Chris Schwarz's Blog

Failing Daily Since 1993

After the 2016 election, I did what every sane American did: I eliminated the annoying people from my social media feeds on both the left and the right who had become singularly obsessed with politics. And then I took another healthy step: I eliminated feeds from the “fake perfectionists.”

Who are the “fake perfectionists?” You probably know them. They are the people who post beautiful photos of their work on social media and never seem to experience a single glitch. And, in the cases of schools with “fake perfectionist” feeds, they crow about the beauty, detail and perfection of the work being taught there.

To which I say: Hogwash.

Woodworking is about failure. In fact, I consider successful projects to be ones that simply endured less failure than usual. Stuff goes awry. Wood chips out. Table legs go into the burn pile. If you aren’t making errors – of the hand or of the mind – you are a robot and need to have your firmware downgraded.

Today, for example, was one of the most difficult days I’ve had in the shop in seven years. While building the final version of a three-legged stool I’ve been working on for weeks, my drill broke – the chuck simply dropped off the shaft. Then I nearly snapped my wrist. And when I finally got the stool assembled I learned two lessons:

  1. Don’t finish shaping the set until after you drill your mortises. Why? Read on.
  2. My design for the seat was all wrong. When you make a three-legged stool, you need to remove material from the rear of the seat to prevent it from looking unstable.

So I made a new seat using a shape I was happy with. When I drilled the mortises in the new seat, one of the legs’ angles was off wildly. This was the first time this has ever happened to me.

I now have three completely botched seats and four bockety legs for this single stool design. This is typical when designing new work. At heart, I’m a cautious fellow. My favorite woodworking saying is: “Go slower; it’s faster.” And yet when I step up to the edge and take one more step forward, I know I am going to fall.

Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, but it’s the getting back up, dusting myself off and making it work part of the craft that keeps me going.

Tomorrow I go the lumberyard for more expensive firewood for this stool. The next stool (5.0!) will be perfect. Ha! Who am I kidding? The next one will be – at best – a failed attempt at failure.

— Christopher Schwarz

34 thoughts on “Failing Daily Since 1993

  1. David Classen

    I feel much better now! I’m sure knowing this will substantial reduce the time I spend praying to Saint Follansbee, the patron saint of laid back Woodworkers,
    imploring him for leniency and begging his forgiveness for my latest screw up.
    May the Schwarz be with you! Dave

  2. JBSwoodworks

    Wow, I didn’t see this post coming. I always thought woodworkers like your caliber never have problems. I guess this goes to show that amateurs and professionals both make mistake. The difference being amateurs will quit or won’t know how to fix it. Professionals on the other hand, don’t quit and find a way to fix/solve the problem and move on.

    A bit to late for this amateur woodworking, because I quit and sold all my tools.

  3. norb kelly

    Thanks Chris,

    One of my Grandfather’s most cherished quotes when I would ask him what he was making, depended on the success of the project. He would either reply “Firewood” or “A mess!” A mess meant things were going well.
    It is always reassuring to read that even with many years experience all of us still screw up, part of belonging to the human race. When you stop making mistakes you’ve been dead a few hours.

  4. chalkyian

    A timely reminder that “the man who never made a mistake never made anything”. Says the man who just yesterday cut two tenons on the wrong end of a pair of English Oak gate styles resulting in a trip to the timber yard on Monday and thoughts of a new table for the guest room. Thanks for the post Chris I was beginning to think I am the only human left in this world of non failure !

  5. patricke

    During my learning curve as a rock climber forever ago, my mentor (RIP Alex) taught me that “if you’re not falling, you’re not climbing”. It’s about pushing past your comfort zone and taking chances. Btw, he didn’t pass away climbing.

  6. jonellwood

    I love this post! I’m inspired to start a #FailureFridays post on my Instagram Account. Seriously though It’s oddly comforting to know someone I look up to as an inspiration makes mistakes just like I do! But honestly, in my opinion, the only failure is in giving up or settling for less than your best. I enjoyed this post very much, thank you for what you do.

  7. REFFI

    I have butchered many a home project until about ten years ago. As I reached retirement age, I was informed by my wife that I couldn’t just sit around the house watching TV. I began taking woodworking classes at a community college. (I have had one instructor who bills himself as a “recovering perfectionist.”) I am still butchering, but my mistakes have become less glaring, and my projects a little more complex. Each semester, in class, at the end of the term we have a ‘show and tell’ session describing our project to the rest of the class. I’ve yet to understand (after nearly ten years) why, almost to a man, we describe our projects and then begin to point out the mistakes to others. Nobody would be so impolite as to mention it, why can’t we keep our mouths shut?

