Fight the Urge

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When I work with beginning woodworkers, I’ve noticed a strange and consistent tendency relating to the tidiness of their work.

When building something small – like a marking gauge or a dovetailed box – they fuss over every fiber, inside and out. That’s a good thing because small objects receive close scrutiny.

But when building something large – like a trestle table – they are much more sloppy and tolerate a surprising array of defects and mistakes. For some reason, the overall form is more important than the details.

I see the same sloppiness creep into projects that are simple. Because the thing is nailed together, it’s suddenly OK to have some tear-out on a show surface or to spelch a corner. Complex projects, on the other hand, tend to get a lot of love and attention.

The best woodworkers I know will build a crate with regularly spaced nails, flush surfaces all around and even chamfers where you grab it. They take the same care with building a shop jig as they do a veneered chest of drawers. There is only one level of quality.

This is a hard lesson to learn when you make furniture for money because you can starve. But if you put in the long hours doing everything the best way possible, you will quickly become swift at setting nail heads flush without damaging the wood, your show surfaces will be clean and your doors smartly hung on the first try.

Start small with this approach. The next time you have to hang a picture for your spouse or install some hooks for coffee mugs, aim for perfection. Then let it creep into all aspects of your work.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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25 Responses to Fight the Urge

  1. kv41 says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Chris!

  2. gregflora says:

    This is a very timely post for me.

    I was going to attach the 4 legs for my workbench today, but one is a crooked, and I planed it down far to many strokes to set even with the stretcher. It would work, but I know in the long run it will be a sign of my laziness.

    Time to cut and plane a new one. Thanks for posting!

  3. So true. You could say this is the overarching theme of “The Joiner and Cabinetmaker.”

  4. hgordon4 says:

    It’s the mentality of the craftsman – in any profession.

  5. jarvilaluban says:

    To quote a famous leather worker, “no such thing as too much quality.”

  6. richmondp says:

    When I am an amateur woodworker, I am in complete agreement with you. As you note, working to a high standard frequently takes little more time, if any, than doing a rushed ugly job. And it is infinitely more satisfying. But when I am a professional woodworker, employed as the finish carpenter and cabinet maker for a tiny general contractor, I am not an absolutist about the matter. When banging together staging, for instance, does it make any sense to carefully space the nails, beyond what is functionally necessary? If a young couple, just married and fixing up their first home, want quick and cheap cupboards, thinking to upgrade as their circumstances allow, should I worry too much about the hidden spelched out edges of the backs, caused by narrow crown staples seating in thin cheap plywood? (Yes, I have to grit my teeth, but I do it) True, that young couple might be better off investing in higher quality cupboards from the get go, but it is their money, and their call. There ARE multiple levels of quality, and learning that has been one of the most difficult challenges for me. But it has been a necessary lesson if my boss is to remain profitable, our clients (rich and poor) are to remain satisfied, and I am to remain employed.

    Here’s a link to a hilarious animation that touches on the topic:

    • jenohdit says:

      Yep, you nailed it. I am both an amateur and a professional and they are two radically different worlds even considering the high end that I’m employed at professionally. There is a wide range of qualities and I think it’s entirely appropriate and indeed a mark of both common sense and professionalism to be able to assess a situation and efficiently work to the standard that’s required.

      I am absolutely meticulous when necessary but don’t get caught up in trying to prove something when it just doesn’t matter. I do in fact build crates with flush edges, evenly spaced screws, and chamfered edges because it makes for easier assembly and a sturdier box that’s likely to survive shipping and not hurt anyone. That’s quality that’s specifically measurable in practice, not in term of its appearance as compared to some Platonic Ideal.

      If you are just starting out it does make sense to try to do everything well and then if you need to strive for speed, but it is very possible and indeed common to make meticulously crafted garbage. The band Toto comes to mind as just one example. That’s a path to be wary of in my view.

