On Technical Perfection

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One of the most important things I’ve ever heard about woodworking was said to my by John Economaki, the founder of Bridge City Tools. When he said it, I couldn’t write it down – we were in a car, I think. But I can pretty well paraphrase it.

When I teach a class on design I ask the students this question: Would you rather build a project that is beautifully proportioned with a few gappy joints, or a technically flawless piece with a design that is just OK?

The students unanimously answer: technically flawless.

When you look at traditional furniture, you can see that this was not the general attitude among pre-industrial makers. Even in spectacular Shaker pieces and world-class objects I’ve examined at Winterthur, the emphasis is more on overall form than on technical brilliance.

Baselines are overcut. The backs and bottoms of drawers look like they came from an Arkansas outhouse. There is tear-out. There are distinct toolmarks – if you know where to look.

But when you back away from your inspection of the joinery, you can see the brilliance of the maker.

When I teach classes on woodworking, I fully realize that I am part of this problem. During my week here at Rosewood Studio we have all been focused on the joinery. Perhaps too much. What is more amazing than the tight joints, however, are the nine perfectly proportioned tool chests that are coming into the world.

This chest isn’t my design – it’s the design of hundreds of woodworkers through three hundred years of work. I only hope that the students can see this when they pull their chest out of their car at home.

— Christopher Schwarz

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60 Responses to On Technical Perfection

  1. Derek Cohen says:

    “Would you rather build a project that is beautifully proportioned with a few gappy joints, or a technically flawless piece with a design that is just OK?”

    Chris, in this Internet world, where woodworking is driven by forums largely populated by amateurs (like myself), is it not reasonable to aim for not one extreme or the other but both together – beautiful proportions AND flawless execution?

    Correct me if I wrong but gappy joints sound to be the work of either a sloppy workman who does not care or a sloppy pro who is working to get a piece out the door as soon as possible. Or perhaps it did not matter as much 200 years ago .. and time/expectations have since changed as amateurs are not under the same constraints (hence the reply by the students that they expected perfect work)?

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

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    • David Pickett says:

      Times have changed. Back in the day, before factory furniture was too common, the craftsman made all the furniture (and much else) needed by almost everybody in the neighbourhood; he worked to a price, so his work was fast and joints and surface finishes were good enough to do the job and no better. Now, the ‘furniture of necessity’ is mostly factory-made and relatively cheap. The craftsman, because his traditional role in the scheme of things is gone, makes ‘special’ pieces, so his work has to be good. The good craftsman (or perhaps the good salesman) can charge a high price, and can thus work accordingly. The amateur has the ultimate luxury of chosing how he/she works (within the limits of his/her skill), a luxury unknown to our forebears.

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  2. Beautifully Proportioned, hands down. Gappy joints are only visible from a few inches away. Beautiful proportions are visible all the way across the room.

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    • Derek Cohen says:

      Jonathan, I looked at your website and see beautifully executed pieces. Very nice indeed!

      So tell me, would you REALLY allow a piece with gappy joints to leave your shop? 🙂

      Regards from Perth

      Derek

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      • jonathanszczepanski says:

        I strive to create the best furniture that I can. This starts with the design, and leads into execution. It also takes into account budget and time. While many woodworkers try to achieve what fellow woodworkers very as “perfect”, I need to consider what my clients consider as “perfect”. If a piece has a tennon shoulder that doesn’t perfectly meet its mating face, and it doesn’t compromise the overall joint strength or the overall look of the piece, then yes, I would deliver it. The alternative could be delivering late, over budget, or with a mismatch in color/grain. If I am able to perfect it without compromising the other variables, then I do. If I can’t, so be it.

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  3. frpaulas says:

    I wonder if the preference for technical prowess comes from – at least for me – that this is an avocation rather than vocation. The piece gets done when it gets done and I don’t have to worry about making money at it. Even so, if my dovetails look like they were made by a rabid beaver on crack, my beloved wife always says, “That’s beautiful!” Or as an other wise woman once said, “How perfect should an anarchist’s tool chest be?”

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  4. jonathanszczepanski says:

    I also think it is easier to achieve – or at least measure – gappy joints, rather than beautiful proportions. You can take a feeler gauge and measure how “gappy” joints are. You can’t put a pair of calipers around a sideboard and measure how well proportioned it is.

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  5. Sean says:

    That’s sad. It’s like aiming to paint a portrait that looks just like a photograph. Just take a photo and be done with it.

