Talking Technique with Jeff Miller

A couple of evenings ago I spent a pleasant hour talking with Jeff Miller on a number of topics that included woodworking technique.  What was striking was that we both hold similar views of the parallels between being a musician and being a woodworker. The reason? We are both former professional musicians.  It was natural therefore to discuss the approaches that are taken in the two different disciplines.  What became clear is that many woodworkers take a fundamentally different approach to their craft than musicians do: For many woodworkers not much time in the workshop is spent on practice pieces. Woodworkers tend to focus on making pieces and want a finished result every time (this is a very borad brush statement but no less true for being it).  But for a musician there are a series of fundamental skills that everyone is expected to practice repeatedly. Only then can a piece of music be put together successfully. These techniques are the framework that lies behind any piece that a musician plays well.

By techniques I don’t mean the scales and arpeggios that would probably come to most peoples’ mind. No: what we were talking about are the physical actions that that the scales and arpeggios cause the player to repeat over and over again: Fingering technique for a string player, embouchure for a brass player.  Success in every skill starts with the fundamentals – those essential, yet often overlooked principles upon which all practical skills should be based.

Jeff Miller has been a professional furniture designer and craftsman for over 30 years. He is the author of four woodworking books (and a contributor to two others), including the best-selling Beds, and Chairmaking and Design. He teaches woodworking fundamentals and other classes around the country and at his studio in Chicago and makes some of the most drop-dead gorgeous furniture you have laid eyes on. In short: Jeff Miller knows what he is talking about. So when he started talking technique (and as the very average woodworker that I am), I listened hard.

Jeff made clear that many woodworkers expend a lot of wasted energy and effort in planing boards flat because they are going over areas that do not require the attention of the plane. They don’t think of where their body weight is applied or their stance (go on, go to the bench and look down at your feet – I dare you. Did you think about how to stand? I thought not). They do not line up and register their chisel correctly when cutting a dovetail or expend yet more energy planing edges because their saw cuts wandered off-line.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Some time devoted to improving technique will always reap rewards.

But this was not just conversation: In his book ‘The Foundations of Better Woodworking’, Jeff has considered a huge number of operations that we all do with our hand tools and clearly lays out these physical  concepts, helping us all to understand:

  • How proper body position and mechanics improve your ability to cut precise joints, as well as add to your efficiency and safety
  • Just what it means to cut to a line
  • How wood behaves, so you can avoid such problems as tear out, splitting and warping — whether you use hand tools, machinery or both
  • How woodworking tools actually cut and work, so you to use them more easily, effectively and accurately

Read this book: Follow Jeff’s advice and you’ll build the foundation for making significant advances as a woodworker. Time in the workshop will be more rewarding, and results more satisfying. Jeff’s book is available in all the places you would expect including Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

And now back to cutting some fresh bread straight – great practice for saw technique with a gent’s saw…

–       Paul Mayon

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