      Taking risks is part of learning a craft too, at least if you want to do something beyond simply copying the past. “The best way possible” isn’t always something you know in advance, sometimes it’s what you discover you just failed at doing. Better that then being stifled from acting for fear of that outcome.

  7. Matt Merges says:

    The main reason I started woodworking was to get better at paying attention to detail & quality when working with my hands. It has been frustrating & painful at times, but very worthwhile — and I’m only 1.5 years into this.

  8. Yes, but the problem is, one can’t know how awful spelching looks without first having spelched.

    It’s not okay, but it is necessary. I think part of the process is kicking yourself in the crotch a few times for rushing through something and mucking it up.

    I learned a lot from that first drive of shame to the home center to get another piece of one-by. I had no problem shelling out close to $100 for wood and hardware when I started the project, but that replacement piece of lumber was the most expensive damn stick I ever bought.

    Until I bought 8/4 walnut for a certain chair project, that is.

  9. dsgoen says:

    I am in complete agreement with the goals you state here. On the other hand, I can’t help but remember the following:

    Don’t be alarmed about perfection, you will never attain it.
    Salvador Dali

  10. timothyvermillion says:

    They complain when I take too long to hang a picture or a light fixture because it involves levels, ladders and lugubrious internal dialog about the crappy stud finder I skimped on to avoid a lashing. They say I make every project into a Broadway production. If I don’t though, my world will fall apart because I could have done it right like my grandpa showed me.

  11. Eric R says:

    True words.

  12. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Most of the time I am able to maintain a high level of attention to detail in my work. Unfortunately, when the perfectionism kicks in, I go from handsaw to chainsaw, without giving the skill saw a sideways glance.

  13. asdettmer says:

    In an earlier post you talked about how you leave the divots from your jack plane on parts that don’t show, and even on show parts you can see the smoothing plane marks if you really look. Using this philosophy, why not scrape and sand up to insanely high grits? At least until you can get a polished look without the plane streaks (however faint they may be)

  14. woodworkerme says:

    I have been doing rentals repairs for years, and I keep telling myself ” it’s a rental I will be redoing it in a year or less just get it done” but now that I am teaching woodworking I have to stop myself. cause it needs to be right it will be looked at for many years to come. plus if you are showing someone how to do it right you need to slow down.and not skip any steps, sure you can fix it with the shoulder plane but you shouldn’t need to. teaching has really helped my work look better.

  15. error4 says:

    “My jack plane furrows are regularly spaced” is going to be my next bumper sticker!

  16. I always do my best when I’m in the shop. The project’s final destination doesn’t matter. The difference is that on shop jigs, cabinets, etc., I don’t worry about fixing small gaps and other errors. I look at the piece as an example of where my skills were at the time and as reminders for the next project.

  17. Scott Taylor says:

    I was in the mechanical contracting (commercial) business for many years and the number one lesson is you can only build to the level the customer is paying for, any more gains you nothing (they do not care) and costs you money. Quality is of little importance to most people, if it was the Golden Arches would not exist (don’t tell me that is a hamburger, at best it is a hamburger like object). People buy value, is what they are buying seen as a fair trade for the money exchanged, the Golden Arches has a high value proposition but it is not about the product.

    That said since woodworking and my home projects are my hobby I can lavish time on it I could never have in the paying world…

  18. Daniel says:

    A good workman knows when to stop. That doesn’t mean he sacrifices quality. It’s called efficientcy. I make part of my living building furniture and I have never sold anything that wasn’t the best work I can do. But that doesn’t mean I sanded to 800 grit either. If you sell things based on your reputation you cannot afford to skimp on quality. Period.

  19. This was proved today by yours truly, throwing together a rough crate out of nasty old OSB and some 1×4 and some fir strips and a four foot hinge I found…because I treated it as a ‘throw it together’ project to haul some canvases and paintings in it ended up a battle every where I turned, sloppy work is inefficient and requires three times the effort to become something effective.

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