There’s a saying in the pilot community that goes like this: “you know you have the ultimate situational awareness (SA) of a circumstance when you realize that you have no SA at all.”  In other words, the man with the most wisdom is the one who knows he has no wisdom at all.  Profound, I know.

I spent the past two days at the European Woodworking Show; they picked a very appropriate venue for it at Temple Cressing Barns.  When you walk in, you’re presented with this:

Cressing Temple Barns

Cressing InteriorHighlights of the history for the place (since I always like the stories behind the objects): it was built by the Knights Templar in the 1200s on a grant of rural land they received from England.  It was a Templar farm, where the profits gained were used to fund the retake of Jerusalem.  Tree-ring dating (and the framing techniques used) date the felling of the trees in the early 1200s with the barns complete prior to 1300.  I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the interior framework at right.  The claim is that these barns are some of the oldest original wooden buildings left standing in the world.  Once the Templars were hunted down after the Pope claimed them heretics in 1308 (probably because they became more powerful than the Pope himself), the barns and accompanying land were bestowed upon the Knights Hospitaller.  Interesting indeed; if you want more, this pdf should quench your thirst.

As far as woodworking goes, many more booths were present than what these two old barns could hold.  The lawn outside had a temporary pavilion stood up with vendors inside and out, as well as open-air blacksmith demonstrations.

I eventually found the handtool epicenter buried underneath my nose in the barn on the right.  I walked in and was greeted by the same Templar architecture as the barn on the left, but with it accompanied a trove of familiar faces I’d only seen on DVDs and YouTube.


I had to chuckle: I was mid-conversation with John Hoffman and Chris Schwarz when my wife showed up and had no clue who they were… until she saw the Anarchist Tool Chest book and was like “are you the Anarchist guy?  We have your book in our bathroom!”  So on that note, you’ll have to forgive the quality of the pictures since I had only my iPhone (and I didn’t want to make a spectacle, or look like a star-struck tourist, of taking pictures with my massive Canon).

Unlike the last woodworking show I went to a month ago, I seriously felt dwarfed during this one… dwarfed by my lack of woodworking knowledge and experience.   I must’ve stood there like a wallflower for a few hours listening to Deneb (of Lie-Nielsen tools) talk to the passing-by Brits about sharpening, planing, and the use of Lie-Nielsen tools.  Most of these guys were asking legitimate, pointed questions that I would never think of… they were all professionals (or at least seemed to have been using handtools for a decade or so).  I was blown away… most of the conversation entailed gems that I’d never heard of.  This was one of those situations where I had absolutely zero questions because I didn’t even know what to ask: just keep talking please, so I can glean as much knowledge as I can from what you’re telling other people.

I think the culmination of my inadequacy as a woodworker came on Day 2 when I built up the courage to ask about bevel angles, toothed blades, and when and why to use the variations in pitch and toothed-ness.  Not only did Deneb give me the information I was seeking, but he also got me behind the workbench to experience the differences myself.  As I was planing, he and David Charlesworth gave me some critical pointers on planing techniques that I was completely butchering.  Awesome (with a hint sarcasm, but mostly in the good way)…

You see, that’s when all the SA came back to me: I have very little SA on good handworking habits. When you’re self-taught from books and DVDs (ie, learning in a vacuum), you have no one to tell you that you’re executing it wrong.  The DVDs can tell you the pitfalls blatantly, but you are the one that has to catch it, interpret it, and grade yourself on its execution.  If you don’t know you’re screwing it up, you really can’t rectify the situation until someone else points it out for you!

Case in point: my son got his first woodworking lesson from Deneb in planing, and now he’s better than I am!

Brenden taking a lesson in planing

I need to get out of the vacuum and into the classroom for some hands-on critiquing of my execution.  Luckily in the wake of this weekend, I was able to get Congressional approval (read: convincing the wife) to take David Charlesworth’s class on sharpening and basic tool usage sometime in the near future.  Chris Schwarz had also mentioned that the Brits coerced him into coming out sometime in 2014 to teach a jolly-good class as well, so that’ll be on my to-get-approved list too.  In the meantime, I have this winter to learn how to build a chair under master chairmaker Peter Tree.

Like I told Chris Schwarz: I’m a yellow belt in hand woodworking… I know just enough to get my ass kicked in a fight.  Sometimes you have to hit lows to eventually hit a high.  I’m awed and awakened by how much I don’t know, but hopefully over the next year I can progress to a green belt or something… because getting your ass kicked sucks.

PS> the Woodshow was truly awesome and educational as well… highly recommended!

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  • Ralph J Boumenot

    It’s amazing that this has survived for almost a 1000 years and that succeeding generations did not alter or change it.
    I’m envious that you got to see so many people that I would like to see. Did you talk with Richard or Phil? When I go to woodworking shows here in the states, I do as you do, I just listen and try to soak up as much as I can. I usually find that questions I have get asked in time.

    • Ralph, they changed it slightly to keep it upright. I can fill you in if you wish, but they did truly keep it relatively untouched. The structure was amazing.

      I talked to Phil for about 20 minutes. Very personable… he was creating a molding plane as we talked. It was neat just to see him work (like a wallflower!).

      Richard I didn’t talk to much… though I completely admired his benches while walking around. I guess because I built my own bench, I didn’t see the need to pick his brain about it? It’s probably the wrong answer (because at this point, any wisdom is a plus!), but I guess I was interested in other projects besides bench builds.

      … still eating my Humble Pie…

  • Mike Winslow

    Picture a teenager going to The Louvre, with all that priceless art, yet focusing on who’s texting who.
    It seems to me, that unlike a pure novice, you at least knew what you were looking at. Like you said – if one wants to be an expert, it helpful to know what an expert is.

    • yep… after a few hands-on courses, hopefully I’ll gain a little more than knowing what I’m looking at!