Friday, March 22, 2013

Goodness Gracious Me

Sheesh, folks; a vague mutter on a mildly controversial thing and I get comments; a carefully crafted post on chisels and nothing? Nothing?!! It's about chisels. If you're not interested in chisels are you sure you're on the right blog...? ;)

Anyway, Paul Sellers; during my Advent blogging marathon, someone did ask if maybe I could blog about what I thought. So no time like the present- er, three months later... I could dress this up as a review of his first two DVDs, which I happened to see last year, but I can't honestly remember enough to be able to do that convincingly. So straight up in your face instead and entirely off the top of my head; in an inevitable mangling of a cultural reference, I'll call it the Good, the Ho-Hum, and the Ugly.

Try and stop me.

The Good, and the thing that really swayed me from a knee-jerk instinctive "I don't like this guy", is that PS really seems to like the raw material. Wood. Timber. Lumber. Dead Tree. An enthusiasm for the stuff came right through, and honestly, that's not always the case with some of the "gurus". Some folks seem so utterly focused on the tool skills that the material you're using them on could almost be anything. Even *gasp* plastic.

Which leads me to that side issue we'll outrageously simplify as "machine woodworking bad, hand tool woodworking good" where we came in. Except I didn't come in there, but never mind. Now completely idiotic though that statement is (and it is, it really is), if you were foolishly inclined to equate machining wood with treating it like any old raw material, then yeah, you might ill-advisedly describe machining as not being the crafting of wood. Of course it's much, much harder to ignore the habits of dead tree - principally grain direction - when you're the one providing the horsepower to work it. You'd be a damn fool to do so. But you'd be pretty foolish if you ignored it on your planer or jointer too. Wrong blade choice on your powered saw, and those electrons will be labouring, and you'll likely get a poor end result. And so forth.

Sure, if you're working wood like it was so much poly-carbon-multi-syllable-athene then odds are you'll be doing so via machinery. But just because you're using machinery, it doesn't mean you're not fully cognisant of the nature and beauty of timber either.

Okay, now The Ho-Hum. I have to be totally honest and say, no, I don't entirely agree with some of PS's methods. Not because I know better, but because so many other people who do know better seem to have done it otherwise that I can't believe that wasn't for good reason. I'll take as an example, because it stands out to my mind, mortising in the face vice. Or vise. Everything I've ever read or seen has said Don't Do It. There are good reasons not to. If you don't mind putting unnecessary strain on your vice and the mounting of same in the bench, that's up to you, but come within a mile of the Emmert with the idea of mortising in it, and I'll brain you. More relevant to the finished product, if the work is driven down in the vice as you chop, you face a real risk of damaging the back side of the work on the vice screw/guide rods. That can't be good by any man's, or woman's, measure.

I think a few folks have maybe chuntered a little over the chisel use too. Now that just made me speculate that half the divergence of opinion on chisels, and preparation of same, possibly comes down to where the protagonists are on the sliding scale between, "Patternmaker" and "Carver". They're the extremes, as I see it. At one end is the use of the chisel back as an absolute to register the cut, such as a patternmaker might with a paring chisel. David Charlesworth would be a good example of that approach in furniture making - and incidentally his DVD on chisels is excellent if you're looking for some guidance in that respect.

At the extreme other end is the carver who will manipulate a double bevel edge to cut to the depth and angle desired, dictated solely by their own control over the angle of the tool. Coming back down that sliding scale a ways - and losing the double bevel, but not fretting too much about the angles of the edge - I reckon you find PS. From the few bits I've seen, he pretty much carves with his bench chisels. The first project he tackles - a spoon - is perhaps an odd choice to start folks towards making furniture, until you realise he doesn't use much of the naturally built-in guidance from his chisels, and you're effectively carving everything. That also, if you think about it, probably explains why he doesn't find any benefit from a dedicated mortise chisel over an ordinary firmer. Personally I think that approach steepens the learning curve quite a bit and I'm not a fan, but clearly it works, and if it suits you...

So no, quite a bit of it doesn't gel for me, but that's a personal choice, and you can't fault the number of folks he seems to have enthused with the desire to torment trees. Personally I have no quibbles with anyone following their personal "guru" of choice.

