Carpentry and Fine Woodworking - It's All Related

Craftsman To Go

At the end of October I travelled out to Andy Chidwick's to do some remodel work on his house. Andy is touring with the Woodworking Shows giving seminars on sculpted furniture. His whole family is touring with him and while they are gone is a perfect time to do a lot of the dirty work that is difficult to live in during a remodel.

The Chidwick School of Fine Woodworking

While it is great working for someone like Andy, since he is a good friend and fellow craftsman, you may wonder, "What does carpentry really have to do with fine woodworking?" I can tell you that carpentry has EVERYTHING to do with fine woodworking.

It is typical that carpentry/construction, cabinet making, and fine woodworking are all separately pigeon holed. The perception is that if you do one, you can't do the other. But that is not true and there are some great benefits to me starting as a carpenter before moving on to fine woodworking and I would like to share some of these with you.

How It All Started

Carpentry is how I started building my hand/eye coordination using a wide variety of tools, day after day, year after year. It is said that a general rule of thumb for becoming an expert at any trade takes about 10,000 hours of experience. That turns out to be about 5 years based on working about 2,000 hours per year.

I started in '97, so now I officially have 16 years experience of making a living with my hands and implementing my ideas. But each one of those years is filled with work weeks that range between 60-70 hours. You can do the math but it means that I am getting a lot of experience packed in any given year.  

The Tool Tester

Using Andy Chidwick's Bosch Glide Saw on his job site.

Since I work around other contractors, I get exposed to a wide variety of tools, basically getting to test drive them in real-world situations. Doing a few test cuts on a demo model at the store with the company rep available just isn't the same. Any tool's inherent strengths and weaknesses quickly become apparent on the job site on a live project. 


Getting a Feel For It All

I am exposed to a wide range of products that I have to work with every day.  I have built years of muscle memory working with so many different materials. Every one of them has a different feel and gives a different feedback. This allows me to take most any material that I have never worked with, quickly interpret it's feedback and zero in on how it handles and it's characteristics. This is important for proper handling so I can get clean cuts or be able to work it in the most effective manner with the least amount of waste, or to keep from screwing it up because of some unique characteristic. 

Cutting plywood underlayment takes as much skill to cut as furniture grade plywood.

Over time I have seen what products and methods work well and which ones do not. Especially as a remodel contractor, I am often replacing what does not work.

I have been around plenty of new construction guys and their mantra is "It only has to last a year." This attitude is in reference to the warranty that contractors must provide on their projects. If the projects don't break down in the first year, then it has made it past the mandatory warranty period and they will not fix it. I have the mindset of producing a legacy project, no matter if it is a piece of furniture, a built-in, or a remodel. It is designed and built to last. 

Problem Solving & Designing

Being a carpenter challenges me with a lot of problem solving and forces me to think outside of the box. So I have to understand my materials, my situation, and think in both a lineal and abstract fashion. If problem solving keeps the mind young, I have found the eternal fountain of youth. 

A design solution to create a threshold for a set of french doors drawn in SketchUp.

The threshold design becomes reality.

Being a remodeler and carpenter has exposed me to a lot of design ideas that are both good and bad. Being in control of a project has also allowed me to offer my design ideas, sell them, and follow through with constructing and installing them. 

It always amazes me how many bad ideas and designs I see that have been implemented. Realizing that someone actually got paid for these bad ideas, has given me the courage to sell my own. My ideas are competitive and better than what I have seen. 

Being in so many different residential and commercial spaces also exposes me to a variety of sizes and volume of both space and projects. Getting a grasp of spatial relationships and volumes is essential to design success. This means I am constantly exercising my senses for understanding volume, dimension, and relative proportions. 

The Great Connection

While carpentry & construction are typically seen and kept in different compartments from fine woodwork and design, I saw the great connections between them. 

In each I am exercising my hand skills as a craftsman, measuring, cutting, and handling material. I am constantly building muscle memory as I do this, reinforcing hand/eye coordination. I have to exercise technical problem solving skills. My design senses are challenged in both as I utilize balance, proportion, and employ contrast in color and texture. My choices in product and construction methods are driven by what I see has both worked and not worked. 

What This All Means For You

Framing a wall for a picture window while temp wall supports the roof.

Most woodworkers have a job that doesn't allow for daily use of all these skills, but the secret to success still lies in one simple principle: spending time in the shop, with hands on tools building projects. This is the only way you will build your skills. Never dismiss the seemingly simple and unglamorous projects around the house, those are how I built my skills as I worked on client's homes.

Working on a project for your house or a friend's provides the opportunity to exercise your problem solving, design skills, and to build that muscle memory every time you pick up a tool. So I hope you see the growth potential in every project, even if it does not appear glamorous and measure up to the "fine woodworking" status. 

That's all for now. 

Your friend in the shop-

Todd A. Clippinger

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