  8. Jared

    Thanks, Chris. Great points. As a complete beginner and amateur, as well as a fellow who struggles with perfectionism in my work (of all kinds), this is a great challenge. I’ve avoided sharing my progress of failures in most ways, but I suppose as a beginner part of the value I can share with those few watching is my struggle up the learning curve. Reminder duly noted and will be acted on.

    Also, you made it all the way until AFTER the election to cleanse your feeds? Impressive. ha!

  9. riverbum

    I’m so glad to hear that from another woodworker. I was going to inlay a white oak table top with a walnut starburst. After making the inlays, I forgot to add the guide bushing. So, now, I either scrap the top or remove an 1/8″ from it.

  10. MenacingTourist

    The best advice I got in art school was to never fall in love with your own work. Your work isn’t precious, and neither are you. The ability to brutally edit your own work is an invaluable skill, not to mention being completely liberating.

  11. Italicus

    Smart move on unsocial media. As a trained scientist I came to realize that >90% of all lab work is total crap. Learning to live with single digit success rates was frustrating. Maybe the great ones achieve a greater success rate but I rather believe the great ones simply persevered, they didn’t give up and seem to learn more with each failure. Most every piece I make these days is labeled a prototype just to take the pressure off. I don’t want to end up like Gilbert Lewis a famous chemist who was nominated but did not win the Nobel prize in chemistry not once but 37 times! He cashed in his chips in the lab one day.

  12. 7-Thumbs

    I’m going to save you from another failure. You’re welcome. Everyone knows that you cannot use blue tape for stretchers on stools, it will simply not hold up. You need to use the green tape.

  13. Ray Schwanenberger

    Thank you Chris for posting this. I have been building Windsor chairs for years and my most recent contribution to the fire wood pile was a seat that I drilled from the wrong side. This caused the legs to terminate at the floor in a point. It was the best laugh I had in quite some time. I have been tweeking/failing at a chair design for a couple of years now. Hopefully I’ll get it where I like it soon.

  14. jvj2737

    My latest (not the last) failure took place yesterday. I was re-turning a piece on the lathe and managed to make the inside of the vase larger than the outside. Oh well, I did save time by no longer needing to do the final sanding and finishing of the piece.

  15. Kurt

    The thing you have left out of this insightful blog post is… how do I get my wife to read and understand this. I love my wife but I hate when she sees a project before it is done because she sees the mistakes, forever!

  16. gman3555

    When I was in flight school my instructor explained that landing a plane was simply a controlled crash.

    My wood working, all of my wood working, is simply a “controlled failure”. It is the degree of control of that failure that is important.

  17. delong1974

    This is why we all grouse over the flaws in finished pieces, but others think the piece looks fantastic. Everyone knows their screw-ups. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  18. BLZeebub

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the measure of a craftsman is NOT how well he does something to begin with but rather how adept he’s become at “hiding” his mistakes. One leg too short? Guess what? The others will catch up soon enough. An inch here an inch there, what the hey. As long as the customer is happy and the check clears the bank, I say, “NEXT!”

  19. Wood5200

    OMG… My son drives me nuts who is an accomplished woodworker. He say’s Dad measure twice and cut once… Why doesn’t he mind his own business…. 🙂

  20. nbreidinger

    Well said. Thanks for sharing your failures with us. It’s easy to post only your successes, but that’s not reflective of life. It’s not real. And it’s one of the downsides of social media.

    One follow-up question: seven years is a very specific number – what happened seven years ago?! 😉 Perhaps some failures are better left unpublished!

    1. Straightlines

      This is a good point, and since we are all here because we look to Chris for guidance and inspiration, this is a critical lesson — everyone needs some balm every so often.

      Design is an iterative process, and as a professional designer, I’ll share that we have a saying: “No design is ever finished.” The not-so-obvious part of this is that all designs need to start on paper, and that means that we can hash out most of those failures only on paper, thank goodness!

  21. Bernard Naish

    Two of my annoying and patronising wood workers mantras:

    “The fault lies not so much in making a mistake as in not knowing how to correct it” and ” We only “Learn by our mistakes”.

  22. billstyler

    Thank you, Chris. You’ve succinctly put a thought pattern into cyber-print, one which is shared by millions (I don’t think I exaggerate) of woodworkers in all of its myriad disciplines and genres. I’m a veteran woodworking screw-up, since late 1963, and I continue to fail, and work toward improving the next project, which I know will be better, in spite of inevitable failures of one degree, or another.

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