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    • Tom Pier says:

      That sentiment misses the point of photo realistic paintings. There is something stunning about the best painting of this genre that is as indescribable as that of a Sam Maloof sculptured chair.

      As far as woodworking goes there is no perfect piece, there is always some flaw, perhaps small and unimportant, but they are there.

      What I find interesting about that question comes from the context of the person asking it. John Economaki has spent two decades or more building tools that attempt to remove user error from the process. Many of his tools seem esoteric, but they are his attempts to remove the dichotomy from the question he poses.

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      • Sean says:

        I don’t see much point in photo realistic paintings. The closer the painter comes to success, the farther she is from painting. The success of a painting should not judged by how much it looks like photograph. And the success of a piece of furniture should not be judged based upon technical perfection of the joints.

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      • Rich says:

        I don’t much care for photo realistic painting, asking myself the same question Sean poses: if it is realism you’re after, why not snap a photo? But, if I understand Tom correctly, he is saying that the pursuit of perfection is warranted because, while we can never actually achieve it in practice, the pursuit of perfection can often produce spectacular results. I have some sympathy for this position, having pursued, in my past, a passionate avocation as a realistic figure sculptor, but I’m still with Sean on this. (3-D printing may do away with this interest) My art history is a bit rusty, but am I not correct that the advent of photography coincides with a gradual shift in painting from realism to more and more abstract forms?

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    • jonathanszczepanski says:

      Your assuming that someone wants to paint reality. You can have a photo-realistic painting of something that isn’t real. For example, a dragon eating a Twinkie, a toaster flying in space, or Megan Fitzpatrick using a spell-checker.

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  6. I can honestly say I thought the answer to that question was going to go the other way. I had to reread it to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. Very interesting. My view could be skewed by the fact that I have looked at a lot of vintage furniture being a short drive away from Winterthur and the Smithsonian. I partially agree with Derek above in that striving for both is the goal but I also recognize that “gappy” is a relative term and I don’t wring my hands over a flaw that doesn’t compromise the strength of the joint or isn’t seen by anyone other than the woodworker who crawls under the piece with a flashlight.

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    • Ron Harper says:

      I think that the guys that that insist that plane sole must be flat to within a thousandth have gained a huge influence on the net. They would vote for technical perfection every time.

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  7. Peter Ross says:

    this is REALLY true in historic ironwork, even top end work for Royalty. Up close the work is quick, even sloppy. from just a few feet away, it is breathtaking. The design is what carries the work and makes it exciting and intriguing. You can see this in many Frank Lloyd Wright houses too. they are often sloppy up close.

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  8. Rich says:

    I used to tell beginning sculpture students that technical competence is a necessary, but insufficient prerequisite to creating a successful work of art. Then I would go on to say, only partly in jest, that a chimpanzee or a robot could be taught to cut parts accurately or to copy a model faithfully. I told them that what truly characterizes an object as uniquely made by the hands of an individual human, instead of by a monkey, is design. Yeah, I overstated the case (I really do worship technique), but that is only because I wished to counter what I believed to be the excessive veneration my young students (late teens, early twenties) seemed to feel toward technical perfection.

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  9. Aaron says:

    I can’t help but think that the perfection and mediocre design goal might be an influence from woodworking as machining and seemingly perfectly cut pieces of crappy temporary furniture coming out of the “Big Box” stores. Also, a large popular portion of the hobby/craft media that caters to and promotes the machining of wood projects, i feel feeds that desire as well.

    Hand work should show the signs of hand work. I love all my imperfect projects and celebrate their beauty. Sure I could use machine techniques and make perfect cuts, but who wants all that noise, dust and jig/machine setup time. Once I let go of the notion that every project has to be perfect, I was able to see my projects for what they are, hand made artifacts of my current skill level frozen in time.

    -Aaron

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    • Ron Harper says:

      Agreed. Go to the big box stores and look at kitchen cabinets and office furniture. See the ways doors are assembled with no attention to the way grain impacts the look of the piece

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  10. James says:

    It is a false dichotomy. “To make as perfectly as possible”… Hmmm…why not both technically superior AND well proportioned, that’s the goal. That’s why I practice joinery while still selling on commission. Sure, sometimes I fail at what I’m trying to achieve, but with each piece, as the design is agreed upon with the client, the execution gets better.

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    • Getoffmylawn says:

      It’s not a false dichotomy because he didn’t say they were necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities. Anyone would prefer to have both beauty and technical perfection.The answers of the students to the choice he gave them reveal their preferences for their own work. At this point they may be exclusively striving for technical mastery, knowing that great design is beyond their ability to recognize or achieve. We hope they haven’t given up on producing attractive objects.

