The 10 Worst Mistakes I Made as a Beginner

No, my biggest mistake was not this shirt.

We all have a list such as this. Here’s mine.

If One is Good, 12 is Better

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When you acquire a good tool, such as a block plane, and it really, really works, the tendency is to buy all its friends. After I bought my first No. 5 (about 1996-97), I fell in love with handplanes. To be precise, I loved all the handplanes. Every single handplane ever made or collected or drawn up in some patent document. 

Most weekends I’d hit the antique markets with whatever dollars I could scrounge to buy handplanes. What kind of handplanes? All of them. At one time I owned at least 10 smoothing planes, five block planes, six shoulder planes and Justus-Traut-knows-how-many rabbet planes.

This was the start of a dangerous pattern you’ll see throughout this list, which is when I would try to buy my way into a new skill. I thought: If I bought a plow plane, I would be able to make frame-and-panel joints. But that’s not how the craft works.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to buy one No. 5, one No. 3 and one block plane. Then buy additional planes only when I needed them – and after a lot of research.

Reading a Little About Finishing & Sharpening

When I started woodworking, I knew nothing about finishing or sharpening. And so I finished the pieces I made and sharpened the tools I owned in peace and satisfaction. But then one day I started to read about finishing and sharpening, and I realized I had been doing everything wrong. 

So I did what the experts said to do, and I became miserable. I refused to put this finish over that finish (the book said it wouldn’t work). I bought some Japanese waterstones. And I entered a long and tortured phase where my finishes and my tools’ edges sucked. I was experimenting too much with this finishing/sharpening system or some other system. I was trying to obey a lot of gurus simultaneously.

To get out of this misery, I had to read a lot more about finishing and sharpening. And I came to the conclusion that I teach today: Learn one system. Stick with it for a long time. Refuse to change until you have mastered that system. 

And always refuse to read articles that say “never” and “always.” 

Five Planers; Six Table Saws

When it comes to machines and critical hand tools (dovetail saws, block planes, smoothing planes, layout tools), I spent entirely far too much money upgrading my equipment incrementally. 

I started out with crap equipment – a plastic table saw and sheet-metal thickness planer, for example. And then I sold the used equipment (it wasn’t worth much) to upgrade to a slightly better table saw and planer. And so on until I ended up where I am today.

It was a dumb and expensive journey for someone who was planning on making furniture for a living all along. I should have just plunked down the $1,200 for a cabinet saw and $800 for a 15” planer in 1996. Instead, I’ve spent at least $7,000 on table saws and $8,000 on planers since then. And I’ve had the agony of buying, selling and setting up all this equipment.

Yes, there’s a chance that you’ll buy a nice $3,000 table saw and then be swayed by the Bare Bosom Goddess of Golf. But that $3,000 table saw can be sold for almost that same amount. Cheap tools, on the other hand, depreciate quickly and to nothing.

Using a Cutting List

Don’t trust someone else’s cutting list. Not from me, Norm Abram or even Jesus the carpenter. Even if the cutting list is accurate (and it’s probably not), you shouldn’t cut all the pieces out to the specified sizes and start building. Things change as you build a project. And the sizes of your parts will change slightly, too. 

Make your own cutting list based on a construction drawing. And only cut pieces to final width and length when you absolutely have to. 

Cutting lists are dirty liars.

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Buying Lumber Sight Unseen

Every time I have bought lumber before laying eyes on it, I have been swindled. The first time this happened was when I ordered 100 board feet of cherry from a reputable supplier to make a bookcase that needed about 40 board feet.

I picked the wood up, and it was so sappy and twisted that I barely squeezed the bookcase out of the 100 board feet. Yes, I complained to the supplier. They laughed in my face and said that sap and twisting was not a defect, and that the lumber met grade. I didn’t buy from them for five years after that – not until they hired a new customer rep. 

Reading Tool Catalogs on Friday Night

After I finish work on Friday, I like to drink a beer and relax for a bit before making supper. Sometimes I have two beers. And sometimes I read tool catalogs with that beer in hand. And sometimes I order stupid tools that I don’t need but look pretty cool and now I read nonfiction on Friday evenings.

Don’t drink and shop for tools. That is the only explanation I have for owning an Incra Rule.

Believing the Jig Lie

This is a corollary to the above rule. Tool catalogs are great at explaining how jigs can solve your joinery problems. Can’t cut perfect miters/dovetails/spline joints? This jig does it with ease. You will be a master in no time. Promise. 

Here’s what I learned: Cutting miters is a skill. Learning to set up, use and then remember again how to use a jig to cut miters is also a skill. Both skills take about the same amount of time to learn. 

Yes, there are some jigs that can speed you along if you need to do something 134 times in a week (such as making a dovetailed drawer). But those jigs are rare and are usually needed only by production or industrial shops. 

Most woodworking skills are mastered after a few tries, and then you will forget about owning the jig. 

Buying Sets of Tools

Sets of chisels, router bits, carving tools, templates and so on are usually a waste of money. Buying a set seems like a good idea – and you sometimes save a little money compared to buying all the tools separately. But it’s usually a lie. 

I use three chisels for 99 percent of my work. Six router bits. Three moulding planes. One sawblade. So buy one good chisel/gouge/router bit/moulding plane – one that you really need. Then, when you absolutely positively can’t work without an additional bit or blade, buy another. Reluctantly. And buy the best you can afford.

Buying the Hardware at the End

I can’t tell you how many times I made this mistake. I built a project and afterward bought the hardware for it. Then had to remake the drawers or doors to suit the hardware. 

The hardware typically makes fundamental changes to your cutting lists and drawings. Buy the hardware before you cut the wood.

Being Poly-Guru-ous

When I was learning woodworking, I had four teachers, plus the books and magazines I was reading. So I got pulled in a lot of directions. All of the teachers produced good work, but they all had strong ideas about how to go about it.

And so most days I felt like I was a Muslim-Buddhist-Pentcostal-Atheist. There was no consistent instruction in my life. And so it took me a lot of error and error to sort things out. In time, I gained the confidence to go my own way. But it took a lot longer because I had so many masters whispering (or yelling) in my ear.

Pick one person to teach you joinery. Or sharpening. Or finishing. Stick with that person until you have mastered the basics and can start exploring joinery, sharpening and finishing on your own.

Oh, and if you own that little Powermatic 12-1/2” lunchbox planer I sold off in 1998, I’m sorry. I hope you now use it for something it is powerful enough to handle – such as slicing deli meats.

— Christopher Schwarz


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