding into practice. Reading and watching are good starting points, but no collection of written words, or full-length video can completely explain every success or failure that occurs during a project. That is a story that can only be told in the doing.