Getting It Done: 4 Tips for Marathon Woodworkers

Most woodworkers I know fall into one of two categories: the Piddler-Putterer, and the Marathoner.  The Piddler-Putterer starts a lot of projects and tinkers with them from time to time, but he’s in no hurry.  He seldom finishes a project, either because he’s afraid to screw something up or because he genuinely enjoys the process more than the product.  His shop is a mass of pieces from half-finished projects.  The Marathoner, on the other hand, plunges into a project heart-and-soul, plowing ahead until the project is completed.  He’s usually in a hurry, and he never leaves a project unfinished.  His shop may be cluttered by offcuts and scraps, but you won’t find semi-abandoned projects anywhere about.  Because he can’t leave things unfinished, he is constantly tempted by shortcuts, especially late in the project, when “good enough” takes the place of “do it right.”Handplanes on Benchtop 2016

I suppose most serious amateur woodworkers fall somewhere between those two extremes, but as for myself, I’m a proud Marathoner.  According to my Marathoner nature, I  prefer to work 8-12 hours at a stretch, with perhaps a 10-minute lunch break when I wolf down a sandwich before racing back to work.  I have gotten projects done this way, but I haven’t always been pleased with the results.  Looking over a project a month or a year later, I begin to see flaws that, had I not been in such a hurry, I could have seen and corrected while I was in the process of building.

Recently I’ve worked on pacing myself, breaking the worst Marathoner habits.  Here are four ways I’ve been able to moderate my Marathoner tendencies (somewhat).

1. Take Coffee Breaks

After about two hours of work, it’s time for a 10-minute coffee break.  Sitting down and staring at my work in progress often feels like a waste of time, but mentally it’s some of my most productive shop time.  Coffee Break 2016The coffee break allows me to look at what I’ve done, think about what I’m about to do, and get a different perspective on things–literally–because I can see objects from a different angle than I do standing up.  It also gives me time to consider design choices as I think several steps ahead in the project.

I learned the value of the coffee break when I worked on a maintenance crew at a summer camp.  We took coffee breaks every two hours, and at first it felt like a waste of time.  Why were we just sitting around when we could be out there getting the job done?  I didn’t even drink coffee back then!  As the summer wore on and the work became more physically demanding, I understood.  We were pacing ourselves.  Now that I’m no longer 17 years old, my body appreciates regular breaks–and my brain appreciates the coffee.

2. Sharpen, Sharpen, Sharpen

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016It’s all too easy to get my head buried in a project and neglect the preventive maintenance that my tools require for optimal performance.  The most important is sharpening.  A Marathoner is prone to thinking “just one more board,” “just one more cut,” “just one more piece” before pausing to sharpen, even though he knows that he should have resharpened his plane or chisel long ago.  I still hate having to interrupt my work to hone an edge, but I have learned the law of diminishing returns from letting tools go dull.  Dull tools are harder to push, so I tire more quickly.  Tool marks from dull edges are more likely to leave jagged tool marks, and they are more likely to stick, slip, and cut me.  There’s nothing like profuse bleeding to bring the work to a standstill.

Now I keep my sharpening equipment perpetually on the bench.  My strop is always at hand, and I regularly refresh chisel edges.  Every couple of boards, I strop my plane irons, too.  The tools are easy to push and less likely to injure me.  And the more frequently I refresh edges, the quicker each sharpening is.  As one wise woodworker has said, “Sharpen more to sharpen less.”

3. Sweep Up

Chips and shavings collect on and around my workbench at an alarming rate, and it’s easy to just let them pile up as I move from task to task. Pile of Shavings 2016 It is better, though, to stop and sweep up the mess periodically, usually each time I change tasks.  When I’m done planing a set of boards, I sweep up the shavings.  When I’m done sawing dovetails or chopping mortises, I pause to sweep up the dust or chips.  Not only does it keep the workspace clean (I’ve been known to misplace tools under piles of shavings!), but it also gives me some breathing space–time for my body to relax and my mind to wander.

A clean workspace is also safer, both for myself and my workpieces.  Sawdust on the floor is slippery, especially when there are shavings on top of it.  And chips on the bench top all too easily get under workpieces and dent them.  Taking just a minute to sweep the bench top and the floor prevents many problems.

4. Don’t Work Late

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015When I was in school, I pulled a couple “all-nighters,” but I was never proud of the results afterward.  As a Marathon worker, I am sometimes tempted to work long into the night in order to finish a project on a self-imposed deadline.  But I’ve learned that it’s usually best to go to bed instead.  In fact, I try hard not to do any serious woodworking after supper (though I will allow myself to leave clean-up for the late evening).  It’s not just that after supper is family-time, either.  If I try to do demanding physical labor when I’m tired, I’m more likely to get frustrated or angry when something doesn’t go right, and because I’m tired, I’m that much more likely to make mistakes in the first place.

I realize that some amateur woodworkers do their work primarily in the evenings, and I don’t object.  But when I’ve put in a full day at the workbench (say, on a Saturday or during summer vacation), I don’t allow myself to work after supper.  My mind and body need time to relax before bed time, especially when I’m going to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Becoming a better woodworker is not just about learning to work.  It’s also about learning to rest.

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4 Responses to Getting It Done: 4 Tips for Marathon Woodworkers

  1. Kees says:

    Nice post! I recognise a lot, allthough I am not a real Marathoner, I have way too many lazy spells. But when I enter the shop, it usually is in this marathoner mode. Not sharpening nearly often enough, not cleaning up, damaging my own body because I don’t know when to stop or relax, etc. Just a little more relaxed would certainly enhance the experience, allthough I sure don’t want to be a Piddler-Putterer.

  2. Kees says:

    Something else you might recognise, when working on a larger project I tend to do the marathon thing in blocks. In between those I allow myself diversions. For example the cabinet I am working on now. I made the door frames, then relaxed and did some old tool renovations. Then I dimensioned all the wood for all the rails, styles etc, and now I’m thinking how I can reward myslef with some small and fun job.

    Weird.

    • Barry says:

      “I made the door frames, then relaxed and did some old tool renovations.” Ditto. Bouncing back and forth like this helps me break up any frustrating bits—whether a difficult build aspect or an iron’s back that’s more out of flat than I’d like. Alternating between the two, projects feel less like a log jam AND I’m less likely to sob like a wee child.

  3. Barry says:

    +2 on working too late. After noticing completely avoidable and dumb mistakes are more prevalent after about 10pm, I made my cutoff for working about 15 minutes earlier (as a sort-of snooze button). Many, many fewer dumb errors now.

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