Chris Schwarz's Blog

Good, Perfect or Perfectly Good?

One of the best and worst pieces of advice in woodworking goes something like this: Do the very best job that you possibly can.

On the one hand, you get just one shot to build your project. And then you (plus your family or customer) has to live with the furniture until it goes into a museum or the city dump. Of course, when you are first starting out in the craft, getting things perfect can be paralyzing.

This last week I spent a week teaching 18 students at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking the fundamentals of handplanes, saws and chisels. It began, like all classes on hand work, with a day of sharpening. And the sharpening continued all five days as we worked our way through the basic steps.

As a result, I got to observe dozens of edges of chisels, scrapers and plane irons from (mostly) beginning sharpeners. All day long, students would hand me tools and ask: “Is this edge good enough?”

The edges weren’t perfect. There would be a few coarse scratches running through the polished bevels. The edges looked like the ones I’d sharpened during my first class on hand work 14 years ago. So I’d point out the scratches to them to help them train their eyes to spot them. But then I’d almost always tell them to stop sharpening and put the edge to work.

“Really?” they would say. “That’s a decent edge?”

They answered their own question when they went to work. Modern waterstones make it easy to get a good edge with just a handful of stokes. The edge might not look like a mirror, but it will cut great.

I write all this not to be boastful about my sharpening skills. I’ve seen edges from other woodworkers, such as Harrelson Stanley of JapaneseTools.com, that are in the same neighborhood where perfection lives (I think I might live in the same state). Instead I write all this to show how it has absolutely terrified me as I assemble a sideboard in my shop in my basement.

Tonight I’m going to glue up the carcase, and so I’m examining the project with care, looking for imperfections that I should remedy before glue gets involved. Everything looks perfect. The joints are airtight. The surfaces are gleaming , nay, luminous , from my smoothing plane. But after a week of teaching I know that the case has problems somewhere, but that I simply cannot see them.

So I have to take my own advice: Get out the glue bottle and go to work. The carcase might not be as perfect as the ones I’ve seen in the galleries and museums, but it is perfect today.

– Christopher Schwarz

4 thoughts on “Good, Perfect or Perfectly Good?

  1. Steve Spear

    Chris,

    So how did the Domino work on the joints? I have been holding off purchasing one until I hear your opinion.

    Steve

  2. Mike Siemsen

    Years ago a young woodworker complained to me that she made all these mistakes and how did I know not to make them. I told her I had made them before and chose not to repeat them. I think beginning wood working projects should be made of inexpensive wood and then burned at the end of the class. It removes the "preciousness" factor that hamstrings so many of us. Once in a while a burnt offering is required to gain the knowledge we seek.
    I see that tool racks in the window are now standard issue, a window in a basement nonetheless! You will start a trend that we can not get away from. Years from know some knowledge dispenser will state "Tools were kept in windows to allow the worker better light to see the edges with" or "It was then believed that exposure to sunlight kept oxidation away", beware!
    Mike Siemsen

  3. Swanz

    That’s good advice. I started doing a little gardening a few years ago and
    kept whining and fussing about my poor sandy soil, etc. Finally my wife just
    said put the dang seeds in the ground!

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