Ed Wilson: Things a book cannot teach

Yesterday was labor day in the United States, and many people had the day off (including yours truly). I spent the day in my woodworking shop, practicing making hand-cut dovetails. Because Americans do not have the amount of time off from work as people in Europe do, we tend to prepare for our days off so as to maximize our time. Before my time in the wood shop, I had read a book on how to make hand-cut dovetails and felt I had already mastered the technique. I even took 12 pages of notes on the technique.

I would love to be able to report that the dovetails came out looking like … well dovetails. Instead I succeeded in turning several nice looking boards into nothing more than firewood. Fortunately, I have a class scheduled in a few weeks where I will finally be able to master this hallmark of woodworking craftsmanship. But I was hoping to get a jump start on the process.

When a technique is particularly complicated, and has a huge number of dependencies, the ability of a book to effectively teach the skill is hampered. A skill such as making hand-cut dovetails is made up of a number of component skills or subskills. Each of the subskills must be mastered before attempting the larger skill.

The only way to develop a new skill is to practice it. But practicing doing something wrong does not help one to learn the new skill. There must be checkpoints, or guidelines that help one to know if the skill is being practiced correctly. With each of the component skills there should be a practice session or step by step exercises. Some multimedia content might also be helpful.

I am not saying that it is impossible to learn how to create hand-cut dovetails from a book, but that the process of creating such a book is extremely difficult and requires much more than a few fuzzy black-and-white pictures to successfully impart the skills.

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