Writing a book isn’t hard. Anyone can write a book. The real trick is this: Once you start, can you stop writing a book?
That’s exactly where I am. I’ve already built four additional chairs than I had originally planned to make for my next book, and today I eyed the walnut chair coming together on my workbench and wondered about making one more chair. In cherry.
I’m old enough and have built enough things to know the source of my problem. John Economaki, the founder of Bridge City Tools, put my misgivings into words years ago when we were driving somewhere together.
“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.”
This walnut chair is a good design. It sits beautifully. It looks good from all angles. But there are a number of technical flaws that make me want to grab the Sawzall and dismember it. Three of the through-tenons have cosmetic flaws. I have small bits of tearing around the mortises for the back sticks. The saddling is good overall, but my straight lines have some tiny variations I cannot improve. When I assembled the arms, I was so happy that I didn’t crack the delicate hands when I wedged them that I forgot to check if the arms were in the same plane. They are 1/4” off at the back of the chair.
Oh, and some small (cosmetic) honeycombing opened up in one area of the seat.
I should just look past these problems and move on. I should stop building and dive into the writing full-time. But I can’t.
Several years ago I changed the way I sign my pieces. I have a big stamp and a little stamp. I mark the underside of the seat with my big stamp. Then, with the little stamp I make an additional impression for every defect that the piece has. Most pieces get one or two “little stamps.” A few get three. I don’t know if I’ve ever made a perfect piece with zero little stamps.
But as you can see from the image at the top of this blog entry, this walnut chair isn’t going out into the world. Time to fetch the cherry.
— Christopher Schwarz
29 thoughts on “Making Book Part 19: Dye My Underwear & Learn to Live Within my Limitations”
I’ve read that the Shakers included an intentional flaw in their pieces, to remind them that only one Creator could make perfect things. I’ve never had to take such steps, myself.
Thank you for the great post, something I needed to hear around here recently
For what it’s worth, I love that chair. The extra stamps just make it better.
A really interesting article, but I would respectfully disagree.
Having seen the couple of pictures of that walnut chair,
I know i’d be honoured to have it in a place of beauty in my home, and I know plenty of
others, despite the mistake stamp count, who would love it.
Something I learned, of all things, from the young lady who nannied our
young daughters and son while she recovered from some major health issues.
“Done is better than perfect”
I still struggle with it: because I’ve made a piece of furniture,
had mistakes, cleaned up as best I could, the mistakes.
Having presented it to the recipient, apologizing,
only to be interrupted. “You made it for me, not a robot,
the mistakes are part of what makes it a custom piece of furniture”
I’ve had so many people challenge me “If you hadn’t brought up that 1/8″ mistake there,
I’d never have seen it… ” (example)
How do others deal with “perfect” vs “done and someone enjoying it” ?
(sigh: I’m tired: I’ve tried to re-write this 3 times, and the grammar/structure still stink. Sorry)
You might like this article. 🙂
I generally think your chairs are too perfect. I think they would look better if they were all around less crisp. I get wanting to make them as you do though.
Difference between an amateur and a professional is a professional knows how to hide his mistakes.
I think this slight variations and imperfections give it character. Why we become attached to pieces. Too perfect and it looks like it came from a factory/cnc/robots. I love seeing tooling marks etc…..
I prefer duct tape.
Only for upholstered chairs.
I’m the one out of 10 who would rather have the design bang on. The technical bits can get learned but is the design that makes a masterpiece. The Maloof rocker or a Krenov cabinet comes to mind….
does that make me 2 of 20? 🙂
having seen the work you did on your Maloof inspired piece. Yeah I saw your mistakes.
is it still an awesome chair made with all the skill you currently have developed ? yeah.
(for everyone else: Dean and I live in the same city, and upon occasion will thoroughly pummel each other’s
woodworking. He took on a hell of a challenge to make a Maloof inspired chair. Mistakes were made.
Its still a nice piece of furniture.) Thankfully for Covid, Dean won’t be reviewing my recent veneer lay-up. 🙂
The trick is to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The fun bit is of course working out when you have reached good enough and taking things further would be unwarranted (or counterproductive) – and then being ok with that.
Design trumps technical perfection. I appreciate teachers who include their mistakes in a presentation. It is a comfort to those of us who make many mistakes. Explaining how the mistakes happen is an important lesson. Maybe a chapter in the book called “You gotta take the good with the bad and it ain’t all chopped liver.” And include lots of pictures.
That was in my last book: The Island of Misfit Designs.
I love your honesty! It is within your honesty that I see myself and by the God’s Grace learn of my defects such that I can improve in character and craft.
A famous computer scientist, Don Knuth, took time out from his magnum opus to write a typesetting package called “TeX” to iy would look pretty when published. He’s bad like you, and it was a huge distraction and took years. He kept a log of all his mistakes, published as “The Errors of TeX”. I’m not sure anyone else has followed his lead.
Your approach seems more practical.
From the pics you have shown so far, it looks really good! I’m glad I do not have a little stamp like yours…
I always seem to get those kind of questions wrong. I can fill a gappy joint, and I can practice techniques so it’s better next time. The more technically proficient I get, the more I can see that Design is the true dark art of woodworking, an art I know very little about.
Och Chris. I’ve followed you for years and bought loads of books and paid attention to your advice, but one thing that you keep doing bugs me. Using terms that Americans understand, but for the other 96% of the world’s population, it’s tumbleweed.
For instance, what the heck is a Sawzall?
It makes me feel that you’re writing only for the select few who’re in the know. The rest of us can lump it.
I know this isn’t intentional, and of course it’s not just you – most Americans write like that – but it’s how I feel.
It’s a brand/mark for a reciprocating saw. And from the point of view of just about any American, it’s very difficult, especially in a trade, to know what common terms are not common abroad.
These days we have the tools to quickly rectify any gaps in comprehension that arise through regional terms (and I don’t think you can bemoan that fact here with a straight face). Is bland international language really what we want to aim at?
Did you build it sound enough that it makes it into a chair chat in the year 2221?
Perhaps another way than thought following thought after thought, just don’t dwell in it. Thoughts rolling around like marbles in a jar
As Chuang Tzu describes:
Live empty, perfectly empty.
Sage masters always employ mind like a pure mirror:
welcome nothing, refuse nothing,
reflect everything, hold nothing.
Love the walnut chair with the princely black cat sitting in the only way cats are. Pure and untamed wildness.
I’m happy if what I build holds!
I thought wonky designs and gappy joints was the end goal. If not, we might as well just get stuff from IKEA 😀
I don’t know if it’s woodworking itself, or that people predisposed to it are drawn to woodworking, but relentless perfectionism is a common thing. The upside of that is never settling for half-assed, “that’ll do”-type of result, always seeking to do better. The downside is chasing marginal improvements invisible to anyone but yourself, being your own worst critic, obsessing over the tiniest flaws, and especially if you’ve already got a case of sad brains, worst case being rendered unable to even start anymore because it won’t turn out the way you want to and by not doing anything at least you can’t mess it up. Trying to not go too nuts and keep it within reason is key I guess, though it may be easier said than done.
I do’nt understand why you stamp your pieces for every defect.It seems to me you want to punnish yourself I would also say to these students to read Krenov. That would be more inspiring I guess.
I have this 17th Century Lombardian pictureframe. Sculpted in Walnut and gilded. The sculptor erred himself so one of the leaves goes in the opposite direction. Seeing this makes me happy and I guess it is because I can forgive the maker.
In Buddhist and Arab Cultures it is not uncommon to deliberately make a mistake as to show you are not god.
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