Tuesday, January 31, 2012

make it easy?

There is a delicate balance a teacher walks as lessons are planned and projects designed. In order for a child to grow, he or she must find success. That success gives the child some encouragement and inclination to proceed toward even greater success. But also, for a child to grow, he or she must be challenged by doing difficult things that risk failure. Mistakes are made. Otto Salomon had said that the value of the carpenter's work is in the object the carpenter makes, but the value of the student's work is in the student... in his or her intelligence and character derived from the effort to learn. That development of character and intelligence is directly the result of that delicate balance between success and failure. Often the greatest strength of character involves the willingness to engage and persistence toward success. A child with those character traits nailed, will inevitably find success.

If you've been a woodworker for as long as I have, you are aware of many of the things that can go wrong in the making of an object. And when you ask a child do the work, other things that you did not anticipate come into play, offering even greater obstacles to the child's success. For instance, a simple pull saw may operate differently in the hands of a child that in the hands of a trained craftsman. Just as there are things in the mind to learn there are actions in the body that must be refined in order to actually do any given thing. Successful cutting with a saw can also be dependent on strength... a thing often overlooked by adults with strong hands.

And so this is a challenge I wrestle with all the time. Do I set up jigs so the kid's work will be more successful with less effort, or do I avoid the jigs, make children more dependent on their own measurements, and allow them to learn from their own mistakes?

Australian shop teacher Richard Bazeley has been working on a jig (shown above) for cutting that will make things easier for children to hold their stock square and secure as it is cut. It can be adapted for either a pull saw or push variety and uses a cam to hold the material tight to the fence as it is cut. I have made earlier jigs that I have grown frustrated with, so I am looking for improvement. I think Richard is onto something. The test will come when children and saws put it to use. In an ideal world, students would have a sense of straight and square, but these things only come from attention and practice, making mistakes and through seeing the effects faulty attention and careless work.

Blog reader and children's woodworking author Jack McKee sent another technique for straight cutting shown in the photo below. He also suggests that readers visit Sherina Poorman's Build-it Bus. It is a great example of a church getting involved in our children's need for hands-on learning.

Make, fix and create...


  1. It is a great idea.

    I think I will use a star knob rather than a screw. That would mean no screw driver needed and it is easy for small hands to grip.

  2. Richard Bazeley2:38 PM

    Karin ,it is a star knob,one that I made in the workshop. There is a "T"nut on the underside that the bolt goes through. Maybe the handle could be a better shape for young childrens hands. Any suggestions?

  3. Richard, I wonder if the lever will keep its position without the knob being tightened. If so a lever and a dowel that can be positioned in holes would suffice. That would eliminate the "t" nuts, and simplify the process. I tried to get my 8th graders to make friendship boxes by just marking square and cutting on the line. They have little sense of the precision required to make a box.

    That of course is where repetition and practice come in.

  4. Richard Bazeley11:31 PM

    To produce accurate handwork, especially small boxes I can see the students need accurate tools and jigs to work with. The design of the benchhook/mitre box is important for accurate cutting. When I look at our traditional bench hooks they are tired and in need of replacing with better designed models. The fence that supports the saw and keeps it vertical needs to be firm and of a larger dimension. Holding the work securely while the student concentrates on the act of sawing is a problem for some students especially the younger ones. A clamping system is required that is easy to operate.
    I tried your suggestion of the lever and dowel but it did not seem to hold the work as securely as I would like.

  5. I explain the difference between Windows and Apple along these lines. Apple makes it easy for the newbie to produce wonderful, eye catching material.

    I grapple with the question daily with my kids and students. How much do I have them explore and how much scafolding do I build to allow them to taste success?

    The piano teacher also needs to ask the same question? How much to let the student feel happy about his/her progress and how much to drill scales and note reading....

  6. David,
    I think we need to pepper the way with fun. Engagement comes from the interests of the child, and I believe the failure to engage is the failure of education. this is what makes learning more art than science. A good teacher carefully observes the student's level of engagement, coaxes when necessary, allows for some choice, allows the lessons to wander and then pulls them back when possible to the theme. Like music, a tension between the melody and refrain.

  7. My two cents:

    For middle to high school, I've been having great success with a saw bench and a bench hook on that. The student drops his knee onto the bench, the stock is stuck against the fence and they cut straight. A hundred percent improvement in student quality this semester with that technique.

    Why not use the ol' butt clamp at younger ages? Relationships between peers being just as important as our ability to saw, why not make the cutting of stock a peer activity? I've had pretty good success with longer pieces with one student sawing and one student helping hold the piece, then switching.

    I'd also offer that really small pieces like this might be better served with a hand-powered miter saw. Again, I've had success with younger kids here, because they can clamp the piece & the machine focuses their energy into movement along one plane.

    Mr. Patrick.