Woodworking Media – How Do You Learn Best?

I’ve been thinking lately about how we learn. I’ve gotten quite a few books recently, mostly because I like to read way more than I like to watch TV. But reading through a lot of them has gotten me thinking about how different forms of media and learning material are used by different people. I don’t know much about the brain, but I am aware that we only use a very small part of its capability. I do know that while I absolutely love to read, I seem to learn some things much easier if I can actually see them done.

One of my newest undertakings is magic. I’m no David Copperfield or Lance Burton, but I like being able to do simple little tricks for my kids and their friends just to have some fun. But what I’ve found is that for me, reading about how to do a particular sleight or illusion can be very confusing. The simplest of tricks seem to be really complicated when they are written out in a book. However, actually seeing the sleight explained by someone who is practiced in the effect all of a sudden makes it much clearer to me. It makes my practice time that much more focussed and productive instead of clumsy and confused.

This got me wondering, is it me, or is it just that this particular skill is not easily taught in print? I then began to wonder the same thing about woodworking. I have always been able to easily learn from the woodworking books I’ve read. But now I wonder is that because I learned the fundamentals long ago and have a firm understanding of the basic principles, or is it just because I have some gift for easily understanding woodworking? I’ve seen folks who struggle with their woodworking the way I struggle with these sleights. Is it them, or is it the form of media (i.e. the books) making the skills seem more complicated than they really are, just like with the sleights for me?

I have always believed that most people could learn to do just about anything. Obviously we can’t all become masters of everything, and there are always some people who are simply gifted in their particular field who’s skills simply won’t be equalled (e.g. Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong, just to name a few). But I do think most of us can learn pretty much whatever we want and do a passable job at it with practice. To me it’s a matter of learning proper technique and practicing the skill.

I know that that this should be the case with magic sleights, but still, I seem to struggle with what are supposed to be some fairly simple sleights while there are pre-teen children that can do them almost flawlessly and leave you wondering what just happened. So I wonder, are some folks just gifted with a natural ability to do this stuff? Conversley, are some people just cursed not to be able to get it regardless of the amount of instruction they receive? Whether it’s woodworking, or playing a musical instrument, or performing magic, do these skills require nothing more than a lot of practice, or do they require some amount of natural ability in order to do them well? Are all of these skills that can be learned by absolutely anyone with the right instruction and practice? Or are there simply some things that we can do and some things that we just can’t grasp?

I’m interested in your thoughts, and how you feel you learn best. Are you a book person who can easily grasp a concept in print and put it to work (I thought I was pretty good at this until I started to try and learn some magic sleights), or are you more visual and need to see something explained in person (or in a video) in order for it to make any sense? I’m particularly interested in how you feel about this in regards to your woodworking. If you could have only one form of media for your self study of woodworking to take you from day 1 apprentice to experienced journeyman, would you prefer it in book or video form (I’m not including face-to-face here)?

Let me know your thoughts.


28 thoughts on “Woodworking Media – How Do You Learn Best?

  1. I think you are on the right track with your comparison of magic vs woodworking for you. If you have the fundamentals down then new tricks or techniques come easily. I’ve experienced that with my own woodworking journey…I still prefer hands on learning with a teacher but book-based learning (backed by some serious shop time) is so much easier now.

    Great post Bob. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m more of a video person in woodwroking, it’s much easier to understand while seeing you do things rather to imagine how to do it.

  3. I’m an explain it, see it, do it kind of learner. If I know the definitions of the subject and can see it up close then I am able to do it. It was this way with math for me, until I hit geometry I was as lost as they come. Having algebra explained just didn’t cut it, it never made any since. Abstract I think, is for some a challenge, I know it is for me.
    So video with a whole lot of explanation. Newb here ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Bob,

    I studied medicine for many years. I won’t bore the other bloggers here, but suffice it to say that based upon known research(cognitive learning and function)the brain processes read versus watched information differently. I am a big fan of your podcasts, but they are merely entertainment unless you put them into action, or better yet, do some reading in addition to putting them into action. This is not an “old school” comment, this is researched medical fact.

