overview: Mastering a skill is not about not making mistakes, but about making them and learning from them. While it may be tempting to forget your mistakes, it’s probably more beneficial to accept them and use them as teachers.
I recently read Vasko Sotilov’s essay “My Mistakes” (FWW #302), which describes his intolerance of mistakes. I understand his reaction. There have been times when I wanted to throw a clamp across the store. But while I can sympathize with what he wrote, I tend to look at the mistakes more lovingly.
Mistakes have been integral to my growth as a woodworker. We all learn from others through lectures, books, videos, demonstrations and conversations. But there are some things you can’t learn this way. There is no teacher who can teach you how to feel your hands and body. You can’t learn a technique just by attending lectures (although we encourage you to do so). You must get your hands dirty. You have to make mistakes.
My interest in the relationship between mistakes and learning dates back to my early twenties as a tennis instructor. I was a tennis coach at the University of California, Berkeley, and was trained by a nationally recognized tennis teacher, Chester Murphy. He talked about how the body creates speed and spin. And about the importance of calculating back from the result of the shot and correcting it. I have absorbed these lessons well and have taught them to my tennis students.
When I started learning how to use hand tools, I used a hand saw instead of a tennis racket. I realized that I had to understand how to use my body to make the tool do what I wanted. How to hold the saw, how to stand, how to view the wood and the saw. I started thinking about using my knowledge of kinematics and learning woodworking the same way I learn sports. There was a fair amount of experimentation and endless errors. In tennis, ball flight tells you whether you hit the ball well or badly. With a hand saw, it is the sawed surface that counts. Smooth, straight, flat, square?
After purchasing my first Japanese flexible handsaw and using it on a project, I quickly realized that I had no control over my cuts. So I got some wood offcuts and started cutting them. This was a study, not an exercise. This was a deliberate play. I made shallow cuts, deep cuts, angled rip cuts, and thin and thick stock crosscuts. I tried different body positions, elbow positions, and hand positions. I tried a relaxed grip, a tight grip, and a grip along the entire handle. I changed the angle of the saw stroke to see what happens. I tried shaking the saw. I saw the saw with my eyes closed so I could hear the saw very well and feel the vibration. I tried breathing. I compared slow sawing and fast sawing. I thought that the grind was better in the morning,
Sometimes I felt refreshed, other times I was tired at the end of the day. I’ve tried everything that could cause a problem or produce a solution. Inspect the quality of the remaining surface after each cut. I wasn’t trying to make a mistake. on the contrary. But the mistake was a welcome guest. They taught me how to use a saw. After a little over two weeks, I started to understand what was giving me the expected results. I just needed practice. In a project context where a lot of time is spent and valuable materials are required, this kind of intensive learning experience can be nearly impossible. But by sawing the scrap, I created a safe space where mistakes became my mentor.
Mastering a technique isn’t about not making mistakes, it’s about learning how to constantly correct small mistakes. Balance the ruler vertically with two fingers and look at the top of the ruler if it is still up. It’s almost completely still. But keep your fingers down. Fingers move in and out, left and right, up and down. You are constantly correcting your mistakes. Errors are almost endless. The better you get at balancing the criteria, the less corrections you’ll need. But no matter how much you improve, they never go away. Errors are essential for beginners and masters alike.
— Karl Swenson makes mistakes with furniture in Baltimore.
from fine woodwork #304
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