Overthinking woodworking

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Blog entry by BerBer5985 posted 02-17-2012 04:04 PM 10836 reads 0 times favorited 19 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’ve had the great opportunity to watch Paul Seller’s series of DVD’s along with read a lot of Christopher Schwartz’s material and being a newcomer, I’ve come to the conclusion that when most of start out, we tend to over think everything. We have had it drilled into our heads in everything we’ve done up until this point that we must MEASURE everything we do. If I’ve learned anything so far, and I’m glad I’m learning it now, is that MEASURING in woodworking is for the birds. Whether it’s the EXACT bevel we sharpen our tools or the measuring of laying out our projects. I’ve found so far that I could do quite well at this point without the measuring tape, as long as I have a marking gauge, a set of dividers, a bevel gauge, and a square. I’m debating completely throwing the tape measure out. I’ve found that in woodworking, there is so little that accurately gets MEASURED with numbers on a ruler or tape measure. Measuring is a form of ROUGHING out your plan. The truth is, I wish I had learned this fact when I first started. I was so concerned with measuring everything I did and I was finding out that the projects I started with weren’t as ACCURATE as I was hoping they’d be. I began thinking, “How can this possible if all my measurments are correct.” It was to the point I was pulling out my digital calipers to measure and check everything to make sure it’s the exact thickness I need when in reality, I didn’t understand that the project will turn out just fine whether my piece of wood is exactly 1” thick or 1.2566763” thick. As long as everything is marked using the same marking gauge or the same bevel setting and marked always from the same side and then making sure that all dadoes, tenons, and mortises are based off of each other instead of measurements, then everything will turn out more accurate and fit together perfectly ALL WITHOUT MEASURING A THING! In other words, let the pieces of the project dictate the sizes of the project, instead of a measuring tape.

What inspired this blog is I’ve been reading a lot of people debating over sharpening tools and the correct methods. I have to say that to this point, the greatest bit of information I’ve come across is watching Paul Sellers sharpen his tools. It was like a magical woodworking epiphany! Up until that point, my MEASURING side of my brain, which tends to make everything more difficult than it needs to be, kept telling me that I had to use a honing guide and my bevels had to be the perfect angles and I needed a worksharp 3000 or a tormek or whatever. And to those people that have them, don’t be offended because I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t use them, I’m just saying that I’ve found you really don’t need them. Woodworking has been done for 1000’s of years without Tormeks, Worksharps, or fancy honing jigs. I know it seems impossible! How did they know what their bevels were on their tools without a veritas mark II honing jig?? I have a secret for you, they didn’t! I’m sure their tools were hand sharpened to an approx bevel somewhere between 20-30 degrees and they worked fine. Same method I’m finding is so true in sharpening my own tools. No more jigs, no more machines, no more switching discs on the worksharp, no more setting every bevel perfectly. Just hand sharpened on my set of diasharp diamond stones and hit the leather strop with honing compound. 2 minutes of time and sometimes less, I’m back to work without having to drag out the $500 worth of sharpening equipment that I kept telling myself I had to have. I’ve come to peace with the fact that my chisel might have a 32.987387654789 degree bevel instead of the 30 degrees I was hoping for, but when it sharp, it cuts wood perfectly every time!! That fact used to bother me to the point that I had drilled in my head that I have to buy $100 honing jigs and $300 machines to make sure my tools are sharp.

I’m sorry for the long-winded thoughts and hope no one who owns one of those very well made machines and honing jigs gets offended because they do work very well and they make tools very sharp. I just wish someone would have told me this info before I started in woodworking. So with all this being said, there I two things I will leave you with:

1) The less MEASURING you do, the more ACCURATE you will be


2) Keep it simple stupid!

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One,

19 comments so far

View RomDodd's profile


27 posts in 4232 days

#1 posted 02-17-2012 04:32 PM

Well said.

-- Romney

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 3452 days

#2 posted 02-17-2012 04:45 PM

Oh brother, well yeah, no need to measure if you want half assed results and mediocre pieces. (roll eyes)

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View khamilton's profile


8 posts in 3298 days

#3 posted 02-17-2012 04:57 PM

I have to agree with the piece on sharpening, when i first got my handplanes and replacement blades, i bought an mkII, and used it to sharpen them for the first time. at first I thought “wow this is great – perfect bevels” (this was before i actually did any major work with them).

After a few sharpening sessions, i realized the time it took to mount the fence on the guide, put the blade in, and then get that brass screw loose to remove the fence from the guide was alot of wasted time, so i figured i would try it freehand and eventually i’ll get good enough at sharpening. Turns out that after my first freehand sharpening, the blade was ready to go, i’m not sure if it was a 28 or a 31 degree bevel on it, but it was sharp and worked just as good as it did when it was a perfect 30 degrees.

I’m still pretty new, so maybe i just don’t see the difference because i’m just not good enough to know better and perhaps as my skills get better i’ll be more picky about the angle of my bevels. are there any old-schoolers that can comment on this?

I think measuring is good to get a basic idea, but i’ve found once the project gets underway, i use more relative dimensions than going from a plan.

