Taking a Woodworking Class

In person seminars or classes are an excellent value, especially if you are like me, a visual and hands on learner. I believe that you should take a woodworking class or seminar; you can learn in a few days what may have taken years to discover on your own. No matter how good a book or video is, the ability to directly interact with an instructor, feel how the tools are set up and adjusted, how the lumber is prepared and finished, is an expense that generates a handsome experiential return. I’ve been lucky in that I have attended, hosted and taught earlier in my career and I have a few ideas I would like to share with you from my experiences.

Classes: A True Story

Finding a school that offers classes of reliably high quality with experienced instructors and a well equipped workspace is key to a productive investment.  With today’s internet and various forums I would strongly advise researching former students experience with any school whose offerings  you are thinking of investing your time and money in. I’ll list three experiences that I had traveling for instruction, hoping to give you an idea of what is out there and what to watch for.

My first adventure was the inaugural session of a windsor chair making class up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with the chair-maker and accomplished author Michael Dunbar. This was an excellent, information packed experience. The facility at that time was modest but suitably equipped  for the highly focused task-at-hand. It was a small group of five students and Mike, well experienced at teaching his craft, was able to provide the one-on-one  interaction that would be difficult to find in a 20 student class, and Mike was able to pace the course so that we all left with completed chairs in five days, as advertised. Information on Mike and his publications is at http://www.thewindsorinstitute.com/

I had a subsequent and more expensive experience that was quite different; A facility with a poorly equipped, cluttered and frankly dangerous shop located in the upper story of a very old building. It was endurable solely for the high quality of instruction, so it became a trade-off.  Another issue at this business was that a seminar ended up running over-time, and the proprietor insisted that students foot the bill.  My fellow students and I had to lose time, pay for extra lodging and food plus additional fees because the  proprietor had not coordinated responsibly or well with the  instructor regarding the running of the course. When an instructor has to stop and accommodate deficiencies in the workshop environment, the proprietor is stealing your time. With camaraderie that can develop during a seminar and the charisma of the instructor,  it can become easy as a group to tolerate unacceptable conditions from your sheer enthusiasm, but you should not have to, as a customer who is paying for specifically described and advertised experience. Mistakes and inconveniences happen, but there is a difference between lax ownership and honestly unforeseen problems. Competition among woodworking schools has hopefully driven any facility like this to either close, or vastly improve their operation, I hope the latter.

Lastly, I had a very solid experience at a well equipped and professionally run school in the mid-west. This was in the 1990’s but that shop prospers even now, as it rightly deserves. Walking through the doors, the impression was one of immediate confidence; A well equipped and well lit shop, where a good quality lunch is served helps to keep everyone happy and roadblocks to a minimum. The school features a great roster of instructors teaching in all aspects of the craft. And those instructors can relax, since they know that each student will be well situated to participate fully. At a facility such as this both teacher and student can maximize their productive experience. If you are curious, find out more at https://www.marcadams.com/

In my examples above, the instructors were all published authors and some had recorded instructional videos as well and I thought that I had a pretty good grasp of their work. Once in the classroom though, I discovered much subtlety and depth that would simply not be economically possible to fit in published media.  In the classroom there is no editor between you and your instructor. And your classmates will often ask insightful questions that you may not have thought of that will prove very useful to the overall experience.

The Instructor

Whatever the conditions I experienced, I did learn quite a bit, because the instructors did their best in the situation at hand. A responsible school proprietor will take reasonable steps to accommodate the instructor, since a contented instructor is the largest element of a good class experience.   You may get to know your instructor and classmates both in and out of class; most instructors are happy to engage beyond the classroom experience (say, going out to dinner) but certainly should not be expected to, they are there to teach during the proscribed time, and should accommodate themselves with all the rest and relaxation that they may need to keep the classroom experience as good as possible; after all, that is what everyone is there for. Over the years I have hosted only one instructor who was certainly congenial yet seemingly introverted.  He made himself easily accessible during class time only, for whatever reason, and things went fine. I have had others who were friendly, and available after hours, but a bit reserved and the rest who were varying levels of gregarious.

The Classroom

In the facility, building capacity and class size is important; 20+ students is fine for a simple lecture or teaching a technique. 15 students is what I would consider the absolute limit for hands on technique projects and 10 for any complex piece of furniture. There should be individual benches and multiple tools available for use, so students are not lined up at one machine or banging into one another. When the number of students or paucity of equipment frustrates the instructors ability to provide appropriate personal attention for the work at hand and to keep the project on schedule, someone did not plan very well.

If you choose to make the investment you are half the equation, so prepare yourself. A well run school will provide you with a list of needed tools and supplies well in advance of the class time, so get that sorted out as early as possible.  Some schools will advertise that they may have tools available for use, but do not count on this unless it is explicitly guaranteed. Have a container (chest, bag, whatever) for the equipment that you do bring to the classroom so that you may easily stow tools away when not needed, keeping the classroom environment as uncluttered (and safe) as possible. Keep comfortably fed and well hydrated during classes. Some schools will offer an open workshop after normal class hours so you can catch up on your project or sharpen your tools, etc. This is very helpful, but others schools may not be able to offer this convenience for staffing or liability reasons. Check ahead if you think you may want or need this feature.

The Student

Try to get good sleep during the night so you’re fresh and attentive in the morning. You’re making an investment here not simply of the money, but with your focused energy and attention in a dynamic environment. It’s fun, but it can be taxing.

It pays to research your hotel; search on-line reviews, ask if there are any big events occurring while you are staying there. One of the schools I attended is located near a large annual automotive race, and travel time between the school and my hotel became unpredictable and longer. Many of the race attendees at the hotel were in a boisterous, celebratory mood; good for them, but challenging for obtaining a restful sleep even with earplugs.

Classroom Dynamics

That leads me to another thought; don’t obsess about finishing a given project, focus on mastering the techniques that the instructor is demonstrating.  I have been in classes where a sort of competitive race has developed to finish the project no matter what, and if you enjoy that, fine. I can make a project anytime, but getting detailed instruction from a masterful instructor? I’d rather focus my time at observation of their tools and techniques and how they physically approach the work. Check ahead with the facility to find out if photography or recording are allowed and even so ask for permission to take any photos of the event when you arrive. Ask for critique of your work in progress, making sure that you are on the right track; it may not be what you’d like to hear, but an honest instructor will save you effort in the long run.

In all the classes that I attended or hosted I can only think of a couple of times (offhand) where the behaviour of a fellow student was disruptive. Thankfully, this is uncommon since it can place everyone in an uncomfortable and unproductive situation. But given the recent declination in civility I suppose situations like this may be more likely to occur, so you may want to ask about the school’s policy regarding disruptions (of any sort, weather, power outage, etc.). Watch out also for the prima donna, a fellow student who wants a disproportionate amount of an instructors personal focus, the rest of the students be damned. An instructor can usually navigate this, but sometimes this type of student can be relentless, the energy of the instructor is diverted and taxed and the mood of the room can quickly sour.

Oh yeah, make sure that you are able to transport or ship your project back home.

By all means, go to a class and get the most out of it that you possibly can, it is well worth it.

© 2018 Joseph Hoover. Sticks and Glue. All Rights Reserved.

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