Hand Tool Skills & Fear

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Blog entry by Chris posted 02-01-2009 02:53 AM 12145 reads 0 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I had a very interesting day today….. I spent it at the local Woodcraft demoing (is that a word?) hand cut dovetails. After many questions and several hours speaking with quite a few customers and observers I discovered that there are a large number of us that hold a certain amount of fear with regards to hand work.

Things like basic handsaw techniques, chopping & paring with a chisel, sharpening, etc…. A great number of these questions came in a flurry from one particular individual. I guess we sometimes have a fear of failure or of judgment; maybe we just need some reassurance that screwing up is OK. Some folks stated that they had tried hand tools and just became so frustrated that they gave up. When I asked what specific issues they were having a lot of it was with chisels. I asked them how or if they had flattened and sharpened their chisels. A few just gave me quizzical looks; these where the same folks that had commented that my chisels were so sharp they were scary and that they could never get theirs that sharp.

Like many skills I have picked up I have researched and questioned others (like yourselves) then jumped in with both feet. I just struck me today that we should never be afraid to try, never be afraid to fail. We probably will fail a few times before we get it right. How else has the human race come so far? Why have so many of us become so afraid to try?

Sorry, I’ll get down off my box now…..

Don’t be afraid to fail…...

-- "Everything that is great and inspiring is created by the individual who labors in freedom" -- Albert Einstein

9 comments so far

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 5116 days

#1 posted 02-01-2009 03:24 AM

Chris, you have made a most excellent point.

I think the main reason that I have advanced so well is that I was willing to take the risks. My risks often involved the potential to lose hundreds or thousands of dollars in a failed project, but I took the risks and figured it out. Most of what I did I actually figured it out on-the-fly, but my basics were solid.

One thing that I have noted in my personality is that risk taking seems to be inherent. My past is filled with high-risk activities like free-style rock climbing, that is with no safety gear. Having your own business is certainly full of risks that if you lose, you can’t make a house payment.

Most woodworkers really don’t have anything to lose because their ability to make a house payment or put food on the table is not an issue if failure occurs. So they really don’t have anything to lose except buying another stick of lumber or two.

Go for it guys!

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View GaryCN's profile


499 posts in 4951 days

#2 posted 02-01-2009 03:44 AM

In high school I had many classes in metal working, it makes wood working look easy.
That was in Detroit in the 1970’s before most manufacturing jobs were sent offshore.
I can still work with metal & wood. A friend had a old garage door with a failed part
no longer in stock or production. I said give me the old failed part & I’ll remake it.
They probably would have spent hundreds on a new door for a part that I made for
less than $5. We need to get America back on track and away from the throw away mentality.
Youngsters today have no idea how to fix anything.

-- Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati

View lew's profile


13317 posts in 4772 days

#3 posted 02-01-2009 04:44 AM


I think you have discovered something all too prevalent in our society. I my opinion, this phenomenon is originating in our education system. Kids are no longer permitted to fail. They are coached, tutored, assisted and counseled until they “pass” whatever it is they are participating.

Educators live in fear of even “denting” someone’s self esteem. The Physcobable crowd has convinced everyone that children’s egos are so fragile that they will be scarred for life at the first hint of failure.

No one likes to fail, but to me, failure promotes thought and reason. If something doesn’t work, curiosity should kick in and thought processes will find out why the failure occurred.

OK, now I’m off my soap box.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View brianinpa's profile


1812 posts in 4740 days

#4 posted 02-01-2009 05:27 AM

”...we should never be afraid to try, never be afraid to fail.”

Chris that is some excellent advise in not only wood working but life in general. For every success there is at least one failure behind that success.

-- Brian, Lebanon PA, If you aren’t having fun doing it, find something else to do.

View Betsy's profile


3394 posts in 4913 days

#5 posted 02-01-2009 09:01 AM

Failing is good and letting others know about it is pretty good too. I think that’s why I blog so much. It makes me feel better and lets others chime in to help me with ideas and encouragement. I learn alot by showing how I screwed up.

I agree with you Lew. Kids are not allowed to fail and that will only be for our society’s detriment in the long run.

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

View brewtang's profile


15 posts in 4530 days

#6 posted 02-01-2009 05:26 PM

As someone who was there…you did a great job Chris. And you also bring up a good point. Hand work has always been something I’ve been interested in, but I never knew where to start. This is a good a place as any.

-- Billy, Jacksonville

View rtb's profile


1101 posts in 4730 days

#7 posted 02-02-2009 05:07 AM

Cris you have made a very valid point as have Lew, & Betsy. I think that a large part of this fear in many young people has been instilled by parents who try to instill that failing is not acceptable and not being #1 in everything is nearly as bad. Of course we could demonstrate that’s not so bad to fail. Starting This June lets only pass the top 80%. ( I can hear all the parents burning up cyberspace now, but the cell phone companies are going to love selling all those extra minutes.)

-- RTB. stray animals are just looking for love

View Chris 's profile


1880 posts in 5008 days

#8 posted 02-02-2009 09:20 PM

Just to be fair, I had just as many older woodworkers as young asking those questions and making those statements.

-- "Everything that is great and inspiring is created by the individual who labors in freedom" -- Albert Einstein

View Jon3's profile


497 posts in 5122 days

#9 posted 02-06-2009 12:22 AM

Sharpening is absolutely a gateway skill to ALL tool usage, but it is far more apparent with hand tools. Nobody’s going to have satisfactory results with a dull tool. Power tools can get away with far more ‘dull’ tooling, which is ‘overcome’ with the application of high speed and horsepower. Show somebody new the difference between a dull and sharp crosscut blade in their TS, and they’ll be just as surprised as the difference between a dull and sharp block plane. They’re just used to using power-tool tooling out of the box, which is often shipped sharpened and ready to go.

I think one of the key factors that I hear is that people tend to go into a project with the end usage of their project planned out. They may have even already told somebody they would receive the project. (As a gift, or to fulfill a commitment). Once project expectations are lined up like that, they start looking at the project as something that must be done ‘right’ or ‘to the absolute best of my current ability’ and that means all experimentation goes out the window.

Others see the expense of ‘real wood’ as high, and don’t wish to experiment on something they see as expensive.

One huge item I have noticed is that people feel if they mess up a project with a hand-tool, that they feel unable to ‘fix’ it. Things like grain tearout, gap toothed dovetails, etc. can seem surmountable if you’ve never seen them or tried to correct them before.

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