View BerBer5985's profile


445 posts in 3397 days

#4 posted 02-17-2012 04:59 PM

HAHA^^ I’m not telling people not to measure, I’m just saying do more building using the pieces as the references. Like basing the dado strictly off the piece you’re making the dado for. Or when making dovetails, you mark from the made tails (or pins if you’re into cutting those first). You certainly don’t measure. Even the lengths of stretchers or tables are best marked after the legs are temporarily installed instead of measuring. Finding the center of the piece is best with a marking gauge from both sides until the mark that is made match both sides. If you measure, it’ll be darn close, but not as accurate as the other method.

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One,

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 3452 days

#5 posted 02-17-2012 05:13 PM

Then what you are talking about is not not to measure, but learn how to work efficiently. This only comes with experience after you have been doing this for a while. Take your dovetail example, sure you can use existing dovetails if all you make are drawers of the same size with the same pin (or tail) distribution all the time.

As to the sharpening method, although I disagree with Mr. Sellers, if I was to adopt a similar method for quick honing I would use the scary sharp method with free hand holding. This way you always have a flat surface.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3631 days

#6 posted 02-17-2012 05:19 PM

Dividers are much better at woodworking than calculators are.

The trick is to save your head for what matters.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View BTimmons's profile


2303 posts in 3462 days

#7 posted 02-17-2012 05:31 PM

Can’t really take issue with any point in this blog. Sharpening, in particular, seems to me like a trap that some people can fall into if they overthink it. You can treat it like an exact science (and I usually have a very scientific outlook) and get stuck doing endless asymptotic work, tilting at windmills looking for that perfect edge that can only exist on paper, or you can treat sharpening as a means to an end. The end of course, being when you stop sharpening and actually get your work done.

Like you said, it doesn’t matter if it’s a “32.987387654789 degree bevel instead of the 30 degrees I was hoping for”, it only matters if it cuts.

-- Brian Timmons -

View Sarit's profile


552 posts in 4117 days

#8 posted 02-17-2012 05:35 PM

When he says measure, he means using a device with numerical markings to determine an absolute length. You can call this absolute measurement. What we eventually all learn is that you often times will be more accurate when you can use relative measurements. Often times relative measurements are just markings on your workpiece in relation to another workpiece. In this case you aren’t really taking a “measurement” per se which is why BerBer is saying that he is NOT measuring.

View NBeener's profile


4816 posts in 4151 days

#9 posted 02-17-2012 05:39 PM

I think it’s about the point of view you bring to woodworking.

Some of us are sort of numbers-nerds, and like to over-analyze, over-measure, and—ideally—get precision to a millionth of an inch.

Most of us who fall into that category PROBABLY don’t believe it makes us better woodworkers. It’s just who we are.

I find no fault with people who

- gobble up info, and produce sloppy work;
- gobble up info, and create museum-quality pieces;

- spend NO time on “precision,” at that level, and produce sloppy work;
- spend NO time on “precision,” at that level, and produce museum-quality pieces.

I think it’s a little bit about how each of us is wired, and what we like to bring to the hobby.

Good post.

-- -- Neil

View reggiek's profile


2240 posts in 4247 days

#10 posted 02-17-2012 05:57 PM

I agree with certain parts of your statements….but even though woodworking has been done without certain modern tools and methods, does not mean that these new ideas…etc….are not useful. The tormeks, worksharps, etc….are good time saving devices for some (I hand sharpen my tools because I learned that way – although I would use a tormek or such if I had one available). My desire is to enjoy my woodworking experience….and to craft something useful and appealing to the eye….whether I sharpened my plane on a veritas Mk II jig or on a flat piece of granite with sandpaper glued on top does not make alot of difference in that respect. I know there are some that are purists….more power to them….but in my case…I do not have the time available to me to do all my work purely by hand or by methods used many years ago…I still enjoy what I do.

As for measuring….I have found that there are times to measure….and times to fit….most of the time I find I measure and then sneak up to the fit….but each time the piece should be close to the measurement – or else the project is out of proportion (not square…not parallel…etc). There are many many times that a project needs to fit a pre measured spot (like cabinets in a kitchen) and where doors, drawers and such need to fit somewhere with very close tolerances….eye/hand or guesstimating in these cases can waste alot of expensive lumber.

-- Woodworking.....My small slice of heaven!

