Ed Wilson: How to learn a complex task

If you have friended me on Facebook, you know that I recently spent a week in the Great Smokey Mountains attending a woodworking school. The class was taught by a guy who has more than 30 years experience making fine furniture, and more than 20 years experience teaching woodworking.

While I was not particularly interested in his resume, I was interested in learning to make hand-cut dovetails. I also have been woodworking for nearly 30 years, but prior to this experience, I had never taken a woodworking class—all of my instruction had come from watching television shows, and reading magazines and books on the subject.

While it is relatively easy to use a router to create a dovetail, it is more complicated to use a hand saw, a chisel, and a hand plane to do so. This is because the process is more complicated than merely installing a bit and turning on a router. Before attending the class in the Great Smokey Mountains, creating a hand cut dovetail was a skill I had failed to master.

So, how did the master craftsman teach the complex task? He broke it down into two small tasks—that was it—two small tasks. The first task was saw to a line, and the second task was chisel to a line. We spent the entire day on Monday learning how to saw to a line … not how to split a line, but how to saw right up next to the line. We came back and on Tuesday, we spent the entire day learning how to chisel to a line … not how to split the line, but how to chisel right up next to the line. Needless to say, by Tuesday evening I was a bit discouraged. Saw to a line, chisel to a line … it is like the Karate Kid with “wax on” and “wax off”.

Then it dawned on me … it was like the Karate Kid … On Wednesday, we finally began to cut dovetails … the master craftsman said “Remember, saw to the line, don’t split the line.” I knew what he meant, because I had had 8 hours of “saw to the line”. Then came the time to make the matching board for the dovetail … the master craftsman said “Remember, chisel to the line, don’t split the line” and once again I knew what he meant, because I had had 8 hours of “chisel to the line”.

By Wednesday evening our hand-cut dovetailed drawer was complete, and by the end of the week I had also completed a beautiful hand made table as well. When I apply the finish, maybe I will try a little “wax on … wax off” as well.

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