Every shop I’ve worked in had a set of built-in aphorisms – things that are said when you encounter a moment of truth at the bench or when the clamps come off. Michael Dunbar’s chair shop probably had more than 100 sayings that he and his instructors had developed. Taking a class there was like living inside Confucius’s “Analects.”
We have some at our shop. Some of these are said out loud. Some are muttered under one’s breath. Others are too private to speak.
“Let us all now drink to the success of our hopeless endeavor.”
This is a Russian dissident toast that I learned in college. I say it to myself as a little prayer any time I begin a challenging project, which is just about every time I begin a project.
“For those people and that money.”
I’ve heard this one a lot in workshops. It’s said when you botch a job and decide not to fix it. I’ve turned it on its head and say it when something goes really right, or when a piece turns out as expected. It is said as a reminder as to who is the customer.
“If you have to ask the question, then you know the answer.”
I’ve published this one before. We say it whenever someone asks “Should I fix this?” “Does this assembly need to be remade?”
“You have to build a shed-load of furniture.”
I picked this one up from David Savage (rest in peace). I say it to students whenever they despair that they’ll never improve.
“Furniture makers have been hiding mistakes from rich people for thousands of years.”
I first heard this one from furniture maker Jim Stuard. He said it whenever he made a flawless repair to a piece.
“By all means read what the experts have to say. Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”
This is a John Brown quote. And I love it. I say it whenever we do something that goes against prevailing internet/magazine/book wisdom.
“La carrière ouverte aux talents.” (The tools to him that can handle them.)
This quote, attributed to Napoleon, I never say out loud. I say it to myself on the rare occasion when I get something exactly right – a joint, a tool setup, etc.
“The things I make may be for others, but how I make them is for me.”
A quote from Tony Konovaloff, I say this when I do things the hard way instead of the easy way on a project. Or I do something that the customer will never notice.
“Sharp fixes everything.”
I say this to students when their tools are dull and they are struggling.
“Don’t make a clock out of it.”
A German workshop expression shared with me by Peter Lanz. We say this whenever someone is making something far more complicated than it should be. And for no good reason.
— Christopher Schwarz
95 thoughts on “Willard Street Words”
My grandfather used a variation on that last one a lot. It was especially appropriate for his work as a carpenter. If you started getting too fussy framing a wall or locating a screw, he’d yell over, “We’re not building a clock!”
We ain’t making a piano here.
An elderly boat builder said something similar when he hired me to help paint and I was talking pains to do a good job.
“It’s not a f-ing pie-anna !”
that’s the one I’ve heard most often framing houses down in Alabama
Yup. My dad (a carpenter & cabinet maker) said that to me and my cousin (his father also a carpenter) quite a bit when we we’re given for the first time a couple of interior walls to put up by ourselves. We were both in machine shop & mechanical drafting HS classes at the time. We were trying to make the walls perfect; like get hem square w/i 1/64″ or something ridiculous like that. After he his crew had all the exterior walls up and we were still messing about on the first interior wall he screamed at us again to “just flagging nail it… it’s not a flagging piano”… the spoken words were a little more colorful.
When I mess something up, it’s always “I thought you were supposed to be good at this” – a quote from a high school student I heard one day in my museum career.
One more – from Jennie Alexander “the eye is very forgiving.”
That reminds me of the one my wife says (thank goodness), “Whatever it is, you’ll eventually get used to it and not notice it anymore.”
Wait. You have said that one to me. Oh crap.
For theater sets: If it looks good from the fourth row, it’s fine.
A similar one from framers and carpenters “Looks good from my house”
That reminded me of another one: “From a galloping horse five miles away…yeah.”
That’s a good one! I have heard so many on construction job sites similar to “Don’t make a clock out of it” usually from a frustrated foreman because things were behind schedule. A few examples: “Stop looking at it, just do it!” “Are you going to retire on that one!?” and “We are not building a piece of furniture here!”
“We are not building a stick chair here.”
