Flipping Heck! Learning To Be Productive One Day At A Time

How Woodworking Taught Me To Become More Efficient In Life And Business

Pile of woodshavings next to a lathe

How Woodworking Taught Me To Become More Efficient In Life And Business

I got my first miter box when I was in grade school. I wanted to paint, and I read somewhere that serious artists stretch their own frames. With my first attempt, I struggled to hold the piece in place that slipped from the clamps as I awkwardly chopped at the wood with the dulled blade of an old backsaw. When I nailed the imperfect angles together, ignoring the gaps in the corners, and the whole form was twisted into a spiral as I pulled the canvas taught around the frame, I’d learned my first lesson from woodworking: If it doesn’t start well, it probably won’t end well, and most of the time it’s just a waste of time. Although I never produced many paintings, I went on to make many more frames. I had caught the woodworking bug, and the craft had a lot more to teach me that would greatly inform my personal and professional life.

Materials matter: a bottom-up approach to creative ideation

Most woodworkers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and learning from share a trait in common: a somewhat obsessive, if mostly harmless, inclination to collect wood without a known purpose and tools without an immediate need. Passing by a discarded bit of cabinetry with salvageable wood abandoned on a neighbours stoop has sent many a carpenter skulking the streets at midnight. Woodworkers have spent untold hours ruminating over their collection of salvaged wood and visualizing the possible applications that would most fully express the potential of each piece. Every characteristic of each piece speaks to its possible use: the grain, the size and shape, the age and the species are all important considerations.

In life, and also in business, it is unfortunate that we are often too reactive in our approach. We come upon a problem, take stock of our resources, and try to find the best way to solve the problem, and this pattern dominates our lives. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it can leave our resources underutilized. We could be missing valuable opportunities because we tend to view our team as the solution to our problems. Creativity, intelligence, skill and experience could be languishing untapped. Woodworkers know that the characteristics of your resources should inspire the nature of your project as much as a project should dictate the use of your resources.

Sharpening your tools: A discipline of upkeep and preparation

The first time that I used a bench plane, a rusty relic from my father’s high-school wood shop, I had about as much success as I did the first time that I built a frame. As I manhandled the tool, destroying a beautiful piece of cedar in the process, I marvelled at what I imagined was the herculean strength of the men who could use the tool effectively. I took my frustrations to a mentor who introduced me to the magic of the whetstone after he felt the plane’s blade and said, “If you’re not going to do it right, skip it and save yourself the trouble.”

It took me years to appreciate the full implications of his words. I became obsessed with maintaining my tools. I couldn’t believe how much time, effort and material I could save with the proper preparation. Visualizing the process became fundamental, and executing the process secondary. It’s a lesson that I carry with me into all areas of my life.

7 Habits [2008] : Habit 7 Sharpen The Saw : Principles of balanced Self-Renewal

7 Habits: Habit 7 – Sharpen The Saw : Principles of balanced Self-Renewal

Habit 7 is all about managing the lessons we learned in Habits 1 through 5 and how to ensure that we keep ourselves healthy and balanced.

The magic of the jig and economies of scale

Without exception, the single greatest development in my woodworking journey was discovering the many applications of the jig and developing the ability to design them to facilitate projects. For the uninitiated, a jig is a template used by woodworkers to make quick identical cuts. I was working on a series of bookshelves, a simple project for most people, and facing a great deal of frustration when I realized that the lengths of the shelves were inconsistent despite my best efforts to cut them equally using a band saw. The inconsistent lengths were causing the sides of the case to bow and left some shelves with unattractive gaps. When my mentor advised me to make a template that would hold the lengths of board in place as I cut, it was a bit of a personal revolution. It had taken me an embarrassing amount to time to measure and cut the first bookshelf. The jig enabled me to build the rest of the cases in the time it took me to make the first one.

When I started my professional life I took the idea of the jig with me. The idea that a template can be built to enable scalability in almost any endeavour was a game changer. It had become a part of my approach to achieving economies of scale, or a reduced cost of production that corresponds with increased production. More fundamentally, the concept of the jig is to produce consistent results using a systematic process. I’ve applied the concept to countless projects in my professional and personal life, and I continue to learn new ways to put it to use.

Reaching out for sage advice

Those of you reading attentively might have noticed two reoccurring themes. The first is that my initial attempts at woodworking were rather disastrous. The second is that I ask for help from people who are smarter than I am. This is probably the most important lesson that I’ve ever learned. In life and in the workplace, relying on people with more experience than us is a powerful opportunity to save time, avoid waste and learn efficiently.

When sharing their experiences, woodworkers often wonder about the many skills and technologies that have been lost to the world with the decline of the trades. With the availability of excellent instruction online, the craft of woodworking is poised for an incredible resurgence and skilled woodworkers have begun to emerge. There has never been a better time in recent history to pursue a passion in woodworking or to benefit from the many lessons the craft has to teach us.

About The Author
Mark Thompson is an experienced woodworker with over 20 years in the industry, who loves to share his expertise with like minded people as the founder of He is always thinking how to become more productive, more efficient and happier, both in business and life
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