Please Step Away From the Project

June 2, 2008

I was in Seattle recently giving some seminars on simple finishes and hand tools. There were wonderful students in attendance, and a good time was had by me if not by all. Our Sunday session was a cornucopia of ideas and topics. We talked about laying out and cutting dovetails. I cut dovetails while talking about dovetails, which is not easy. We talked honing jointer knives, which tools to buy, which to avoid, proper hand plane technique, chopping mortises, precision, attitude, a whole slew of ideas.

Included in this discussion was the idea of perspective. I have mentioned this before in writing but it bears repeating. For we woodworkers, if you have not noticed, are an obsessive bunch. Tuned in to a frequency few other people can hear. Looking for things few other people care to notice. We get so involved, so wrapped up in a project that it’s not only difficult to stand back, but dang near impossible to see the forest for the wood in a project.

Why is this, you casual observer of the woodworking animal might ask. You who sit in front of your own hobby or book or obsession. Why obsess over building something? A most apt question. Why indeed? Few people know or care about the difference between a half blind or through dovetail. Or why one would look sloppy and another pristine.

We are too close of course. After several weeks or months of work on a piece, it becomes a part of our landscape. Our eyes can see nothing else. So it is very difficult to look past our mistakes. It is very difficult to look past our failures or perceived failures and see how lovely a thing we have wrought. We,instead, focus our attentions on what we missed. What we failed at. What we could have done so much better.

I took a walk before class one morning on the beach at Alki. Elliott Bay was spread out before me. It was a grey day but not raining. I did not have the Jim Guy, my beagle, with me so I walked alone with no stops for leaving messages. As I walked, I became fascinated by how quickly the ferry moved across the Bay. I wondered how it would stop in time to dock.

But distance plays tricks and after walking another 5 minutes, I could barely see the ferry pulling into its berth. I had to squint to see it move ever so slowly against the backdrop of some dock or shoreline. But slowly it did move. Other ferries sat and moved about the Bay. They were of momentary interest to me, like looking out at the birds, the mud flats, the scuba divers, the people on skates with dogs running by their sides with their paws in little leather booties to protect their pads.

There is of course always much to see on a walk. Bad architecture aplenty, cheek by jowl, lined by the bayside. I walked out along the Bay and then turned back. As I walked round the slow bend of the road, there was this monstrosity from the 70’s, the Space Needle, plunked down on the horizon. However did I miss seeing that I thought. Oh well, it was probably round a hill or something. But no, as I walked, I realized that the Space Needle was always visible to me, but I never saw it. I never saw it. And it’s big! What I saw were ferries and mud flats and herons and all sorts of other things but never once did I spy the needle.

An astonishment! Here was exactly the kind of myopia walking along with me, side by side, that I have told my students about. Looking so hard at something that you don’t see what else is around it.

Years and years ago, a local craft school here in Portland held a get together for woodworkers. Many of us emerged from the gloom of our 1970’s shops to blink and peer out at each other. Our bearded countenances looked back and we managed to speak and say: “you too?”

There was also a showing of work and one of the exhibitors was a guy from Montana name of Steve Voorheis. I had spent some time talking with him as he knew my brother up in Montana. I was raving to him about his fabulous piece in the show, a wonderfully shaped and sculpted mahogany armoire. In a conspiratorial tone, Steve told me to come with him and we went down to the gallery. He took me up to the 6′ tall piece and he said, “Look at those dovetails. I cut them all on the wrong side of the line. There are patches for each joint.”

I was astonished. Here he was admitting his mistakes, here he was showing me his skillful fix of these mistakes, and here I was a supposed critically eyed woodworker and I never saw them. I was so busy drinking in the rest of the piece that I didn’t see and now didn’t care that he had screwed up. I was more impressed by his ability to recover and to fix and to move on.

Few people have the skill you woodworkers have, to build things with your hands and with your machines. Few people have the patience, the knowledge, the determination, and the obsession to build the furniture of quality, the furniture of precision, to build furniture filled with mistakes that you do. When you goof up, when you make a mistake, just step away from the project Sir or Madam. Step away and no one will get hurt. It’s never that bad that it cannot be fixed. And few will notice what you see as a mistake.

Published in: on June 3, 2008 at 8:50 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Guilty as charged. Thanks for the new take on not seeing the forest for the trees. 🙂

  2. Lovely thoughts…Thanks!

  3. A close friend once told me the mark of a true craftsman isn’t that he no longer makes mistakes, it’s that only he will ever see them.

  4. There is a saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When we keep our eye on wholeness then we don’t get lost in the parts. Yet if the focus is just on the parts one gets lost in despair if the part is defective. I appreciate this gentle reminder to keep uppermost in the mind that the parts exist in the contex of the whole.

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