“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept” said by Henri Cartier Bresson about photography but the same could be said about chisels and planes?
from the owner of a boatbuilding shop on Martha’s Vineyard, watching my clumsy attempt at some job, said while casually walking by without stopping: “Never struggle.”
As an aircraft fixer in my apprentice training and in my working life I hated, “it is good enough”. My response was that I hoped that was not the motto of my dentist, surgeon, cook and financial advisor.
I love “Don’t make a clock out of it.”
One that I use a lot, from woodworking to my full time career to life in general.
“God hates a coward”.
Feel free to change God with life, Karma, the sea or any other substitute!
God is good
Whenever I turn on a power tool (especially my table saw), I say to myself “Today is NOT going to be the day”. That reminds/motivates me to do whatever I have to make sure today is not the day I will always remember as the day something bad happened in my wood shop.
My wife is a surgery PA. Surgeons say, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Ah yes. That dislodged another one we say: “More luck than brains.”
Isn’t there a corollary about ‘Lady luck may help you, but she has to find you WORKING.’
Whoa! Where should we avoid that kind of surgery?
My favorite is, “Um, can I ask you a question?” (Which almost always means “WTF are you doing?”) Not an aphorism, per se, but you always know what’s coming when I say it.
I hate to hear that one when the glue is open.
“Done is better than perfect.” I’ve started using that one to remind me not to fuss so much over perfection which usually leads to an unfinished project. Others:
“If you can’t force it, use a bigger hammer.”
From my music teachers:
“Practice makes permanent.”
“Are you having fun yet?”
“Talent is developed (not something you’re born with).” -Shinichi Suzuki
I always heard, “don’t force it, use a bigger hammer”.
“Reinvent the wheel”
A new problem to solve – the most enjoyable jobs. Last week 2 to solve. Went to my home shop for 3 days – CAD, cutting wood, lots of hmmm.. Delivered parts and drawings to the crew on Wednesday. Off for a few days and dropped by the shop to see the 2 completed jobs displayed for me on the benches. Obviously the crew had a lot of fun.
“Shed load of work” is used in my shop but “shed” has different last 2 letters
Some aphorisms I’m constantly saying to myself as I agonize over mistakes.
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
“Perfect is the enemy of good”
“Do your best and caulk the rest”
Oh yeah, and one for the futility of an operation.
“That’s like trying to shove a buttered noodle up a cheetah’s a$$”
“One can play with the beauty of an angel, but even an idiot can tell when you are out of tune.” –Piatigorsky
Reminds me that the execution is just as important as the artistic concept.
My favorite, from my time in a bike shop:
“It’s almost like we know what we are doing”
Tighten it until it strips, then back it off a turn. Again, from a bike shop.
Good to see some bike shop aphorisms here. Anyone remember Tom Cuthbertson’s profoundly democratizing ‘Anybody’s Bike Book’ ? Snag a copy if you don’t; it’s a beaut.
I liked your last example.. I’m a Journeyman Electrician and as such I install a lot of conduit and some of it gets quite fancy with concentric bending and layout while designing how an industrial electric room should look. One of my Journeyman gave me this great advice. “You’re not building a watch”.
“Put your best face toward London.’
Fuss with the things that’ll be seen and worry less about the things that won’t.
My father to my brother and me, to express his dissatisfaction with the pace of progress in whatever job he had us doing to the house or in the yard: “You guys are moving like you’re getting paid by the hour.”
A regular quote on my work sites and in my shed.
“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it”.
From my grandfather (to workers painting a frame for fireworks): “You’re not Leonardo DaVinci!” and from the grandfather of a friend of mine: “Don’t ask the question after you nail it up!”
Try it a waaance (once) is a phrase used by the amish here. When you here this the best thing to do is take a couple steps away from the speaker and coolly observe the usually entertaining proceedings. Sometimes (rarely) a brilliant new technique is discovered.
The Amish “Hold my beer!”
Ha ha! It totally is at that. I had not made the connection between the two.
