If you want to get into woodworking as a profession or even a full-time hobby, you will need to focus on woodworking skills that are appropriate to both your needs and your talents. The first decision you will need to make is between carpentry and fine woodworking.
After quite a few years as a professional woodworker, I think its about time that I write about some of the choices I had to make and you will be faced with to find out what you love and what you are good at. My thinking is that for those of you just starting out, it might be worthwhile to learn that there are many ways to go. You will need to choose your own path and, to that end, it might be useful to be aware of what your options are so that you can proceed in the appropriate direction from the very start. For those of you with a little more experience than that, its still not too late to adjust your overall focus and gain knowledge of something new.
To begin, there are two major areas of woodworking to consider (carpentry and fine woodworking) and, once you have decided between them, you can branch off from there into your chosen area of expertise. These choices should be made not only on what you aspire to do but also what you can do well. Not everyone is born to play the violin or be an astronaut and so it is with woodworking. To begin, what I urge is to pick out an area of woodworking that you like or that suits your purposes, give it your dedication and find out if you have the aptitude to go further and be really good at what you do. If you find that you are barking up the wrong tree, so to speak, dont give up, just try something new. If you become an expert in one part of woodworking, that does not necessarily indicate that you will do well in all kinds of woodcraft.
Using myself as an example, I found out early on that while I was OK using hand tools, I lacked the touch of an artist. I tried woodturning on the lathe and had a similar experience. However, when I started to design and fabricate furniture, using machines, my pieces started to turn out so well that I went into business doing that. Before long, I had customers at the door and up to seven employees working hard to produce my furniture designs and fill the orders that were coming in. Speaking of abilities, I hired two, distinct types of woodworkers: Those who fabricated the furniture and those who sanded it smooth in order to ready it for finishing. Everyone had their own area of expertise and everyone who worked for me was happy to be in their own area of skill.
Thats just what happened to me. It will probably be quite different for you. Lets examine the big choice you will be required to make right away between carpentry and fine woodworking. Make no mistake about it; I have great admiration for both areas of expertise. I see them as equally difficult but in different ways. To me, carpentry is the art of building structures like houses, decks, sheds and gazebos. Materials include construction-grade wood, usually fir, plywood, concrete, drywall and the like. There are carpenters who build forms for foundations, framers who fabricate walls and roofs out of studs and rafters, drywall installers, and finish carpenters whose skills are akin to those of a fine woodworker but different. There is forever the goal to get the project done on time and within the budget but there is also the absolute need for professional-quality work.
Fine woodworking, to me, is all about building awe-inspiring furniture, cabinets, tables, etc. out of expensive hardwoods. The success of any piece is in the eye of the beholder. Artistic but functional design is everything. Each piece is a work of art, in its own way. Extreme care and a high degree of precision are necessary at every step of the way because the cost of a board foot of Ebony, Cocobolo, Rosewood or Koa is way beyond that of a fir 2 x 4. There’s an old carpentry saying, measure twice, cut once that is even more meaningful in fine woodworking than it is in carpentry. Carpentry calls for precise blueprints or plans. The same is true of fine woodworking, only more so. Fine woodworking is usually done indoors in a woodworking shop whereas carpentry can be done outdoors or indoors.
In fine woodworking, there is about an equal amount of time spent sanding a piece as there is in constructing it. Sanding fine woodworking is an art in itself. While I have found both men and women to be about equally skilled in building furniture, almost all of my sanders were women because they seemed to have a finer touch and more of the patience required to turn out a flawless surface, ready for finishing.
Finishing is also an art unto itself. The purpose of all finishes is to safeguard the wood and to show off the grain. Any scratches, dents or marks due to a less than perfect sanding job will be as apparent as the nose on your face after the finish is applied. At this point, the only recourse is to sand off all the finish, re-do the sanding job and apply the finish once more. This is not only time-consuming but expensive if you are in business to make a profit. Thats why competent sanders were so important to my business.
There are many specialties and sub-specialties within both carpentry and fine woodworking. Some of them in fine woodworking are: design, assembly, wood turning, sanding and finishing. While it is quite customary for a fine woodworker to be skilled in more than one of these areas, it is doubtful that he or she will become an expert in all of them. Keep working and trying new things and soon youll be doing what you love and you might even become really good at it!