View BerBer5985's profile


445 posts in 3397 days

#11 posted 02-17-2012 06:50 PM

I hope there is no one who is offended. I’m not saying this is THE WAY to woodwork, this is just becoming MY WAY. I’m still new to all this and I’m just offering my findings so far. When I say measure less, I’m talking about relative dimensioning when putting joints together and certain elements of the piece. My mind has been wired the numbers way and I find that my projects go faster, smoother, and turn out better when I work on simplifying things instead of making them complicated by getting numerical measurements. There are certain times when measuring is needed like in the example above. This post could go on forever because it has to do with technology. I think technology helps in a lot of ways (tormeks, honing jigs, routers and router tables, etc) but I feel like sometimes technology complicates things. Believe me, I have a smart phone attached to my hip all the time, but it wasn’t long ago that I didn’t have a cell phone at all and somehow people managed to get around, conduct business, etc. I also find that technology in ways make me forget alot of skills I learned growing up, like reading a map. It’s made me incredibly lazy and my son twice as lazy as I was growing up. I forgot how efficient using a map to get where you’re going can be. It’s also very fast. I pulled out my cell phone, took the time for the map program to load, then typed in the address, then waited for the the cell phones signal strength to be good enough to pull the map up and blah blah when in all that time, I could have pulled the old map out and been on my way. As good as technology is, sometimes it makes us forget that things got done just fine before it was invented. And I’m not saying let’s all be neanderthals, but woodworking has taught me that things can and have got done, sometimes more efficiently and accurately, before technology. I’m not strictly a hand tool user or a power tool user, but I’m finding that the more I complicate things, the worse the project gets.

Believe me, this is not a personal attack on anyone who uses any particular method. I’m just glad you enjoy woodworking as much as I do, regardless of the method. These are strictly my personal findings in woodworking so far and I still have bunches to learn. I just wish someone had told me these things before starting and I probably would have saved myself some money and grief when making projects. I probably would have started and completed more projects if I had known these things before starting.

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One,

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 3452 days

#12 posted 02-17-2012 07:16 PM

In that sense I agree with you, the trick is to recognize when one approach is better than another. For example I would not use any cutting machine that has not been squared to the best possible measurement, even if it takes me a couple of hours and gauges. I am anal this way. But once it is square most of my cuts are referenced from other cuts since I know my equipment and my lumber is perfectly square.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View Manitario's profile


2816 posts in 3860 days

#13 posted 02-17-2012 07:33 PM

You make some good observations. I find too, that I measure less, other than for rough dimensioning, as you mentioned. This is not to imply that my work is imprecise; in fact the opposite; the better my skills become, the more precise I am. Simply, precision for me is easier to achieve using marking gauges or calipers or story sticks which are exact, rather than trying to measure to the nearest 64th etc. Part of the problem I think, of trying to use exact measurements is that if you’re off by a tiny amount on one measurement, the error gets multiplied throughout the project. Using a marking gauge in theory allows you to use an exact, repeatable dimension over and over again.

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View BerBer5985's profile


445 posts in 3397 days

#14 posted 02-17-2012 07:34 PM

True^^ In this blog I wasn’t saying never measure anything! That is a time when being machinist-accurate is necessary to be woodworking-accurate. My point is that I, me personally, and maybe some others, tend to get stuck in the details that we fail to realize when it’s important to measure with a tape measure, digital caliper, etc. In all honesty, when it comes to hand tool work, it seems the simpler the better when if you use power tools more often, you’ll find the need to measure a lot more. For example, when you need a piece to fit into your dado you just made with your exactly 3/4” thick dado blade, the piece that goes in must be exactly 3/4”. When making dadoes by hand, the dado size is strictly dictated by the thickness of the piece going in. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3/4” thick or 25/32” because the dado you’re cutting will be exactly that size because it’s referenced off that piece. This is why I am enjoying using hand tools more for my joinery. Number one, it’s just fun, and number 2, I don’t have to measure and get so caught up in the exact thickness of my piece that I’m working with. It’s a world where 25/32” is just as good as 3/4”. Going beyond that, There are certain pieces when making a plan that you will just not know the dimensions of until you get into building it. This is where referenced measurements = more accurate. The truth is however, that when I started woodworking about 2 years go, I found myself laying out and marking and building strictly with a numbers on a tape measure based on my prior experience doing contractor building work and being dissatisfied with the results that I swore to be 100% accurate. Now I find myself rarely reaching for the tape measure and instead using the piece itself as reference, or a marking gauge, or a divider, etc. A major revelation I had is that the project will always be more accurate if you measure less with a tape measure.

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One,

View Dwain's profile


621 posts in 4836 days

#15 posted 02-17-2012 09:13 PM


Again, you make great points. I find myself in the “feel” category, as opposed to a numbers nerd. I fit things as I go, looking for the right fit from a piece rather than a measurement. I will never dissuade a woodworker from doing what they think is right, however. I know that measuring is an important part of this hobby, but I look at woodworking as an art just as much as a feat of engineering.

to the OP, woodworking has been done for 1000’s of years without a tablesaw, router, drill press or jointer. Do you have any of those? I’m not attacking, but we have a lot of conveniences today that we enjoy. I could get the same quality of work from an old stanley #4 as a LN or LV plane. The decision to use the tools you use is yours alone. Just as I wouldn’t trust myself to flatten a board properly with hand planes, I don’t blame anyone who wants to sharpen with tools that they can afford.

One last thing, you say you would have wished someone would have told you, do you think you were ready for that knowledge at that time? Maybe you needed to use sharpening tools to know what sharp really was…for yourself, before you started a different method.

Just my two cents. I enjoyed this blog, your thoughts, and those of others replying really got me to think!


-- When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there is no end to what you CAN'T do

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