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  11. Ron Kanter says:

    I, too, was surprised by the vote in favor of technical perfection over beautiful design. Unfortunately, I see that choice often in the work of professional furniture makers. The work is often executed with superb skill. The design and often the use of multiple types of wood makes the piece painful to look at.
    It is much harder to discuss design than it is to talk about tools or techniques. The internet forums are filled with discussion about how to sharpen a tool or cut a joint. There is relatively little about how to make a good looking project. George Walker’s column, Design Matters, is one of the few places where there is regular discussions about design and honest critiques of new work. I would welcome more design discussion in magazines like Popular Woodworking and Fine Woodworking. Techniques can be learned rather quickly if you practice. Good design requires careful attention to the past and an open mind about new possibilities. It is a life-long endeavor that is worth the effort.

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    • Andrew Ahern says:

      Ron, I couldn’t agree more.

      I think design is a fundamental interest that draws people to the craft (or maybe thats just me). Skills come with practice but I think it really is looking at a beautiful piece of furniture and saying “I think I could make that” that gets people started.

      I’ve recently started to learn to make furniture and have built a small handtool only basement workspace. I have found lots of great advice about tool selection, restoration, and building basic skills (and not so basic skills).

      What I’ve found more frustrating is the lack of equally helpful design resources. To compound this problem it seems to me that many of the projects and designs discussed in handtool circles are very traditional. I can see why this is case, however i think it can also be a impediment for those (like myself) who are looking to learn traditional skills while building something with a modern or (mid-century) aesthetic.

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      • Rich says:

        I agree with you Andrew, that there is often a slavish devotion to traditional design. I sometimes think that this is a necessary phase that all craft revivals go through. (It seems to me that contemporary blacksmiths are wrestling with similar issues) I am reasonably sure that the crafts people working today, who will be discussed with admiration a century from now, are not blindly following tradition.

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  12. lee Marshall says:

    I think that it is the chicken and egg thing. You are in a workshop with tools, not in a drafting class with pencils. You are there to learn how to fit a perfect joint. From that base, you can then build the pedestal. That is why they are focused on technical perfection.
    Most will achieve technical perfection. Some will go on to achieve design perfection. You can’t describe it, but you know when you see it.

    Lee (the saw guy)

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  13. Eric R says:

    I strive for both, but if a small flaw in an unseen area is the price I have to pay for an overall nicely formed piece, then so be it.
    Good Article Chris.

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  14. Gil McNeill says:

    I think one reason you get that response in a class setting is that early on in the learning process the lack of technical skills clouds the person’s thinking. That person may have a great natural eye for design (that’s why they are drawn to trying to “create” in the first place), but they don’t have the technical skills to get there. The result is that (at first) the focus is on the nuts and bolts more than the aesthetic. This is especially true if the person is pursuing a creative endeavor for the first time. I bet if you asked a woodworking class full of artists skilled in another medium (e.g., a bunch of really talented painters) you might find that the answer is different.

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    • Rich says:

      Yup. It’s hard to produce a wonderful painting if you don’t even know which end of a brush to hold. I think that an emphasis on technique, in beginning classes, is absolutely necessary if students are not to become completely demoralized by their sheer lack of ability. But I think it is never out of place to encourage thinking about design, no matter what level of technical prowess the student has attained, and the higher the technical achievement, the more imperative that the focus of instruction shift from technique to design.

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  15. John says:

    In the shop where I make my living quality joints and workmanship are a given and rarely discussed as it’s a requirement and without this quality we would not have been in business for 33 years. Proportion, shape, color, and design are discussed and even argued all day every day because this is the hard part and the real reason the customers come to us.

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    • Rich says:

      Same in the construction company I work for. Technical competence in finish work is taken for granted, although there will often be a discussion over what level of precision and craft the customer is willing to pay for. The big arguments, friendly of course, are over design.

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  16. Don Williams says:

    In an age where nearly every visual presentation of wood artisanry is nothing short of flawless, this response does not surprise me in the least. Even the Krenov Trilogy, which lit the fire under me almost four decades ago, presented flawless knife-line tolerances even though it was a romantic philosophical exposition on the nature of creating beauty with wood. Having examined thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of vintage furniture, the quest for technical *perfection* is a modern avocational thing. We seek perfection because we have the time and wealth to do so. What I think may be more useful to discuss is excellence, not perfection. I am finding myself returning to Reynor Banham’s “Theory of Design in a Machine Age” and reflecting on the genius of someone like Peter Behrens or Alvo Aalto who managed to merge machine perfection with beauty. Machine tools or machine-like expertise may produce flawless tolerances, but just as easily they may produce precision ugliness. Tools are means, not the ends. Beauty, however you define it, is the end.