My Dad’s favorite was “A blind man would be glad to see it.”
I heard it many times when I first started in the trade.
How about the Sagamore Hill sin “Qui Plantavit Curabit” – He who plants will sustain!
It’s not a mistake if you can fix it.
Its not a mistake, it’s an opportunity for a design change.
If you don’t make mistakes, you are not stretching your skill set.
Skill is made, not born in us, and it advances best through difficulty – Charles Hayward
A co-worker used to say, “Nobody is born knowing this stuff, we all have to learn it somewhere.”
A well made simple is better than a poorly made complex — something I say to myself often when watching some of the cooking competition shows.
Good stuff, Keith; I especially like “A well made simple is better than a poorly made complex.”
Actually it’s harder to do “simple”, I think, because there’s no fru-fru to hide behind. Like an unadorned melody v a harmonized one..
I had to stop and think about what Nancy Hiller included in Making Things Work: “A thing worth doing is worth doing badly.” it is a lesson that is both challenging and comforting.
I love these additional quotes, aphorisms and analects (had to look that one up to be sure…); some I’ve heard before, many I have not. I love this blog site, I always learned something from the blog authors and even more from the commenters.
It’s all good stuff.
One my dad used to say. Your doing a great job!
But it always came out as.. WTF are you doing?
“That’s a 50 / 50 paint job. Looks good at 50mph or from 50 feet.” First heard that in HS automotive shop. Next time was in college A&P structures class; followed by “And that will be a 50 point project….”, errrr… I hate repainting.
Lordy – there’s a bunch of ’em!! On one end we usta say “If its worth doing at all, its worth doing twice.” On the other end, I had a carpenter foreman, early in my career, who was acutely aware of folks who were looking for a dodge before they even started. One day, some one asked “How good do you want that?’ His reply “Do the best you can; it probably won’t be any tooo good.”
My dad also said use a bigger hammer… What kind of hammer would that be Chris???
Also he would say “If it was easy everyone would do it.” or “If it was easy I would have done it.”
If at first you don’t succeed, use a bigger hammer…
Now we know how not to do it!
So many good ones! My paltry contribution: “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over”.
I have a variation regarding re-doing, ‘take your time, it’s faster!”
And one from my grandfather that I often apply when considering the joinery I’ve just cut: “More of a convulsion than a fit”.
These are very entertaining.Here’s an Aussie one-one that has to be said in a langourous, almost inaudible drawl: ‘Shouldn’t be a drama’.
Quite- nothing in life should be a drama.
Must be from the same fella who uses the six metre rule. If you aren’t sure how good it is go back six metres and have another look.
“Don’t let academics interfere with your education.”
The big one in my area has always been, “Close enough for government work”.
When my Dad and I are working on a construction project together and the task at hand calls for no more than one person, and that person has to really get into a tight or awkward position that limits their ability to actually accomplish the task, the onlooker is always kind enough to point out that the other person “looks like a monkey f**king a football.”
He did some construction work when he was in college and said he picked it up on a jobsite.
“It’s got to be perfect. The knife has to be perfect. The cut has to be perfect. The chip has to be perfect. The result has to be perfect. Everything has to be perfect.”
– a Stradivarius repairing luthier friend
Lance Patterson would walk by our benches at school and say “Well, looks good riding by on a bicycle.”
That, along with “It’s not a mistake, it’s a design opportunity,” were sayings I heard daily.
Me, every time I stepped up to the table saw: “Keep the fear alive!”
One of my esteemed colleagues at TerraFugia: “What part of building a flying car did you think was gonna be easy?” This came out every time we found ourselves in the weeds, and needed to re-orient.
Heard while doing home remodeling, “If it looks good, it is good.”
“If you can’t find the time to do it right, how will you find the time to do it over?”
“Don’t over-think this. That’s not your strong suit.”
Said to the boss after a frustrating day of micromanagement, “Don’t blame me. You’re the one who hired the idiot!”
