MARK MORTENSEN, ARTS DEPARTMENT CHAIR: Thirty years ago, American minister and author Robert Fulghum published a book of short essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His credo would become a New York Times bestseller: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours and so on. Simple advice from kindergarten to help steer complicated adult lives.
In my quarter century in Peck’s woodshop, I’d learned a lesson or two from my experiences there.
Countless parodies followed extolling lessons learned from pets, trees, the Internet, Star Trek, and even zombies. It occurred to me that, in my quarter century in Peck’s woodshop, I’d learned a lesson or two from my experiences there.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in the Woodshop
- Be square. I spend a fair amount of time maintaining Peck’s woodshop power equipment. One thing I check often is the “square” of a tool. Blades, miter gauges, drill bits, and sanding disks at 90° angles to fences and tables will help create projects that are plumb and level. Square corners make for tidy, stable, and aesthetically pleasing construction.Being square also means being fair and honest. Fair to oneself, honest in all one does, ethical in one’s dealings with others. It’s not always easy, but being square makes for tidy, stable, and pleasing relationships.
- Measure twice, cut once. It happens to me more often than I care to admit. I take a quick glance at the tape measure, throw a pencil mark on a board, grab a saw, and cut, only to realize that, in my haste, my measurement was off. If only I’d double-checked that measurement! Decision-making should be handled the same way. Before committing, it’s always a good idea to measure twice, that is, to consider and then consider again the merits and consequences of choices. Sure, we are all imperfect and learn from our mistakes, but making that well-researched and thought-out decision can save re-cutting a board.
- There’s no mix up a little putty can’t fix up. In addition to the occasional mismeasured board, I make other errors in the woodshop. Blunders may force starting over, but most mistakes are small. Some are so insignificant, that other people may not even notice unless it’s brought to their attention. A bit of putty or a touch of paint can fix many slip-ups.Shaker craftsmen, well known for their skill as furniture makers, would intentionally include a flaw in their work. They thought it sinful to pursue perfection. It is easy for us to become consumed with pursuits of ideals. We polish prose, hone athletic prowess, and repeat scales. Perspective and balance in all activities, however, is key. When perfection is elusive, sometimes a bit of putty or a touch of paint will make do.
- The expert at anything was once a beginner. Those words of actress Helen Hayes come to mind whenever a budding woodworker compliments the accuracy or speed of my demonstrated cuts. I remind young students that I made my first cut with a dovetail saw at about their age and have performed the task thousands of times since.Developing any degree of skill, woodworking or other, requires persistence, patience, and practice. I don’t, incidentally, fancy myself anything close to an expert; there is always so much more to learn.
- All things good to know are hard to learn. The Greek proverb is relevant in nearly every learning experience we face. Turning a bowl on the lathe. Making accurate cuts with a coping saw. Carving with chisel and mallet. Writing a quality 5-paragraph essay.Memorizing the names and capitals of the 50 states. Factoring polynomial equations. All are difficult skills to learn but greatly rewarding when measureable successes are achieved.
- Plan your work and work your plan. I often repeat my dad’s mantra. Woodworking does require planning. An idea is sketched and then drawn to scale. Procedures are listed and materials are secured. Finally, the work is begun.Planning can lend success to any creative endeavor. A list helps a chef shop for ingredients; the recipe guides preparation. A sketch allows an artist to visualize a sculpture. An outline permits a student to organize her Egypt report.When eighth-grade students plan their independent woodworking projects, they attempt to list all the steps they anticipate completing. Surprises, however, are routinely encountered. As Robert Burns said, even “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”.
- The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. Walt Disney knew that planning and talk must eventually yield to the start of work.The youngest of Peck’s woodworkers talk first about a project, consider the parts to be crafted, and discuss and plan the steps necessary to complete it. The day that students actually begin “doing”, however, is when the real fun gets started!