guides aren’t just for cookies

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

the cookies are pretty sweet, though. literally. you know, sugar.

anyway, guides have a bad reputation and aesthetic reception in western woodworking. people have spent hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years talking about how it’s cheating to use a guide. and that is pure bullshit so i figure it’s probably time to put that idea on notice its time has come. we need a renaissance of guide blocks. are you a woodworker who likes to do things freehand? no problem. keep it up. do you think it’s better to do things freehand? more skillful? that it’s shameful to use a guide to get a straight or clean result? please stop. you’re destroying the fabric of space and time with such lies. if you like doing it without them, totally ok. but don’t ruin the craft for others. that’s not nice. and your mother told you to always be nice, right?

and if you’re nice, you can have a cookie. from the guides.

pedantic aestheticism aside, however, i’m totally serious about the guides. japanese woodworkers have been using guide blocks of various types since the beginning of japanese woodworking as a system. other traditional woodwork has done it, too — in china, korea, vietnam, india and many other countries where woodworking has a multiple-thousand-year tradition, intentional construction of guides of various sorts has been a huge part of that tradition.

so why in the english-dominant west has that been largely dismissed as childish or cheating? two reasons. one is there is a notion in the west that doing something without help requires more skill than doing something without help. and while that in some cases may indeed be true, the absolute obsession with self-reliance in the moment is misleading. there is a difference between “can i have a loan so i can buy this tool” and “i want to do do this more cleanly so i will make myself a guide” — it doesn’t take less skill to use thought to create multiple steps. relying on someone else might be less skillful (though not always) but relying on yourself? how can that be possible? i make a cut and it’s straight. great. i make a block then i make a cut and it’s straight. i’ve used nobody but myself to get perfect results in both cases. that’s not less skill. that’s just having two different procedures for the same result. which is more efficient? well, if you’re going to make a single cut doing it without the guide is more efficient — as long as you can actually do it, which most can’t and that means spending time doing cleanup. but if you’re going to make ten cuts, which is often the case, or a thousand, which is more often the case than you might immediately imagine, having a guide will be far more efficient and eliminate the potential for error.

i’ll give you a non-woodworking example. let’s say i want to grade a bunch of papers and they’re marked out of 35 points but i need to give each student a percentage score at the top of the paper so they know it in terms they understand. i could work it out every time or i could just take a few minutes to write on a sheet of paper 35/35=100%, 34/35=97%, 33/35=94%, etc. then every time i know i get it right because i’m just looking it up on the sheet of paper. preparation. the paper is my guide block — it’s my jig. this may not be something you do every day but if you’re a teacher like me it’s probably come up at least a few (hundred) times in your professional life.

by the way, traditional furniture in the west tended to vary a lot and traditional furniture in the east tended to be more standardized at a much earlier point. this isn’t a universal statement but it’s a pretty good way of thinking about it. so if you might be making one of a hundred different pieces of furniture, it was probably less immediately-obvious where a guide or jig might be useful. if you were making the same piece a hundred times in a row without much variation, this efficiency was the difference between working for a month and working for a week to get paid the same amount and nobody’s going to take the slow option if they’ve got a family to feed, clothe and educate, right?

but the judgmental component completely apart from it, what are the basic essential guide blocks that will get you started. i’ll probably write a few things about how to make these in the future with diagrams but this is the internet and there’s a massive collection of videos floating around about every topic (and at least one or two percent of what’s out there isn’t shit, either!) so i assume you’ll be able to figure it out until then without too much difficulty. they’re pretty simple, too. and that helps. you’re smart enough to do it without the pictures and drawings. but they’re good guides so i’ll try to remember to make them in the future.

the first one is a saw guide. this is probably the one that’s judged most harshly so i’ll start with it. you need a straight saw guide. if you want to be able to saw straight every time, this is key. yes, it’s possible to do it without it but we are human and we will make mistakes. if i saw a hundred lines, they won’t all be straight. they’ll be pretty close but i’ve been doing and teaching for a long time. i’m not perfect. nobody is. with a guide, you can be perfect. how to make a saw guide? take a block of wood, joint or plane it so it has a straight edge. now you have a guide to rest the plate of your saw against. clamp it in position so the guide’s face is the plane you want to cut, lay your saw against it and go to town. no balance, no mechanics, no anything. you’ve done all the skillful stuff in the preparation. as long as the saw rides flat against the guide, you’ve got a straight cut without any need to clean it after the fact. that’s a win in my books.

