Thursday, July 22, 2010

Class: Introduction To Hand Tool Woodworking

I'm going to be teaching a small introductory woodworking class in Littleton, MA this fall through the town's Parks, Recreation, and Community Education Department. If you live in the area and are interested, see the Department web page and look for the Fall 2010 Brochure. Registration starts the first week of September.

The benefits of taking a class are a chance to work directly with an instructor and try a variety of tools. However, as an adjunct, I'll be posting information here for anyone who'd like to follow along at a distance; look for the Intro Hand Tools heading.

Here's the class information (a detailed outline follows below):
Introduction to Hand Tool Woodworking
Ever wonder how our predecessors built homes and furniture 100 or 200 years ago? Learn the basics of hand tool woodworking in the tradition of the English joiner and cabinetmaker. Students will be introduced to the tools and techniques necessary to turn lumber into finished furniture or cabinetry without power. This includes selection and care of tools (including the critical skill of sharpening), stock preparation, and fine joinery. A range of modern and antique hand tools will be available for use, or students may bring their own. Locally milled softwood materials will be provided for hands-on practice. This class will also prepare students for more advanced classes such as chair-making. Instructor: STEVE BRANAM is a local woodworking hobbyist. See Steve's blog at for more information about this type of woodworking.
6 Mondays, 10/18 – 11/22 7:00 – 8:30 p.m.
$65/R | $68/NR (Additional $20 material fee payable to instructor)
Location: Art Room, Littleton High School
This is for those who already know a little bit about hand tools as well as those who know absolutely nothing about them. I'm not an expert or a professional; my goal is to teach people the basics to get started.

I'll also provide references for additional information. There are a growing number of good books and videos available, as well as free online resources. These are the people I learned from.

Part of what I want to convey is that this is well within the scope of most people's ability. Hand tool woodworking is often viewed as impossibly difficult and laborious. It's true there are a number of distinct skills to master, and large projects like boats and houses, requiring hundreds of feet of lumber, are massive undertakings. 

But projects on the scale of furniture are not. Broken down into steps, they aren't that physically laborious. They can be time-consuming, but that's more a matter of the complexity of the project than whether it's done with hand or power tools. With a little patience, most people would be surprised what they can do if they stop and give it a try. Sharp tools make all the difference.

The class format will be skills-based, not project-based. Beginners often get too focused on trying to complete a starter project or set impossibly high goals for themselves, and get frustrated when they make mistakes. Instead of trying to build something specific, we'll follow the advice of Ian Kirby and Frank Klaus and practice individual skills.

Like a musician learning an instrument, it's a matter of taking the time to develop the motor skills. Mistakes are a normal part of practicing. The musician starts simply, not with a Mozart symphony. Do something 20 or 30 times, and you start to get good at it.

We'll make shavings, sawdust, and chips, with the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, because it's all going to be thrown out anyway. This approach will give students the skills, experience, and confidence to build projects on their own. It will also give them a method for acquiring new skills. This may seem terribly wasteful, but ya gotta burn some to learn some.

This will be very hands-on. I'll bring multiple examples of tools for students to try, and supply rough-milled pine lumber for practice. As an added historical bonus, I'll be getting the wood from Parlee Lumber in Littleton, a local mill that's been in operation since 1815, nearly 200 years!

Here's an outline of the topics I'll be covering as time and interest allow. It's an ambitious list. Bear in mind that in a classroom setting, things usually take longer than expected, between presenting and demonstrating skills, answering questions, and allowing students time to practice and make a few false starts. So treat this as a guide to potential topics, and expect that we won't get to cover all of them. It's important to allow adequate time for the really fundamental topics and not try to rush through them, because they're the foundation for the later skills.
  • Understanding Wood
    • Wood Toxicity and Allergen Safety
    • Sapwood and Heartwood
    • Grain
    • Hardness
    • Moisture Content and Movement
    • Flatsawn and Quartersawn Milling
    • Lumber Specification
  • The Tools
    • Acquiring Them
    • Coarse, Medium, and Fine
    • The Minimum Recommended Set
    • Additional Specialized Tools
  • The Workspace
    • Workbench and Appliances
    • Sawbench
    • Sawhorses
    • Tool Storage
    • First Aid Kit
  • Sharpening: The Gateway Skill
    • Sandpaper, Diamond Plates, Stones, and Strops
    • With and Without Jigs
    • Shaping Cambered Irons
    • Saw Sharpening
    • Scraper Sharpening
  • Saw Skills
    • First-, Second-, and Third-Class Cuts
    • Crosscutting
    • Ripping
    • Resawing
    • Curves
  • Bench Plane Skills
    • Stock Removal
    • Flattening
    • Jointing 
    • Smoothing
    • Scraping
    • Trimming End Grain
    • Chamfering
  • Stock Preparation: FEWTEL With Saws And Planes
  • Chisel Skills
    • Paring
    • Beveling End Grain
    • Rabbeting
    • Grooving
    • Dadoes
    • Mortising
  • Specialty Plane Skills
    • Trimming Shoulders
    • Rabbeting
    • Grooving
    • Dadoes
    • Making Moldings
    • Curved Edges
  • Drill Skills
    • Nail and Screw Holes
    • Dowel and Peg Holes
    • Larger Holes
    • Countersinking
    • Driving Screws
  • Joinery Skills
    • Glue, Nails, Screws, Dowels, and Pegs
    • Butt and Dado Joints
    • Lap Joints
    • Mortise and Tenon
    • Dovetails
Some of these are pretty quick, but some are more involved. There are also multiple ways to do them, each with their pros and cons (that's why I'll be covering 5 different ways to sharpen chisels and plane irons).

Previously passed on through the apprenticeship system, these skills have nearly been forgotten with the advent of power tools. A brief course like this can't hope to fully train people, but it can give them enough to get started.

My inspiration comes from two sources. First is Mike Dunbar. He runs The Windsor Institute, a chair-making school in Hampton, NH, and has been a contributor to woodworking magazines for years. I've never met him, but he's written several times that students show up for his intensive courses not knowing how to set up or use their hand tools, so he has to spend valuable class time getting them ready.

Second, I often see questions on the various woodworking forums I read asking how to get started with hand tools.

This class is my humble contribution to address those needs.


  1. Well, Steve, you have at least one "student" eagerly looking forward to class! I tripped over your blog this week from either schwarz's or shannon's blog roll, can't remember which. And, boy, was I excited to see a class that wasn't a 2hr plane ride away, or required a weeks vacation and a home equity loan. It should be a really fun class, I look forward to meeting you on the 18th.

  2. Hi Lance, there are several other people signed up, so I expect it to be fun and challenging!


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