“measure never, cut wherever” is another daily one
Two from surgery:
Don’t think. You’ll weaken the team. and,
the way to avoid mistakes is expertise; the way to acquire expertise is by making mistakes.
And from engineering:
It isn’t a mistake,; it’s a feature. And,
Novices make mistakes ( doing the wrong thing); experts have slips (intending to do the right thing). Think Freudian.
I always enjoy a good Floridian slip myself.
Best adage I’ve learned, from one of the wisest and most even-keeled mentors I’ve ever had: “Good enough for who it’s for”.
heard “close enough for Gov’t work ” a lot.
Haha, I can’t remember which of my family members to attribute this to, but I always heard it as “Good enough for the girls I date”.
‘the wind will not take it away” when fixing something poorly or temporarily
‘that thing is brand new!’ when finding an item that should’ve been discarded long ago
any loud bang in the shop… ” Count your fingers!”
helping someone else find a tool and it turns out to be right next to where they are working.. “if it was a snake it would a bit ya”
“every job has 5 ways to do it… your way, my way, the right way, the wrong way and the boss’ way, as long as we do it the boss’ way we can’t be wrong.”
one that always troubled me: “step back 10′ and squint your eyes, if you can’t see it neither will the client.”
be well all
Chris: your work and your books are an inspiration to this old woodworker.
one of my favorite foremen always told me “Karl, you do all right for a cobbler”
“measure with a micrometer, mark with chalk, cut with a chainsaw”
When something turns out like you actually knew what you were doing…
“Fooled ‘em again”
St. Augustine: “Sin Boldly.”
Damn! “Sin Boldly” takes the Grand Prize, I think. I should’ve done that..
A couple of standards- maybe trite- from my days in a small-production guitar shop:
Nah.. the ones above are plenty good, and I really have nothing to add.
Heard this somewhere. Every great artist is driven to their next work by the shortcomings of the previous one.
It is not what you make, it is how you make it…Paul Sellers
From the world of renovations, some specific to our crew:
“Like it grew there!” In praise of a good patch or repair.
“Caulk and paint will make it what it ain’t.”
“Can’t see it from my house.”
“You’ve got inch-itis.” Clinical diagnosis following a poorly-measured cut.
An oft-repeated razz, originated from an argument about a half-inch reveal: “You know what a half-inch looks like?”
“Is that a caulkable gap?” Acceptable discrepancies in projection and/or termination.
Someone beat me to a favorite: “Good enough for who it’s for.”
Turtle says-an aphorism from a post wwll russian camera factory worker about the reason for the low quality control of their cameras, quote- “they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. I mean this in the nicest most compassionate way.
I see a book project coming: The Woodworkers Pocket Book of Curses and Incantations
A bad fit – “like socks on a rooster.”
There’s a country song in here somewhere.
Roger Miller’s ‘Dang Me’, and especially- ‘Hard Headed Me’, get my vote.
I heard those tracks as a kid in the 60s, and they ring even truer now.
Asked how long a dry stane dyke he’d just built would last, my father in law replied, “long enough for me to get down the road”.
And my father, who, like me, was a cabinet maker, would sometimes say, “if you’re in a hurry stop and sharpen your tools”.
Wanes an’ fools shouldnae see things half done.
Old avionics navy saying…”measure with a micrometer, mark it with chalk, cut it with an axe’
As long as it’s perfect, it’ll be good enough.
I say this when helpers ask how careful to be, meaning that you should give it your best try and then be content. In my mind it is about trying “to make as perfectly as possible”, but what’s possible is just what I can do.
I also frequently quote a country song:
“A little less talk and a lot more action!”
Russian jokes are the best jokes. But that one might be the most Russian joke possible. It might be the Platonic ideal of a Russian joke.
I first heard the “disobey me” paradox in a Russian literature class.
“Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.”
“Cut it, mark it and leave it for the electrician.”
“Assumptions are the mother of all f$&@ ups.”
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