want to make it even more useful? drill a few shallow holes in the face of your guide and drop in some magnets. not enough to stop your saw in its tracks but enough to keep it from pulling away from the guide by accident. you can even make the guide from plastic — transparent plastic is awesome so you can see what you’re doing more easily if you’re interested. but a wooden block is perfectly sufficient for the job. if you have a few scraps lying around, this might be something you can make for free. wax the face of the guide and it will slide smoothly. use the hardest wood you’ve got on hand and it will last for years. takes a few minutes to make. saves hours.

cut a lot of dovetails? make some guide blocks at the angles you use. there are commercial jigs out there that can do this for you and some of them are awesome and even already have magnets. if you want a recommendation of which is the best, there’s no competition — get the one made by [jonathan katz-moses]. it’s far and away the top of the line. you can certainly make your own, though, if you have some scrap wood. just make sure the angles are accurate and you can use them both for marking/layout and actual cutting. your lines will be perfectly straight and you’ll save literal hours of cleanup when building a single piece with a bunch of dovetail drawers.

make a guide every time you have to cut an angle, especially a compound angle. drop in some magnets and tack them in place with ca (cyanoacrylate) glue in thirty seconds and you’ve saved yourself a huge amount of time paring and checking. perfection isn’t a viable expectation. but it’s a good place to aim.

now with that out of the way, what other guides do you need? there are realistically two other types for handtool work that are extremely useful. one is a chisel guide. but that’s just a saw guide that’s narrower — probably best to use magnets the other way, too, the length of the chisel rather than across a saw because of the direction of the cut. they work exactly the same way, though. and they’re just as useful. the thing to keep in mind about chisel guides, though, is that you don’t just put the chisel on the guide and pare. you put the guide where you want the final pass of the chisel to be and work in that direction a little at a time. try to knock out the whole waste in a single operation and you’ll regret it — you won’t get an accurate result and the cut won’t be clean. the last pass with the chisel should be less than a half-millimeter in thickness and you’ll be happy with the result every time.

what’s the other one? a drilling guide. at least one. you want to drill straight holes. make a block of wood at least 5cm thick with a perfectly-straight hole through it — i suggest doing it on a drill press — for each size of bit you want to use. you can make one block for each size or group them. but don’t group them. that’s stupid and you’ll end up kicking yourself later. do it in the hardest wood you have — this is a good thing to keep in mind for guides in general. i like hard maple because that’s my favorite wood to work with anyway but if you have scraps of oak or hickory or something harder like one of the australian hardwoods or something from south america that’s fine, too. don’t use pine. or cedar. or fir. it’s just not going to work. those are too soft and they’ll compress. and don’t use poplar or basswood. why? cause you’re not that dumb. if you can easily dent it with your finger, it’s not going to guide your tool effectively. but you knew that.

you can make drilling guides for angled holes, too. you can even integrate depth stops but that’s something far more involved to explain and a bit complex for the moment. just remember you can always drill a block of wood on its own at the drill press, regardless of the complexity of the angle. if you stick that on your workpiece and clamp it in place, you can duplicate the angle and precision by using it to start your hole. this will save you a lot of confusion. no need to clamp or tape bevel guides to your workpiece. no need to use your eyes to determine whether something is straight. you’ve made sure it’s straight. where does the skill come in? you’ve used your skill to determine the most effective way to get a good result. is it the same skill? no. is it wise? absolutely. would you rather do it by hand? be my guest. it’s your piece. but i’m not going to take that risk. i want a predictable hole (don’t even think about making that joke) and i’m going to guarantee it in advance.

in the west, the word “jig” became synonymous with frivolous popular dancing. that’s exactly how many woodworkers (especially handtool woodworkers) think of jigs. and if you don’t want to make one i’m certainly not going to stand here and try to force you. but if you’ve been avoiding it from shame because the community of woodworkers around you has told you you should be able to do everything from sharpening to cutting to paring to drilling without any help from the wonderful world of preparation and forethought, that’s nothing more than self-indulgent excrement. if you want to live dangerously without a net, that’s up to you. but i’ll tell you something — i’m no beginner and i expect my pieces to be as close to flawless as i can make them and i’m not going to cut corners on precision. i cut my dovetails with a magnetic guide. i saw my final lines with a wooden guide clamped to the workpiece. i pare with a chisel guide clamped to the piece, complete with magnets. do you have to? absolutely not. is it a totally legitimate way to get the job done? without a doubt and don’t let anyone tell you you’re less a serious woodworker.

guides and jigs have a long (millennia long, in fact) tradition in asia and the middle east. they can be the difference between something that looks like it was made by hand and has “character” and something that was obviously custom-made but has precision. what result do you want? that’s up to you.

been on the fence about guide blocks, though? get off the fence. make some. try them out. if you like them, rock on. if you don’t like them, hey, it was scrapwood in the first place. that’s what the fire pit’s for. but i suspect you’ll like it. only one way to find out. thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.