This being a bookish blog, let me begin with a picture not obviously related to woodworking.
One day, I opened up one of my one-year-old daughter’s books to find this:
She had “scribbled” in her book, but not like most pre-literate children might scribble. She had done exactly what she had been watching me do for months–she had carefully annotated the text with a ball-point pen.
Running across this book today got me thinking about all the other things, including woodworking, that I would like my children to learn from me. I don’t necessarily want them all to grow up to be master joiners or carvers–though that would be wonderful–but I want them all to know how to plane down a sticky door, mortise a hinge, repair a drawer, and drive a nail straight before they go out on their own.
Though my children are still very young, I have already found several essential principles for passing on a craft to the next generation.
1. Let them see you work.
For many of us, shop time is sacred. It’s the time that we can get away from the anxieties of life and enjoy the quiet process of making something unique. We relish not only the work we do, but also the rare solitude. But if we never open up our shops to others, all our knowledge and experience will die with us, and our workshops will be nothing more than extensions of our graves.
If we wish to pass on our skills–and more, our passion for our craft–we must invite others in, usually one or two at a time. Set little ones on chairs, stools, or sawbenches so they can see your hands. Tolerate having them underfoot. Let them play in the sawdust and shavings. Give them freedom to explore your shop while you are at work in it.
Children learn far more from what we do than from what we say.
2. Talk as you work.
Most woodworkers, and especially those who gravitate toward hand tools, love the near silence of the workshop, but if we wish to pass on our craft, we must sometimes be willing to break that silence.
When you invite a child in, name the tools you are using, and say what each one is doing for you. Explain why you choose one tool rather than another, and explain how you clean it before putting it away. The child will not understand everything you say, but he or she will understand more than you expect.
Pause every so often to let the child ask questions. You need not say, “any questions?” Children who are willing to watch you work will ask questions naturally. Do not be disappointed if there are no questions, but also be willing to pause your work to answer questions in detail. If possible, answer questions using small words and short sentences.
3. Let them putter.
Children learn by imitation. Give the child a hand tool and a bit of scrap and let him or her try it out. Good tools for very small hands include small eggbeater drills and braces, spokeshaves, and tack hammers. (Girls especially like to paint.) By the time children are in elementary school, they can handle small hand planes, carving gouges, and even carving knives, as well as small saws. Demonstrate the rules of correct use, and whenever possible state rules as positives rather than negatives. (E.g. “Always cut away from you,” rather than “Never cut toward yourself.”)
And do not give children poorly-made tools. They will do nothing but frustrate the child, just as they frustrate you. They are also harder to control and therefore more dangerous. Let children use good tools.
Observe the child use the tool, and gently correct technique when necessary, but as much as you can, try to stand behind him or her and just watch. A cut finger can teach a child more about safety than a long lecture ever will.
4. Practice over projects.
Children will learn to use tools in the same way that you learn to use them: by practicing on a bit of scrap until you get the feel of the tool and understand its capabilities and its limitations. Be content to let them fill a board with holes or whittle a stick down to nothing. They are not building projects; they are building skill.
Children will be happy just making chips and shavings for quite some time. Do not rush to push a child into a project, even a simple one. You want the child to sense the same relaxed atmosphere that you often appreciate in your shop.
Once the child suggests a project, be willing to go along with it. You may have to talk a child down from a really complicated first project (when one of my daughters was five, she was sure she was going to make a small dresser), or you may have to find ways to simplify it to make it child-appropriate. But do your best to help the child build what he or she wants with a minimum of fuss. For any first project, I recommend dimensioning the stock ahead of time and leaving only the assembly for the child to do. The satisfaction of seeing a project come together is as exciting for the child as it is for you.
5. Relationship above accomplishment.
A few Sundays ago, my pastor remarked from the pulpit that, when he conducts funerals, he hears less about the deceased’s accomplishments than he does about the deceased’s relationships. Regardless of whether your child ever picks up a tool again in his or her life, that child will forever know that he or she was an honored guest in your sacred place, and that you took time to listen and to share what was important to you.
The most important thing you will ever build in your shop is a relationship.