    I don’t think you would have liked me coming into your hospital room during a pre-op workup and announcing when you asked that the hernia repair I had you scheduled for I learned watching a YouTube video last week, or better yet, “there’s an “app” for that. Ha!

    I, obviously enjoy technology or I wouldn’t be posting here, but don’t throw out the books just yet.

    Keep up the excellent podcasts and the detailed written instructions.



  5. I think you are on the right track with your comparison of magic vs woodworking and having the fundamentals down pat making it easier. I have discovered exactly that in my own woodworking journey and now after several years of learning the basics book-based learning comes that much easier…there still is nothing that can replace a live teacher and lots of shop time to drill something new home.
    Great post Bob. Thanks for bringing this up.


  6. I like to learn using both a physical book and video demonstration. The book becomes an efficient reference. The book can also have additional information apart from the video content, such as charts, tables, graphs and additional explanation too long to include in a video. This helps keep the video presentation smoother (more cohesive) and not broken up with interruptions to the flow of the demonstration.

    One last thing in regards to videos. I prefer not to be locked into viewing a video only on the internet. I would want to be able to download the videos for viewing and reviewing off line.

    By the way, people who do sleight of hand tricks, to create an illusion, are called a prestidigitator.

  7. For woodworking (with no experience or basics), the thing that works best for me is a combination of video, text, and hand on experimentation. The best example I can think of is sharpening card scrapers. I followed along exactly from a few different texts (books and from the internet, all trusted and quality sources) and couldn’t get the stupid things to work. I would tackled it every few months or so, for about a year, and get frustrated and give up. I was pretty sure I understood all the theory behind it, multiple different approaches, and thought I understood why it “should” work.
    Watched one video that clicked, spent 20 minutes in the shop, and now I can sharpen card scrapers.

    There are a lot of things on your podcast that I have watched and enjoyed, then gone to books to get more background knowledge so that I could understand them better. I’ve actually considered a few times taking the time to make a companion “book” for some of the episodes, since bringing a laptop out to the shop, finding the part that I needed, and following along is a little difficult (though I’ve done it).

  8. I need to visualize whatever is being taught. I study the words until I can construct a picture in my mind. A good drawing or sketch can be worth severl pages of text. Video is great if it shows the detail. Some times a good drawing is even better than video.

    Keep up the good work. Your podcasts are excellent

  9. Hi Bob,
    Those trained to teach come to the same conclusions. Some learn what they hear better, more are successful seeing, but most learn best by doing. Since we cannot question and work with you to construct a project, the ability to see is next best for most. Also, I believe people drawn to woodworking have a strong ability to visualize. They are good with maps and assembling things, etc. However, having been taught how to sharpen carving gouges one on one by the respected English carver, Chris Pye, I still cannot get the bevel angle correct.
    I enjoy your lessons. So glad I stumbled on them. I don’t know how you find the time, but I’m glad you do. Thanks.

  10. This is a great topic Bob, I have been wanting to cover this myself.

    I climbed most of the way up the learning curve through reading books and magazines and hands-on doing, at the time I did not have a computer. After getting the computer, I was able to travel the world for design ideas and I have continued to learn but it seems like the real meat was consumed earlier through printed material.

    I have no doubt that if I had the computer sooner, I would have learned more from the world wide web and video tutorials. Hearing someone share and seeing the nuances of movement for any given woodworking task are very valuable for understanding.

    I had my start as a remodeling contractor before getting into fine woodworking and design. This background was important because I was building my coordination skills with tools everyday. So when I was exposed to a higher level of woodworking, I had a jump on the hand skills since I was developing through carpentry.

    Not only was I developing my hand skills, I was being challenged to come up with creative and technical solutions for space, color, and form. I was constantly being exposed to different designs and this broadened my ideas.

    I consider myself a crossover artist since I work as a remodeling contractor that also designs and does fine woodworking. The remodeling aspect allows me to sell a lot of the custom projects. (Sadly I cannot share all of them out of respect for customer’s right to privacy.)

