I’ve been thinking. It’s interesting how some of the information I read vanishes quickly from my thoughts and other bits stick like a tongue to a midwinter lamp post. I wonder how much of what we retain is based upon our desire to be receptive; either subconscious or conscious? Perhaps the reading itself forces our subconscious to piece together bits of information that will eventually work itself out. What goes in must come out.

A few weeks ago, I read another blog that highlighted the deficit of American woodworkers who rarely attain mastery because we do not specialize in one area. Instead, we pride ourselves on being generalists. I read it and went on about my business (as the article suggested) but what seemed to stick, at least weeks later, is the nagging question; “how should we define woodworking mastery?”

In the old guild system, a craftsman would apprentice for three to seven years before earning their ticket to become a journeyman (only after qualifying tests, rituals, and fees) which allowed them to travel and work. A master (who may or may not be a craftsman) was one who established a shop and employed other apprentices and journeymen. In this system, it was a matter of time, money, and the acceptance of your peers that made you a master. All of this was couched within a social system emphasizing the different classes; the have’s and the have-not’s. The guild system was simply another means of creating a sub-pecking order of the larger system. Did it define mastery? Possibly, but it is my understanding that those within this system were more concerned with eating. Mastery of the craft was a means of sustenance not necessarily an end in itself.

The guild system has largely been abandoned, especially in America. Instead of a guild system we have schools—both trade schools and unaccredited craft schools. They differ slightly in their program offerings but all have similar paths toward “mastery.” Ironically, they last from twelve weeks to nine months—we shaved years off that formal apprenticeship. All the programs at these schools are taught by some of the best craftspeople in the world; we would consider them masters.

The Path Toward Mastery

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Michael Pekovich from Fine Woodworking. He was teaching a class the same week I was taking a class. Turns out he’s a normal guy who has a big heart (during a presentation he had everyone teared up over his daughter). But I caught myself hoping that by breathing the same air that he was breathing I would magically gain some of his skill. I didn’t.

Why all the fuss? I believe it was my upbringing; I was brainwashed. My childhood was shaped by some variation of the phrase, “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all.” I’m sure I could keep Freud busy. I keep hearing the Highland Woodworking Sawstop commercial featuring Steven Johnson (The down-to-earth woodworker), “I’m just an average, down to earth woodworker. On a scale of one to ten, I’m probably about a five (smiles and chuckles). But one place I score a perfect ten is right here (holds hands up). And I plan on keeping all ten…” I can relate, but I don’t want to stay a “five.” I want to move closer to a ten. (Even though I was raised to do things to the best of my ability I was also taught that perfection is unattainable in this life—seriously ripe for psychoanalysis.)

How do we move from a five to a ten? During my experience of the educational system I took many assessments, entrance exams, and personality tests. These “tests” were designed to form a baseline, giving me a conscious awareness of where I ranked and how far away I was from where I wanted to be. With this information in hand I would be able (at least theoretically) to see my areas of weakness and focus my study to come closer to the goal. I was told these were objective tests.

Woodworking in general seems to be a subjective pursuit. A matter of personal taste. Well, at least when it pertains to design. But there are elements that we can objectively assess with a simple question; “Can you?” Can you saw to a line? Can you cut a dovetail? Can you set up a router? Can you make wood flat and square? Can you sharpen a chisel, plane blade, etc.? Can you read a tape measure? (I have a funny story about this) We could ask this question about every task we perform in the shop and it would probably give us a good idea of where we are skill wise. But why?

Because we are neurotic pedants who want to know where we are in the pecking orders of the world.

While pondering this sticky question of mastery, I attended Handworks 2017. I walked past tables and tables of the most beautiful tools all crafted by individuals closer to a ten in ability. I met other outstanding woodworkers of Instagram fame. I had a specific list of things I wanted to pick up from the show and was giving it my best to stay away from “unnecessary” purchases when I stumbled upon Nancy Hiller sitting at a folding table signing books. I say stumbled because there wasn’t a line and she was in the path to the LAP booth. I had already heard about the book she had written and had previously determined that I didn’t need it. But there I was and there the book was and my inability to shun spontaneous purchases got the best of me. I bought it. And found the answer to my question on page 136.

“Nothing banishes self-doubt more effectively than objective proof of skill.”

Or rather, let the sum of your work do the talking.

In ten words, it became clear that the path to mastery begins with letting go of the desire for mastery. But I’ve discovered a new freedom too. The freedom to be content with the work. The freedom to be content with myself. Freedom to be content with where I am in the pecking orders of the world. And the freedom to get back to work.

I hope this sticks.

Making Things Work

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