Old dog, new tricks


Some memories seem to come from so long ago as to not be real. It’s a 35mm camera playing in my head. The events in life that stir these memories up are often odd. Nonetheless, let me tell you about the Old Guy.

I was nineteen or twenty and had just started working in a custom cabinet shop. I sorta knew what sandpaper was and that was exactly what my boss, Kenny, liked. He wanted to train me to do things his way. I was a good dog and did as I was told. We chugged along like this for about six months; me and my sandpaper and Kenny doing everything else. Eventually, the pay grades above us determined that we needed more help. They hired an Old Guy who had a million years of experience in cabinetmaking and woodworking.

What they say about two grown women living in the same house is true. Kenny and the Old Guy couldn’t agree on anything. Ever. I ate a lot of aspirin. The majority of the things that they argued over didn’t really matter in the context we were in. Which parts to cut first? Who was the boss? Where the screws should go? Who shirked their duties the most? Really, it was silly. I determined then that I would attempt to keep my mind open to alternative ways of working and living; to learn from everyone and adapt the methods that worked best.

Habit has a way of screwing your plans.

It is easy to create routine habits and difficult to break them. Since starting at Marc Adam’s I’ve discovered that I’m the Old Guy. It’s not that my habits are bad they are just different and work in a different context. Marc places an emphasis on student experience. A large part of that experience is teaching skills that keep students safe. And it isn’t one of those “do as I say not as I do” kind of environments. Safety is an issue all the time.

I believe the first step to changing bad habits begins with changing attitude. I came from an environment that believed OSHA was the devil. They intruded on productivity and progress. Naturally, we removed guards that got in the way and often used equipment in ways it wasn’t designed for. The attitude I inherited was essentially that safety was about common sense. If you didn’t want to lose an appendage, then you should keep it away from a spinning blade. The irony is that I’ve seen enough accidents to challenge that logic.

In an effort to conform to a new standard (and keep my job) I’ve had to learn some new tricks. It isn’t easy. I’ve had to talk myself through each step every time I turn on a piece of equipment and chastise myself when I forget. The grand eye-opener is that I’m being reminded of what it feels like to be a complete novice, not just trying to accomplish a task but to build a new relationship with the tools and equipment. Oh, and let’s not forget the falling away of any sense of pride or ego.

The best part of relearning is that in a month when classes start and I see someone who is completely new to woodworking approach the same equipment I’ll know what its like to be in their shoes. I’ll know the hurdles they will need to cross. And maybe this old dog can help them learn a trick or two.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Uncle Dougie says:

    Eric, I had the same experience when I started taking classes with Marc. I had to “unlearn” a bunch of stuff. Had Marc “yell” at me one day, but I knew it was out of concern and not meanness. I carry Marc’s safety rules whenever I go into a shop and try to pass them along whenever I see people making my same mistakes. See you down there this summer.


    1. Eric Key says:

      It’s a learning curve for sure. Looking forward to meeting you!


  2. DR_Woodshop says:

    Great post. Never stop learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Todd Reid says:

    Funny how my experience was completely different from yours. I learned woodworking from an old neighbor guy and only ever used had tools. Then I worked part times in the evenings for a man in Tacoma WA while I was stationed there building all that junk you see people selling a craft shows. This job really allowed me to grow with motorized machines and I had the shop to myself. He was always on the road selling stuff. When I was about 27 I was assigned to a base in Italy and they had an arts and crafts shop. It was mostly a woodshop but, had a pottery shop and a painting studio. So when a part time job came open to work on Saturday and Sunday teaching shop safety and how to run each tool then assist people building things the rest of the day and then close up I jumped on it. It really helped me Think of safety first and for most. It also taught me to keep a clean shop because the boss constantly reminded us that if someone slips on that saw dust it wasn’t only him who would lose there job. So, cut then sweep! The other thing that I learned was that the radial arm saw isn’t dangerous. That’s what you always hear right and it is if you don’t follow a set standard of procedures before, during and after you operate one. We had a giant German one and the table area for it was over 20′ long. I wish I had the room for one now but, of all electrical woodworking machines it has practically out lived its practically with the invention of modern sliding chop saws. Great memories! Thanks for stirring them up for me and good luck learning a new set of procedures.


    1. Eric Key says:

      Todd this is a great comment/reply! It reminds me of an incident with a radial arm saw I’ll have to share sometime.


  4. simon says:

    great blog post. interesting in that rather than working in a small shop, or even giving one on one instruction in a small workshop setting, you have joined what is effectively a corporation. You live in the most litigious country on earth, so once you get to a certain size, not getting sued becomes a paramount concern. Using any tool needs to be accompanied by common sense, otherwise you can unwittingly become empirical evidence for Darwinism! In a business teaching upwards of 10 students of mixed ability and intelligence in a class, relying on common sense is in itself not common sense, hence rules and safety come first. It isn’t a job i would want or the sort of place I would want to work but we can’t always choose.


    1. Eric Key says:

      I see your point, but I wouldn’t choose any other job. It’s a wonderful place to work. We place a high emphasis on teaching safety, not so much for our shop as theirs. We have a lot of eyes on the students while they are taking classes but eventually they will return home. We hope that they will take safe practices with them. That was essentially the point of my post; I’m committed to being extra cautious to lead by example. Monkey see, monkey do.


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