Which brings me to The Ugly. It's a habit that's soured many a woodworking forum too, but controversy sells and PS is nothing if not an energetic self-publicist. That is the habit of convincing people of your methods not on the basis of why they're good and could work for you, but by rubbishing everything else. Explain to me why you're advocating what you do, present the evidence, and I may still not agree with you, but I'll respect you. Grudgingly. ;)  Dismissing other woodworkers because their woodworking world view doesn't agree 100% with yours is the route to my internal Ignore Button. It's unnecessary, small-minded, and incidentally makes you look rather insecure.

Dammit, folks, we're all in this against a common foe. If we squabble amongst ourselves the trees could easily get the upper hand while our backs are turned.

So there ya go, chew on that; I expect the comments box to be heaving. Hey, we could talk about chisels in there...


Oh, you rotten lot.


  1. Can't have the trees getting the upper hand. Good post - I especially liked the "Ugly" paragraph.

  2. With PS I found it refreshing to see that most things could be done in a cheap vice: raising a panel, mortising, ... Maybe my next bench is a vice, not a workmate but a superjaw this time :) (For mortising it's possible to put some saddle over the screw to protect the back of the piece)

  3. "Dismissing other woodworkers because their woodworking world view doesn't agree 100% with yours is the route to my internal Ignore Button." You've hit on the source of this problem: evangelism.

  4. My bad: I meant to say "evangelicalism" in the contemporary sense of fundamentalism.

  5. My first thoughts of PS when I found him were, "All you f---ers are doing it wrong! It's not Real Woodworking unless you do it my way. And, if you're not me, you're not doing it my way."

    Since then, I've come to suspect that he really doesn't think this. But, it sure comes out this way. Now, if you can ignore this half of every message he puts out and cherry pick the nuggets of brilliance, you'll be happy with his message.

    Read "I've been doing this for 50 years and have never seen it done that way by anyone who knew what they were doing," as "This is how I do it. Maybe it will work for you."

  6. what's wrong with both ways melted into one giant tree killing woodworking machine....would that be to easy to do !!!!!!!!!

  7. To be honest, I think Paul just isn't part of an internet woodworking clique. So when he voices an opinion there's some clucking, regardless of the merit of the opinion.

    I'm only sort of vaguely aware of Paul, and he does rub me up the wrong way a little - but I reckon that's clumsiness in style more than bad faith or anything menacing on his part. He seems to me more than anything to be an evangelist - clumsy or otherwise - for de-tangling woodwork and making it accessible. There are worse things I could think of.

    Also I'm sticking to my story that words, if they're going to be useful, need to differentiate themselves from other words. So craft (which is what Paul Sellers actually said) is not the same as work. Craft is work where the maker is philosophically and aesthetically important. And tools are similarly different to machines.

  8. The 'Ugly' para is salient Alf...much discussion on his 'methods' by a certain unmentionable woodworker on UKWorkshop which has had me on more than one occasion caused the Meldrewism of '' I simply don't believe it!"
    Which is the reason that if his methods, by any ill fortune appear in the hallowed pages of Furniture & Cabinetmaking...mine won't! Unlikely to happen though, as a swift word in the ed's 'shell like' will be sufficient to ensure it'll never take place.

  9. As has been said in comments above, the key to what Paul has said is that you can start with a small kit of inexpensive tools. You can the fabricate your own simple workbench (without the houndstooth dovetails!) using predimensioned timber from DIY centres and move onwards and upwards from there. If beginners believed the common woodworking magazines they would get lost in the expense of toolbuying without properly experiencing the hobby. Paul's comments on many things are a reaction to the seemingly overwhelming machine-o-centric and blatantly commercial output of many of these magazines. His book is a great introduction for beginners to hand work and contains a great section on sharpening such hand tools as saws and auger drills using the most simple and inexpensive equipment but there are others which cover these areas nicely (Kingshott comes to mind). Its come to the point where I have been able to cancel many subscriptions to magazines as I no longer want to see yet another way of cutting dovetails on a table saw or the four handsaws that I couldn't possibly live without! Cheers, Mark


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