Canadian Woodworking


Author: Clive Smith
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: July 2006

Self-knowledge or knowledge about oneself is probably the most empowering information you could ever receive. How can I make such a blanket statement? Let’s look at the acquisition of self-knowledge, as it applies to woodworking, and how we become empowered.


If you are a beginner at woodworking, as we all were once, each aspect of the process is a ‘learn as you go’ event. With the help of trial and error, you gain experience, which invites you to try something that is more difficult. I remember the first time I used hot metal cauls to melt the hide glue and adhere veneer to drawer fronts. I was very careful to line up the veneer so that the grain would match from drawer to drawer. However, I forgot to use sufficient newspaper between the veneer and the caul to stop the two drawer fronts from sticking together. The hot caul worked beautifully, the heat penetrated the veneer and melted the glue. Two drawer fronts were done at the same time to use both faces of the cauls at once. As you can guess, without the newspaper, the hot glue penetrated the veneer and welded the whole assembly together. I tried heating the caul from the edge but could not get the temperature high enough to release the drawer fronts. I tried driving a chisel and then a wedge between the veneer and the caul and in the process, ruined the face veneer. I did finally get the drawers apart. I then had to start again, after I planed off the ruined face veneer.

Was my lesson that I lacked the experience to do that particular job, or was it that I tried to do the job too quickly (forgetting the newspaper)? Either way, I learned that there was an outer edge to my experience, particularly when dealing with a process for the first time. I needed to pay more attention to the details and less attention to the speed. I needed to be more patient. I had learned not only the technical requirements of that particular job but something very important about myself I applied this new found insight and went on to do many successful veneering projects. This is where the empowering part comes in. Although I had learned a specific woodworking process, I had also learned something about myself that could be applied generally. This area of self-knowledge definitely affected all other aspects of my woodwork, but it went further and positively affected my performance in several different areas in life.

When I was faced with the fact that I goofed in gluing on the veneer, I had the opportunity of responding in two opposite directions. Firstly, I could have said, well I guess that way of veneering is just not for me and I will not visit it again. Or, I could have said, “Well that’s what inexperience and impatience gets you and I will do it as many times as necessary to master the process”. These two opposite reactions clearly lead to opposite personal growth potential. The first one takes a simple failure and makes a wall or barrier out of it. By deciding not to go there again, I would be limiting myself forever in that respect. If this type of decision is made over and over again, I would be encircling myself with more and more barriers. This would stop personal growth, not only in woodworking, but in other aspects of my life. On the other hand, if the positive decision is made; that the failure is only a learning event and you are determined to master the process, then personal growth is invited. When positive personal growth occurs in one field, it often affects other endeavours. We are empowered by the realization that we can overcome learning obstacles specific to woodworking, and in other aspects of our lives.

You could look at this idea from a slightly different point of view. As you go through life, you are gradually getting to know yourself. As each strong point and weak point is revealed, you learn more about yourself.

You have chosen the theatre of woodworking to learn about yourself. Whether this is full-time, part-time, or a hobby, woodworking has sufficient challenges to teach you a tremendous amount about yourself. Armed with self-knowledge, you can become independently happy, regardless of your circumstances or time of life. You can take pleasure and joy from the reliance on your knowledge of yourself.

Every time you spend time woodworking, you are making another deposit into the bank of self-knowledge. If you choose to identify the positive characteristics that will emerge, you will be empowered with the confidence to achieve anything that is important to you.

Lead illustration shows a veneer hammer, another method of veneering and self-discovery.

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