How to Improve at Woodworking

(or anything else, for that matter)

One of the biggest keys to success as a fighter pilot in the Navy is the ability to learn effectively. As woodworkers and makers, every part of each build is an opportunity to improve. To take advantage of that opportunity is a certain skillset in itself – here are a few of my own lessons learned from my career in the military.

Have a Plan

“The plan” lays the foundation for your entire workflow. Without knowing where you intended to start, it’s impossible to look back to assess how effective you were. 

In the macro sense, it’s important to not start any new project without a plan. Just because you haven’t meticulously modeled your next project in Sketchup or Fusion360, doesn’t mean there’s no plan. In fact, sometimes that plan is just an idea in the back of your head or a rough sketch on a cocktail napkin.

First step to Improve: Have a Plan!
Plans can be digital, or just a rough sketch

Every single part of the build process can be broken down into pieces. Each one of those parts of a build comes with its own miniature plan. When you’re milling rough lumber, it’s important to know how much you need to mill, and what thickness you’re going for. Likewise, if you’re cutting dovetails by hand you need to correctly mark your work pieces.

Shameless Plug: Buy one of our plans! And if you sign up for our e-mail list, you’ll receive a code for a free download.

Execute the Plan

Once you feel comfortable with the plan, it’s time to make it happen. Be sure to take things one step at a time, and execute your plan as well you’re able. Having said that, don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan when it makes sense! If you change things up on yourself, just be sure to make a mental note of the situation. 

How Did it Go?

Take a minute and look closely at what you just did. Maybe it turned out perfect, or maybe you just ruined a piece of expensive wood. Either way, pause for a minute to think about it. 

It’s important to be your own toughest critic, but do it without being mean to yourself. It sounds cheesy, but it’s important not to use negative words here. As you critique yourself, divide your thoughts into two lists: “good” and “other”. The absence of negative thoughts will also help you improve, and you won’t even realize it!

What Can We Learn?

So now that you know what happened, it’s time to figure out why it happened. 

If it was a great success, then figure out how to repeat that success. And then take it a step further and figure out how to apply those concepts to all of your future work. For example, let’s pretend that you just cut the most perfect dovetails you’ve ever seen in your life. Many of the thought processes and techniques used for dovetails can be applied to your next project, and hopefully that will help you cut the most perfect mortise and tenon joints that you’ve ever seen!

If you were a little bit less successful, then you need to figure out where it went wrong. Sometimes it hurts a little bit to relive those ideas. But in order to improve our skillset, we need to learn how to do it better the next time.

Nearly Completed Blanket Chest
Almost exactly according to plan!

Talk About It!

One of the best ways to reinforce learning points is to talk about them. For many of us, that means sharing on social media. For others, there are local maker communities all over the world where people happily get together to share “war stories” of some of their more memorable builds. 

By sharing your own stories, you’re giving yourself another opportunity to learn AND you’re providing value back to the community. And don’t forget – it’s important to share both your “goods” and your “others”! Sharing your mistakes can help solicit feedback from the more experienced members of the community. And yes, it can also bring out the trolls – but just ignore them. You made the mistake, you learned from it, and now you’ve moved on. 

Next Up!

Now that you’re armed with all of this knowledge, it’s time to look forward to the next project. Use your lessons learned to improve your plan for next time.

None of us will ever be perfect, but as long as we continue to learn – we’ll come as close as we can!

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