    One thing I encounter all the time is seeing guys that don’t get “it.” They really do not have the aptitude to understand and execute the things I do on a higher level than 2×4’s, sheetrock, and basic trim. You can see it in their work and their lack of understanding when having a conversation. They function fine as carpenters but there is a threshold they can’t seem to step over.

    It is my opinion that everyone has a limit to their abilities. No matter how hard they, or even I try, there is a personal limit to how far we each can go. A person can discover that they can do more than they imagined but everyone has a ceiling that they will hit at some point.

    One of the principles for success is also to recognize my own limits and work with and around it. There are plenty of others that have greater expertise in areas that I fall short in and I will use them as necessary. I still headed the project and took responsibility for it and therefore it is mine. But I also acknowledge that other craftsman have been involved and I appreciate the work they do as well.

    I still work to challenge people and pull the best out of them, but the well is only so deep for each person in any given area of expertise.

  11. I’m in the camp with the others that like the Big 3. Video, book, and hands on. I think having a teacher standing besides you is the best way. But the Big 3 come close.

  12. The real thing to think about here is that we are all very different in the way we learn. As a teacher we are taught to teach to as many types of intelligence as possible , there are NINE different types. We all possess them, we just have strengths in different ones.

    The nine types of intelligence are Naturalistic, Musical, Logical-Mathematical, Existential, Interpersonal, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Linguistic, Intra-personal, and Spatial. Here is a link to look at explanations for each http://skyview.vansd.org/lschmidt/Projects/The%20Nine%20Types%20of%20Intelligence.htm

    For instance I have a Music Degree, so you guessed it, I have Musical Intelligence. But, I have strength in Bodily-Kinesthetic, Logical-Mathematical, and my favorite Spatial.
    Spatial Intelligence for me means I can see a completed project in my mind, flip it over, explode parts in my head like you can on sketchup, and look for problems in the design before I even start. This is why I don’t use google sketchup. I guess I am kind of like a rainman in that sense, but it does help me when I learn. Watching videos for me works really well because of both the spatial and the bodily-kinesthetic. If I see something I can repeat the movement or mannerism fairly accurately. I think that if you don’t have a strong bodily-kineshetic you might have a hard time as a hand tool user and may be better off as a machine user.

    However, what if I wasn’t musically intelligent. Well, I would never have made it through college. I know this because I watched many people try as hard as they could and they just couldn’t get through the classes. Some people call these gifts, like your gifted at something, but really they are just different natural intelligence that each of us have that help us learn things easier.

    that’s my story and I’m stickin to it

  13. I’ve taught a martial art for over 30 years and I teach woodworking. I think a beginner needs an “expert” to watch him more than he needs to watch an expert.

    However, that isn’t what you asked. Given your choices I think you have already answered the question. Video for beginning and books for continuing… Except people learn in different ways.

    I’d love to see you write a book, I’d buy it without a doubt. If you sold DVDs, I’d procrastinate for a while and then buy that too.


  14. There are so many variables that it is difficult to generalize. Writing well is a skill that many don’t have. You can be a great woodworker and a poor woodworking writer. Good illustrations and photography help a lot. The ideal is hands-on instruction but that is often impractical or unaffordable. In general, I think video is the best medium for teaching woodworking for most people most of the time. There is an enormous amount of information conveyed that is unspoken.

  15. Initeresting Bob. To some extent I suppose I am a visual learner – in college (as an engineering student) I found I hated reading my books, but as long as I went to class and paid attention – wheni had to do.a problem the approach would come back to me, and the book would fill in the details.

    But, I think there is more going on here. I sort of think of it this way. Books teach me a lot about the whys of wood working and explain what techniques may be best applied in what situation – but videos and live demos excel at the subtle intangibles.

    In woodworking, these are thinngs like are the sound a plane makes for a certain cut. The way a chisel is held. How hard some one taps when putting a joint together. Actually seeing that stuff makes a big difference.

