WORKSHOP SKILLS: “Why Do My Projects Take So Long?”

Workshop Skills Q&A

Q: Why is it that no woodworkers I watch on YouTube tell viewers specific amounts of time it takes to complete projects? It’s discouraging for newbies like me when something looks easy but takes me forever. What am I doing wrong?

A: Chances are you’re doing nothing wrong at all, except perhaps thinking wrong about progress. One of the biggest reasons you feel discouraged is because so much of the rest of modern life has become fast, easy and instant. Then, when some old fashioned challenge comes along that has not been so thoroughly modernized and simplified, it seems unreasonably daunting compared with the rest of modern life. Although it’s much, much easier to learn woodworking today than it was even 30 years ago, the process of learning to work with wood is still a challenge that has not been smoothed over to the same extent that much of the rest of modern life has been. You see this dynamic crop up again and again these days. I find it interesting, for example, to see how many young people react when they become parents for the first time. Despite the fact that the technical job of parenting has been made so much easier with disposable diapers, ready-made baby foods, baby monitors, state subsidized daycare, electronic entertainment options, fancy high chairs, etc. the gains in ease with parenting are not as great as with the rest of our easy modern life. So, in this context, parenting (especially parenting a newborn), seems like some insane and impossible challenge that completely overwhelms many new parents. They’re shocked in a way that former generations were not because former generations had a much harsher life generally than we do now, even before a baby came along.

It takes a while for the internal definition of “difficult” to get recalibrated to the not-entirely-tamed reality of parenting (and woodworking). This recalibration is one of the many benefits of being a parent because it leads people away from our natural tendency towards selfishness as well as impatience. A similar dynamic unfolds when learning to play a musical instrument, learning a new language, or mastering any new skill, including woodworking.

Workshop Skills Take Time

When it comes to learning a complex skill, my own approach is this: The job will take as long as it takes. Remove any time expectations from your mind and you’ll learn better and faster, eliminating the source of discouragement. This said, it is vital to try and work more efficiently, but never at the cost of quality. Eventually, after several years, the magic of experience will kick in and quality will come together along with speed and freedom from errors. I made tons of mistakes of design and workmanship when I began woodworking in high school 40+ years ago, but now I rarely make any significant errors. There’s no magic to it, just do the work, aim towards excellence consistently, then speed will develop in time. Give it time. The danger with the discouragement you feel is that it is very likely to cause you to give up before real skills have developed. I see this happen all the time.

The dynamic of patient work without looking at the clock is the best way I’ve found to learn any new skills. We live in a world where extreme convenience encourages impatience, but sometimes it simply takes time for gains to grow. The formula below is one of those simple things in life that is true but not easy:

Time + Right Efforts = Success

My Workshop Skills Experience

Here’s another example . . . when I started doing traditional stonework in 1986, I made tons of errors and was particularly slow. An experienced mason came to visit me near the beginning of my struggle to learn the craft, he saw what I accomplished in my first day, laughed out loud, told me to switch to concrete blocks, then walked away. I’m glad I didn’t listen to the voice of impatience, even when it came from someone who was supposed to be trustworthy, old and patient. Nowadays, I’m much faster with stonework and almost never make anything beyond tiny mistakes. These days it would take me only about 1 hour to accomplish what I did in my first full day of stoneworking. It’s such a pleasure to be able to work error-free or nearly error-free. Anyone can achieve these results too, but it takes time and you need to ignore the lure of the modern. It took me about 10 years of part-time stoneworking before I was completely comfortable, fast, confident and free of annoyance as I worked. I found stoneworking harder to learn than woodworking, so you won’t need as long as I took with stone.

Workshop Skills vs. Impatience

Impatience is the thing that makes you discouraged and impatience is your biggest enemy. One last thought . . .  educational TV shows and YouTube videos can offer a lot of value, but they can also trigger disappointment and discouragement for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Always remember that what you see on a screen (and especially YouTube) is largely fantasy. Same for TV. The process being shown has been sped up perhaps 10 times by editing, and it’s also made to look more beautiful and interesting with clever camera angles and artificial drama added. I find it fascinating (and somewhat grieving) that there are hundreds of thousands of people in the world who would much rather watch light rays come out of a box portraying something like woodworking, than actually getting right down to the struggle and joy themselves.

I’ve created hundreds of how-to woodworking articles for this website. Simply type “woodworking” into the magnifying glass at the top right of this page and you’ll find them. Learning from the experiences of others is an excellent way to make your learning phase as short and efficient as possible. Just remember that you need to be prepared to struggle, and to ignore the clock and any expectations you might have for yourself based on what you see in others. And now that I think of it, isn’t this a life skill generally?

Click here to learn five deep and useful woodworking tricks. These are things I’ve learned over the decades and they’ll help any beginner a lot. I expect at least some of these will be brand new to you.

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– Steve Maxwell