If you’re there thinking it’s too late to follow your dreams then Steve Branam is just the inspiration you need.
While a software engineer just like many you reading this post, Steve never gave up on the passion he had for woodworking and continues to produce some amazing works at his workshop in the basement below each time he finds the time and is always willing to learn new stuff.
We were impressed with his grit to never give up on his passion so we decided to pick his brain and throw a few questions at him about how he manages both his jobs.
I’ve always enjoyed building things. Woodworking has been a hobby of mine ever since my uncle introduced me to it when I was 10 years old. It has waxed and waned throughout my life as time and space have permitted.
I will probably never do it professionally, but it has always been a passion. My regular job is as a software engineer, where I also enjoy building things, but in a different way.
My first project was helping my uncle repair a room in his house where a candle had caused a small fire. There was a hole burned in the wooden floor, and a window destroyed.
As a 10-year-old, it was very satisfying to cut out the damaged wood, cut and fit new pieces, and restore the room to its former state with him.
My greatest strength is my drive to learn different ways of doing things. I do most of my woodworking with hand tools, except when I have a large amount of wood to process.
By learning 3 or more ways to do the same thing, I gain confidence and versatility to handle different situations. Things that originally seemed difficult challenges become easy.
They still require time and effort, but they are no longer intimidating. I just think through the problems and the steps to work through them.
My workshop is in my basement, so I get to work quickly. But I’m always thinking about what I’ll be doing, planning out the process.
Every project has different aspects that need to be addressed. I figure out a logical sequence of operations to break the project into stages.
My favorite magazine is Popular Woodworking Magazine. They have emphasized hand tools for hobbyists, making them very accessible. As a self-taught woodworker, that has been an invaluable resource for me. My favorite books have been those by Charles Hayward.
He was editor of The Woodworker magazine from 1939 to 1967, a period when hand tools were giving way to power tools. He did a wonderful job of capturing and conveying the traditional woodworking skills, often soliciting articles from professional craftsmen with decades of experience.
My favorite sites have been the Sawmill Creek “Neanderthal Haven” hand tool forum (http://www.sawmillcreek.org/) and the Facebook “Unplugged Woodworkers” group. These are excellent communities, with a wide range of experience and lots of answers about how to do things and deal with problems.
They’re both very supportive of beginners, with the Facebook group being especially vigilant about enforcing civil discourse. Online sources will always have their arguments back and forth about how to do things because there are many methods that work.
As a hobbyist, the most frustrating thing for me is finding the time. Real world responsibilities get in the way when I want to be able to spend hours in the workshop. I call this “the hobbyist’s curse”, where you get enough time to learn about something, but not enough time to actually do it.
The most rewarding thing is when I get those hours and get into the zone of craftsmanship. Using sharp, well-tuned tools is pure joy.
It’s a wonderful sensory experience as I smell the wood, I watch the shavings curl off it, I feel the feedback of the tools in my hand singing through the wood, and I hear the gentle sounds they make.
It’s very satisfying to build something and know that it was my skill with my hands and my tools, not some machine, that produced it.
As with any creative endeavor, it is both. The science is in the specific techniques and established procedures brought to bear to execute the project.
The art is in the particular design you are executing. The proportion of art vs. science varies by project. Some projects are purely functional, not much art to them, you just build what you need to get it done.
Some projects are nearly all art, not much function to them, but fun purely for the sake of fun and beauty.
There has been no single unusual thing, but I have been very fortunate to live in an area with a long history of fine woodworking.
That’s allowed me to meet a number of extremely talented professional woodworkers who have generously shared their knowledge. That’s how we pass on the traditions of craft from one generation to another, across hundreds of years.
Because I work with hand tools, I avoid many of the safety issues associated with machines. Machines are very unforgiving. A second’s inattention can mean a life-changing injury.
Hand tools powered by muscle are much more forgiving. I have to have them extremely sharp to work well, so that’s the main risk.
A sharp chisel is the most dangerous item because it’s a long, sharp implement with nothing to guard the edge. Therefore proper technique in handling is the most important factor in preventing injuries.
Small boats and violins. I’m learning how to make both by hand. I would love to have unlimited time and resources to work on them and open a school to share the knowledge and the skills with others.
I believe strongly in the philosophy of, see one, do one, teach one. That means learn how to do something, do it, then teach someone else how to do it.
In addition to spreading knowledge, teaching is an excellent way to improve your skills, because it forces you to collect and organize your thoughts in order to convey them clearly. It forces you to refine your skills so you can demonstrate them adequately.
Practice. Very rarely does a skill blossom forth on its own. You have to work at it, and not be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are just learning opportunities.
Figure out what went wrong, then use that information to improve the next time. After a while, you’ll wonder why it ever seemed difficult. I compare it to learning to play a musical instrument. That also takes a lot of practice, with many mistakes. Eventually, that practice turns into a skill, and you are able to create things of beauty.
Learn many different ways, from different sources. Each teacher has a different emphasis, along with different approaches and biases for and against various aspects.
By learning from those different sources, you fill in all the gaps. That makes you more versatile, able to overcome more problems and tackle a broader range of projects.
The most important skill you can develop is the ability to learn new skills. Learning never stops. That’s been true for both my woodworking and my profession as a software engineer (that’s something even Brian Holcombe agrees with who started at a mere age of 8).
The best way is to read my blog, www.CloseGrain.com. I’ve now been writing it for 8 years. I have a number of posts on skills and projects.
I also have a book entitled Hand Tool Basics that is being published by Popular Woodworking Books this coming January.
It’s the culmination of all the work I’ve put in, sharing the skills with others who would like to learn woodworking techniques in the North American and English traditions.
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