    In magic, you can read all about the mechanics of “the french drop” – but it is the subtleties that make it work. Blending it with a seemingly natural hand movement is hard- and even harder to describe. As a kid I tried to learn a lot of this stuff from books – and really never could entertain more than a 5 year old (but I did have fun with my boys when they were little). It is what makes a good “sleight of hand” (or close-up) magician a joy to watch – even if you know exactly what they must be doing – you miss it.. Like woodworking. I suppose once you’ve you’ve mastered the technique, books can provide great detail on how to use it…

    Funny…now that I think about it I guess I think of close-up magicans a lot like I think of hand tool woodworkers, and stage magicans (illustionists) with big “prop based illusions” like power tool woodworkers….. Humm…something to think about as I call it a night.

  16. Bob,
    For me the watershed moment was taking a basic hand tools weekend course. I had read about what to do, and cognitively understood what it was trying to tell me but had difficulty reproducing the exercises. I attended a couple of courses and it absolutely changed my ability to work wood and learn new things. There are some concepts that are incredibly difficult to adequately explain in print or video.

    I had struggled with sharpening for a long time, and was ready to give up on handplanes. When I went to that class I felt for the very first time what sharp truly was and was shown how to accomplish it. That alone became a frame of reference for everything else I have ever done in woodworking. I am not sure I would have ever got it right just reading or watching video. After sharpening I was shown how to adjust a plane and then on to making basic joints.

    I can now read about most techniques and play around with them until I get it right.

    Perhaps the very fundamental things require some hands-on example and instruction and then the other concepts will be easy to pick up by other methods. That was my experience.

    • Bob,

      I’ll echo Brent’s comments. Even after reading and watching videos, there is no substitute for having someone watch what you are doing and correct you on techniques. Even after lots of reading and videos, my dovetails were sloppy. A hour or so in a friend’s shop, where he was able to point out subtle mistakes I was making changed everything. Learning and watching techniques or theory is important, but there is no substitute for a coach, whether it’s someone watching a hitter in the batting cage, a dancer at the barre, a student doing long division at the blackboard, or a woodworker cutting a dovetail.

  17. Please don’t leave the author out of the equation. A good author with a good understanding of the topic can communicate clearly. A poor author with an equal understanding cannot. Chris Schwarz is a great example of this. He’s an author first, and a woodworker second. Or at least was until retirement.

  18. Rob,
    As a retired teacher, I agree with many of the posts; learning by seeing, hearing, doing, and reading are all important. I would add this one observation: we have not “learned” or “captured” a skill or principle until we can demonstrate, explain, and teach it to someone else. Teaching a skill will bring higher understanding & ability than just “knowing” a skill. Have you found that to be true as you’ve created a podcast? By the way, I appreciate your skills as a teacher. Thanks, Bob. Mark Hays

  19. Books are nice for reference, but the learning experience is far easier with video. The printed word can only impart so much description of a process. The video, however, gives one the description verbally of how to accomplish an objective, reinforced by the visual image of the motions and tool use involved. The sounds that the tool makes often contains valuable information in the learning process.

  20. For me, it depends on the author or the teacher way more than the media. I get Robert wearing and his books and they are really helpful. The Cosman videos are on par with that. But as much as I enjoy watching mr underhill, his videos and books are too fast paced for my simple mind to process.

  21. I find I am a visual learner, which means I need to see it done. But then I don’t actually understand it very well until I have put it into practice myself, enough times that I am comfortable with it and can explain it to others. After I get that far I also find myself reading about whatever it is I am learning, and find I pick up tips and techniques more easily, since I know the basics already.

    Now to go find some more dovetail videos, before I mangle some corners ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Oh, and I have kids who want to learn woodworking, so I tend to do a lot more watching, reading and practice before I show them. In this case the reading gives me a good background to use when I am explaining it, as I can use some of other people’s explanations!

  22. Well, that’s not a nice question since I still do things poorly or wrong!

    I’m a teacher and typically grasp concepts. I, too, can see spatially; but, dang it, I can’t make my hands and body do what my mind has prescribed–so I make a lot of sawdust, butchering rather than working wood. Reading extensively for the last five years and watching a good number of videos and DVDs have helped; but nothing beats the hands on experience. I guess I totally agree with the earlier post–I need an expert watching me!!!