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    • John says:

      And we all define it differently which makes art so much fun.

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    • jonathanszczepanski says:

      “What I think may be more useful to discuss is excellence, not perfection.”
      Achieving excellence while striving for perfection… I like this.

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    • “In an age where nearly every visual presentation of wood artisanry is nothing short of flawless, this response does not surprise me in the least.”

      An excellent point. I can’t tell you how liberated I felt when I had a chance to look really closely at the dovetails on some museum-quality 19th-century furniture…

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  17. James says:

    I believe that most people miss the distinction between building something for pleasure and building something for money. Nostalgia clouds the fact that people building furniture in the past did this as a job much the same as kitchen cabinet makers of today. Greater throughput equaled more income. This has never changed. There are always a few talented individuals who by skill produce flawless products, but enviably economics wins out. Hence, some pieces are excellent, but the majority are “okay”.

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  18. Ron Harper says:

    I once took a class wit Mike Speas. He made the following comment “too many recreational woodworkers are making really ugly stuff that is going to last for 500 years”

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  19. Wilbur Pan says:

    I’m not surprised that woodworkers vote for technically flawless over beautiful design. Beautiful design is harder.

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    • tergenev says:

      I’m going to write that line down, and quote it to my kids and grandkids (when I eventually have some of the latter.)

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  20. Chuck N says:

    I (we?) want both, but we really haven’t learned how to teach design.

    I have high hopes for Tolpin/Walker book as a giant first step.

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  21. mike siemsen says:

    Ask them this, “Would you rather listen to music that is technically perfect or music that sounds good”. The first picture sums it up, it is much safer inside the box.

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    • Tobin says:

      I’m glad you wrote this, this got me thinking about the parallels between musicians and woodworkers.

      And of course, the question shouldn’t be asked of the listener, but of the musician. If you ask this question of consumers of furniture, they would say the same as your music listener “I would much rather live with a piece of furniture that is beautiful than one that was executed perfectly but looks sort of ordinary”

      The musician practices to achieve technical perfection when he is young (or new to the instrument) and he can’t make his own music, he plays from someone else’s score, compares his performance to a professional recording and strives for note-perfect mimicry. As he gets older, and the scales become routine, the old standards, while now technically perfect, have become boring. So, he starts to learn to improvise, to wander off on his own. This leads many a musician down the road to composing their own pieces, or to reworking pieces into something new and different.

      I think this closely parallels woodworking and each woodworker’s answer to Chris/John’s question is more a reflection of where that woodworker is in his or her own journey down the path.

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  22. N-S says:

    Yes ideally you want the best of both worlds but its not always possible. I will NEVER tell my children they shouldnt make something unless they can do it perfectly, you should make to learn – you should make through need – you should make to express and make to enjoy. Perfectionist arseholes be damned.

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  23. Looking forward to the Tolpin/Walker book as well. I come from a family of recreational woodworkers who create neither beautiful nor long-lasting pieces, and I’ve wanted to surpass their work mostly because it lasts less than 5 years. I turned to hand-tools as the antidote. The internet forums obsession with perfect dovetails then nearly made me give up the hobby. I was so obsessed I literally have only completed the Roubo bench and shop appliances. I am wanting to start over with making something that is beautiful in my living room even if there are imperfections if viewed up close.

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    • Rich says:

      You might enjoy a book by Ellen Dissanayake, What is Art For? It’s been a while since I read this but I remember that she talked about art as being that which was “made special” by someone having spent time making it. Another book which has greatly influenced my thinking about craft technique is David Pye’s classic, The Nature and Art of Workmanship.

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  24. Steve Kirincich says:

    Doesn’t Bridge City Toolworks sell something that measures angles so precisely that I can always make gap-free miters?

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  25. Rob Porcaro says:

    The students’ answer is disappointing. The issue reminds me of the quote attributed to Churchill, “Yes, madam, I am drunk. But in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

    Technical perfection is an admirable goal, but technique exists to convey and contribute to the beauty of the design and materials. Technique can be worked on but the sense of design should be pursued with at least as much desire.

    In fact, I believe that for the best artists, their pursuit of excellent technique is driven by their greater pursuit of beauty.

    I second the comments of Ron Kanter and Don Williams.

