Dec 172015
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Only a few years ago, I was new to woodworking. Recently retired, I found the time to pursue a long-deferred interest, making things with my favorite medium, wood. I began by taking classes offered locally. Then began the inevitable progression of tool acquisitions, power tools at first, then hand tools, especially planes. The problem with planes, though, was the fact that I barely knew how to use them. Frankly, I was frightened into believing that sharpening was a skill that would forever remain beyond my capacity.

Then I discovered a class on hand planes in the Marc Adams School catalog. Chris Schwarz and Tom Lie-Nielsen were the instructors for the weekend class and I decided to learn from the best. So, with my best friend in tow, I headed for Indianapolis. That class was all I’d hoped it would be and more. In two days, I learned the basics of planing and sharpening and how to set up my planes for use in my own woodshop. Though hardly yet an expert, I nonetheless felt equipped for the next step in my woodworking growth.

I came back from that class full of enthusiasm, perhaps more than was then warranted. I quickly leaped to the assumption that now I knew enough about hand planes to teach a class of my own. So I applied to teach a local class and, to my naïve delight, was accepted.

Only later did the moment of truth arrive. Petrified is not too strong a word for how I felt. Fear of failure drove me to read back over my class notes obsessively, gleaning every bit of knowledge I could from my classroom experience. And I read everything I could get my hands on, Chris Schwarz’ Handplane Essentials and Garrett Hack’s The Handplane Book being the most informative and useful sources. Still, I felt only half prepared and wished as hard as I could that I had never volunteered to teach at all.

Teaching day came and went and all my worry went for naught. My preparations pulled me through and the first class went very well. The students got a lot out of it and none of the anticipated complaints materialized. Yet while I could see that the students learned a lot, it was clear that I had gotten even more than they did from the experience.

It seems there’s nothing like the pressure to prepare for teaching to burn a new skill or bit of knowledge into your brain. Since that first class, I’ve taught hand planes classes maybe a couple dozen times. And always when I teach, I learn something new. I no longer need to study before each class. My learning takes a different pathway now. Always students ask questions I never thought to ask myself, prompting me to delve into knowledge lying below the surface of my mind or to think through issues for the first time. Sometimes, the questions prompt research after class that leads to entirely new learning.

My students’ progress during the day-long class and the excitement and confidence that builds on their faces show me I’ve given them all I can squeeze into a single day. At the same time, I know I’ve learned more to deepen my own knowledge and skills than I ever could by taking a class or reading alone. I think I qualify as an expert hand plane user now. That’s an outcome I might never have achieved if I hadn’t decided to delve into learning by teaching.

Norm Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker’s assistants. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be contacted at

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