While at Popular Woodworking Magazine, we were often called upon to offer praise or criticism for projects submitted by readers.
On occasion, it would be difficult to find anything nice to say about the project. The form, the joinery and the finish were all rubbish. When this happened, here’s what I told my fellow editors.
“You can either tell them the truth (‘Have you ever considered golf as a hobby?’) and come off as a pious jerk and discourage them from continuing in the craft,” I said, “or you can say, ‘Wow, that is a crazy nice piece of oak.’”
Many beginners gravitate toward using woods with crazy figure or coloring. (I admit I had a very short lacewood phase.) And the sh*t show of chatoyance can obscure awkward forms, gappy joinery, lumpy finishes and poor surface preparation.
This bird’s-eye blindness or curly maple madness usually passes as woodworkers gain skill and confidence. But with some woodworkers it becomes a chronic condition. Wild figure tends to dazzle a viewer. When a customer sees a figured piece, they immediately say, “Wow!” So every piece the woodworker subsequently makes uses fiddleback-tiger-beeswing something-or-other to elicit that response.
When I encounter a highly figured piece, I step back and squint my eyes, which turns down the volume on the figure so I can see the form. Then I get really close to the piece to see the care taken in the joinery and surfaces. Only then can I appreciate the piece as a beautiful form that was carefully made and happens to use dazzling wood.
Personally, I am far more impressed by people who take homely woods and compose them beautifully to enhance the piece’s form. Straight grain on rails and stiles. Centered cathedrals on panels. Gently curved grain on a curved toe kick. Colors that reveal the form, instead of hiding it behind a dizzying fun house of ripples and swirls.
I know, I know. I’m no fun. If you think this blog entry sounds curmudgeonly, ask me about combining different species with contrasting colors sometime.
— Christopher Schwarz