Mentors . . .

The guys over at Mortise & Tenon Magazine recently asked people to post about their woodworking mentor(s) as part of National Mentoring Month. I wanted to participate of course, but had to step back from my initial enthusiasm. Figuring out my frame of reference took a little bit of thought.

At first it was easy for me to confuse a Mentor with one who has Influence. You read and hear from musicians all the time about their Influences. Guitar players will cite Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, or Eddie Van Halen or others as influencers on their art and though the end results might owe homage, sometimes clear homage too, there is a difference between influence and mentoring.

Mentoring, in my estimation, requires direct teaching of a specific subject, probably hands on and in person. I have a hundred influencers on the craft decisions I make, without a doubt the greatest influencers for me personally would be: (1) my father for whom making and repairing was an economical reality instead of a joyful craft, though that was my childhood and he has recently been rediscovering his shop and making sawdust and metal shavings for the joy of it. and (2) some of the surgeons I've worked for over the years and the single minded intent with which they attack a physical problem using mixture of experience, inference, and dexterity. But parsing back to woodworking directly, the list of influencers is broad, but direct mentors is sparse.

I never took a single shop class in school. I've yet to directly participate in a woodworking class in my adult life. I'm lucky enough that my phone calls are answered by guys like Don Williams, Chris Schwarz and Mike Siemsen and they've all given good advice but I try not to bother them until I've paired down to a finite conundrum. Though these circumstances do not leave me Mentorless by the Mississippi.

A pair of crappy bookshelves (I know) at least 3/4s full of woodworking knowledge. This doesn't show the piles I have sitting on either side of my laptop as I'm writing this. 

Books. I was raised in a house full of books, I have always kept a house full of books, I feel at home in a library brimming with books. Yes the internet and the power of Google is wonderful, but it isn't a book. Since I decided to play in this woodworking game for the long haul I have been collecting it's books. There are more books on furniture and woodworking out there than you can imagine and most are not difficult to come by. A little patience and flexibility with online auction and used book sites can bring great bounty. I started small and ramped up to where I was adding 30 - 40 books a year, now I'm ramping down and becoming more selective, but at a recent count I had well over 200 books on woodworking and furniture (with some related subjects like blacksmithing) and the library grows a little more every month.

It may be weird, but I consider this pile of ink on paper to be my true mentor. The collection is my first "Go To" for answering questions, inspiring or informing the next project, or day dreaming over as I revise my woodworking project bucket list. I can often find what I'm searching for without bothering or being beholden to anyone.

Ratione et Passionis


  1. Hi Derek,

    Great post and something I've been thinking about a lot lately as I begin my journey learning hand tool woodworking. I've recently signed up for Shannon Rogers online Apprenticeship program to gain some one on one mentoring. I'm also a big book learner. As my woodworking book collection grows, are there any you recommend, old or new, that you find you go to more than others?


    1. Good on Ya Bill. Shannon is a fantastic resource and a very good teacher. You'll get a lot of mileage out of that decision.

      As far as suggestions that is something I struggle with. If I boil it down to one for beginners I'd say the Anarchist Tool Chest. Not only does it cover the "why" to making but it covers the essential tools and provides a project in traditional tool chest that once you've built it covers nearly every basic woodworking operation possible. Dovetails, mortise and tenons, nails, tongue and groove, molding runs. . . you get the idea.

      Then there's Wearing's The Essential Woodworker.

      I'd suggest the Hayward series from Lost Art Press, but I haven't seen them yet and I worry their sheer volume could be off putting, but I could be wrong as it might just be the ultimate resource.

      For inspiration, to develop your design eye I'd start with Israel Sack's Fine Points of American Furniture and branch out from there.

      I check out the bibliographies of books I like and search out those sources and sometimes I just type "furniture" under the antique book category on eBay and see what I find. "Woodworking" might yield a similar result.

      Most importantly, as much as I love my books none of them are a substitute for the time I've spent at the bench torturing wood fibers and making mistakes. I suggest making a lot of mistakes and then figuring your way out of them. No book will give you that.

      enjoy the journey


Post a Comment

Popular Posts