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  26. Graham Burbank says:

    A remarkably thought provoking discussion tonight. Often, we work so closely, or so close up to, our work that we can’t see the glaringly obvious until we step away from the piece. (Sure, light cant pass through that dovetail, but the drawer is too damn big and clumsy looking!) That was what “critiques” were for in art school (and furniture making programs). Peer review helps you see what you are too close to recognize. One of the great difficulties of working alone is the lack of peer review, certainly at the design stage, and rarely of the completed work until its too late to correct some detail. All the more reason to join a woodworking guild or association, if you can find one in your area.

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  27. Aaron says:

    This is like the theme running thru the 2011 movie “The Artist”. Are you an artist or actor? The actor is flawless in execution, the artist seeks something more; beyond the physical.

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  28. andrae says:

    “The students unanimously answer: technically flawless.”
    Surely this is related to the apparently large number of hobby woodworkers whose day job is engineering, metalworking, and/or high-tech manufacturing. It can be difficult to step away from that culture of absolute technical perfection and precision to pursue artistry. Yet that is the very reason many seek out the hobby in the first place, to do something very different from work.

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  29. Steve Jensen says:

    I first developed an interest in woodworking precisely because of the beauty I see in a perfectly designed piece of furniture. For me, it is the design and function first and the quality of the construction second. Maybe that’s because I will spend the remainder of my life trying to learn the skills necessary to call myself a craftsman. 🙂

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  30. Beautiful design / proportion / historical accuracy is many times more important to me than perfect joints. If your piece has tight joints but ugly design, I would consider it a failure.

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    • Rich says:

      I’m afraid that I do not venerate historical accuracy as much as your remarks indicate that you might. The past was populated with the same species of human that exists today, and that species was as prone to mistakes in the past as it is in the present. To paraphrase your remark, “If your piece is historically accurate, but ugly in design, I would consider it a failure.”

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  31. Patrick says:

    I started to write my response and it was perfect: a well crafted, well designed argument that no one could disagree with or argue about. It was beautiful. However, I figured some might try to poke holes in it and tell me what I did wrong and then I would have to respond so I ultimately trashed it because i decided not to get sucked into this debate. So I’m sorry, but none of you will get to see that perfection.

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    • Rich says:

      Ah, that I could have been so clever. This debate is a black hole, for sure.

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      • tergenev says:

        No, it’s a very valuable debate. But it cannot be resolved concretely. Rather, it’s importance is in the impact that it has on those reading it, which I think might be more profound than you all realize.

        I have only one miniscule thing to add to this discussion, and that concerns the dangers of perfectionism. In Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague”, there’s a great character by the name of M. Grande. He’s not the central character, but a neighbor living nearby, and he’s one of the more tragic and interesting characters in all of literature. A simple civil servant, he loses his wife because he’s unable to communicate with her enough to keep their love alive. After that, he decides he’s going to write a novel to help himself get all of those ideas he has trapped inside out. He spends years and years working on his novel. But he can’t get past the first line. He’s got to choose the perfect words, the perfect phrases for that sentence. He keeps reworking it over and over again. It’s going to be perfect if he can just find the perfect set of words. And once he gets it perfected, he knows that the rest of the novel will just flow. And he’ll write a work that the experts will say is truly something valuable.

        He dies having never finished that first sentence, so none of the other ideas in his head ever see the light of day.

        For perfectionists, this debate has real, practical implications. I already take WAY too long to get any woodworking project completed. Repeat the mantra, “Perfection is unattainable. To be human is to be fallable and imperfect.”

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  32. I have a little bit of a different perspective on this, but it comes from my experience with a baker, my mother. My whole life, through school and beyond, my mother would make this special pound cake that everyone loved. She would bake a cake, a perfect cake, but once it left the oven, one small little nickel or quarter sized dip would form in the top. So it was no good, she would stay up all night until the perfect cake came out of the oven. Which she would promptly slice into pieces making the fact that the top was perfectly flat a non issue. And she would take the slices to our school bake sale or whatever other function for which it had been made. My father, three sister and I grew fat and happy on those totally delicious cakes that had an insignificant dip in their tops. So furniture making, I believe as long as it is functionally sound enough to last a life time and serve its function, design is obviously as important as soundness. To me they are equal partners in the same craft. I really don’t think you can pick one over the other. There are plenty of beautiful pieces of furniture out there that will fall apart long before the owners hope they will. And like others have said, there is plenty of ill designed junk that will last 500 years. I don’t think you can really prefer one aspect over the other.

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