    Thanks for your insights and regular videos. They are outstanding. You’ve probably done more to help me rethink hand tool basics for woodworking than St Roy or Chris Schwarz, who are both very entertaining. You genuinely take the time to slow down and explain the nuances.

    Many thanks

  23. Bob, interesting post and some very interesting comments…

    For woodworking I am definitely a “visual” learner – much easier to grasp a concept once I’ve seen it.

    I think our mechanism of learning depends a lot on the subject matter. Some things like number systems for computers (binary, octal, hex) – you need to have a very good grip of the underlying theory. For more “manual” skills such as woodworking etc, visual learning (guess that why they had apprenticeships…) makes more sense to me.

    Having said that I do also think that people are drawn to particular skills/activities – to give you an example – I always wanted to get into knife making, but steel as a medium just does not work for me. Once I had moved away from steel and started working with wood things just seem to come together and work without having to force it…

  24. I have noticed when I first got into woodworking that books on the subject didn’t make that much sense. I had a hard time picturing the joinery and the way the tools interacted with the wood. Now that I have learned the lingo and know the techniques personally, I can read about woodworking and benefit greatly from it. I find it easier to learn visually, but once I firmly understand the subject than book learning becomes useful. With something as hands-on and physically involved as woodworking, there is nothing more educational than seeing it and doing it yourself.

  25. “I donโ€™t know much about the brain …”

    I advise you this reading : “Brain Rules” by John Medina

    A very good book both scientifically complete, easy to read and practical about how brains works (and learn). That may brings lots of answer to the question you expose in this article, far more than we could possibly write here.

  26. Hi Bob,
    An intersting discussion. Not everyone is receptive to the same teaching and learning style. The most effective way to deliver a subject is to use a range of learning styles to enable the teacher to reach out to all of their students.
    We all have learning preferences which can be divided into three main areas, visual(at least 60% of our brain is used for visual processing, auditory(verbal sequential learners), and kinisthetic/tactile(hands on, handling real world objects and making or doing something).
    To keep things simple without going into extensive learning theories it may be prefered to use Kolb’s Cycle as used by Honey and Mumford to develop a learning style strategy. This may be seen below and can be initiated at any point in the cycle.

    —–> (activist) ——–
    | |
    | v
    Apply Review
    (pragmatist) (reflector)
    ^ |
    | |
    ———- Learn <———-

    Activists – like control, leadership, risk taking and excitement, but don't like passive or highly structured activities.

    Reflectors – like retrospective thinking, but don't like highly structured activities or situations where there is no time allowed to stand back and think.

    Theorists – like ideas, theories,models and concepts, but dislike unstructured activities without an obvious purpose nor do they like exploring feelings or emotions.

    Pragmatists – like relevant demonstrations and practical activities, they don't like theoretical lectures.

    Experience alone is not a gurantee to learning. We learn by reflecting on our experience, relating it to theory, then planning how to do it better the next time round.

    Kolb's cyclic experience can be applied to just about everything we do.

    Frankly I think you have most of this covered in your most excellent podcasts and blogs.
    I have certainly learned a lot from them, being stimulated to construct my Nicholson bench by watching your videos(Visual and auditory(theorist)), applying the theory and techniques to the design(pragmatist)), designing and building the bench(Kinesthetics(activist)), reviewing and reflecting on the result(reflector), modifying the design to meet my needs and environment. Continuing with the cycle till the desired result and quality was achieved.
    This learning was also supplemented and supported by researching Moxon, Roubo, Christpher Schwarz and Roy Underhill's blogs and channels.
    There is no substitute for practical experience and getting one's hands dirty.
    Thank you.

  27. I am a visual kind of guy but if it is not there I can use a book just takes me twice a long or more. to see it works best for me. 1 on 1 would be great but not always do-able or affordable for me. I know there are great video blog out there but you need to pay to use them so I’m stuck with what little there is for free. I have always been like this that is why School was so hard for me. I can do it in class with the instructor there but I always had a hard time doing homework with out someone else there to help.

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