Develop your skills through hard work, practice, and study.
Cutting board with saw Front inside

Practice makes proficient

Wanna become a star third baseman for a Major League Baseball team? It's easy. Go buy a baseball glove and show up at the stadium. How about a talented heart surgeon? Piece of cake. Buy the board game Operation and sign on at the Mayo Clinic.

Is this how you make it in the real world? Of course not. In the real world, success comes only after developing your skills through hard work, practice, and study. Why, then, do so few woodworkers see the value of practice? Or do you "practice by building" projects?

Think about it. Say you have a project that begs for dovetails. The last time you cut a set—by hand or machine—was a little more than a year ago. Even if you're sure the chisels are honed or the jig is properly set up, would you have the confidence to put the blade or bit to a stack of gorgeously figured maple, quartersawn white oak, or flawless mahogany boards?

Some woodworkers do; others don't. Some succeed; others realize that something was not quite right only after gaps, chip-out, or complete miscuts turn those precious timbers into scrapwood. It's not carelessness or a lack of skill. More often than not, woodworkers who fail simply need to be more comfortable with the task.

That's why I advocate practicing your woodworking skills, even if for only a few minutes a day. With just a few plain, low-cost boards of poplar, pine, or whatever is cheap and plentiful, you can vastly improve the quality of your work.

In my shop, I'll frequently clamp a poplar board in the vise and cut a row of straight lines with a dovetail saw. I'm not building anything, just trying to get the feel for the saw cutting, focusing on my arm movement to ensure the saw follows the layout line. The first five or ten minutes of shop time go toward warm up, and then I spend another ten or fifteen minutes at the end of a shop session readying boards for the next practice round.

It may seem boring and repetitive at first (and my wife sometimes looks askance at this "unproductive exercise") but once I get the feel of things, the practice helps sharpen my concentration, develops muscle memory, and puts me in the right frame of mind to work in the shop.

No matter how talented they are, good performers always take the time to practice. Athletes put in training time, even in mid-season, to hone their skills. Musicians tune their instruments and practice chords and progressions every day between concerts. Even professional airline pilots spend time in a simulator to stay sharp and keep their certifications current.

Once you understand this essential need for practice, taking the time to hone your woodworking skills doesn't sound odd at all. In fact, the only things that should be sharper than your chisels are your woodworking skills.

Cutting board with saw Side inside
Cutting board with saw Side inside/board on side