Thursday, July 20, 2017

If You Can't Start at the Ending, Repeat: One Lesson from Drew Langsner

Several years into my professional woodworking life, I read an older man's account of being hired on at
a small English furniture firm as an apprentice. His training had started at the end of the line: new workers' first job was applying finish. If they lasted long enough, they were taught to assemble tables and case goods, and install the hardware. Once they could do that with ease, they were shown how to cut joinery. Next came milling stock square and gluing up panels. The last thing they were taught was selecting stock for parts from rough lumber.

When I read this (and I'm sorry I can't recall who wrote it), I had already spent several years doing all those things on a daily basis, and I could see the wisdom immediately. It allows the trainee to see what a wooden surface that is ready for finish looks like before they're responsible for producing such a surface; to feel hundreds of properly-fitting mortises & tenons going together with glue before they cut one themselves; to see how important square and flat stock is to cutting good joints, etc. etc. etc. 

The new worker gains an intuitive feel for the standards they'll need to meet in the next skill they'll learn. It hastens the realization that each step in the woodworking process builds on the previous steps, and that if you choose inappropriate wood at the very beginning of your project, you'll be fighting harder to do acceptable work every single step of the way.

Most woodworking training going on today isn't like this. Quite the opposite. Students come to class to make a cabinet, and their teacher guides them through the process of cutting out the rough stock, surfacing the wood, cutting the joints, assembling, and finishing . . . it's not guaranteed to fail, but it's harder to develop an in-the-bones sense of how each action we take affects every subsequent step in a project. Sure, a good teacher will be right there with you, explaining why you ought to proceed this way or that. 

An excellent teacher will show you how not quite getting the slat to uniform thickness has led to a little kink in the finished chair. But learning by working from start to finish, it seems to me, requires many more repetitions to inculcate the additive nature of the process.

Last week I had the privilege of learning under an excellent teacher. I had already taken Drew Langsner's ladderback chair class, but when I learned he was going to stop teaching regularly-scheduled classes at Country Workshops, I signed up, so I could get one last set of lessons from this deceptively plain-spoken double master of woodworking and teaching. I think Drew has handled this teaching challenge as well as anyone. He runs students through the process from log to finished part 4 separate times in the course of the week. First the rungs:

we chose an appropriate length of the log, we split it into quarters, we rived rough blanks out of them, and we refined the roughs into finished rungs. Then we did the same for the front posts. 

Then the back posts. Two days later, the final class day, we returned to the log one last time to get the back slats. With each repetition, he included us more in the process of choosing where to crosscut the log, where to split it, and how to plan the riving sequence. By the time we made our final trip to the log, for the most visible piece of the chair, the riving proceeded as a discussion, with multiple options considered, discussed, and chosen or rejected.

So, although the overall path of the ladderback chair class was from log to chair, Drew Langsner structured it to help students develop the maximum amount of judgement about the additive effect of early choices by making the process repetitive: crosscut, split, rive, drawknife, spokeshave, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. If you can't start at the ending and work your way back, repetition is the next best thing!

I have the impression that, although Mr. Langsner will no longer offer group classes at his home, he will be active as a teacher for some time to come. If you hear he's coming to a woodworking school near you, I urge you to go learn from him. While you're there, listen carefully, think hard, and take notes. 

1 comment:

  1. But learning by working from start to finish, it seems to me, requires many more repetitions to inculcate the additive nature of the process.

    This is undoubtedly true, but to provide the opportunity to learn from finish to start requires a significant throughput of work or very, very high waste. It's something that a production shop can deliver...

    The "backwards learning" though is a very, very intriguing concept. I'm wondering where else it could apply....