Chris Schwarz's Blog

On Symmetry and Screwing Up

In the world of design, you read a lot about the acceptance or rejection of symmetry.

Wait, wait. Don’t go away. This blog entry, by the way, has to do with Audrey Hepburn’s gorgeous face.

You can reject symmetry in design based on the fact that human beings are decidedly not symmetrical. A perfectly symmetrical face looks odd – Ms. Hepburn’s face is not symmetrical. Your face is most likely asymmetrical – and your momma loved you just fine.

But what about math and its tricky friend, geometry? We can find beauty in a perfect circle, square or geometrical proof. A balanced quadratic equation is, I must say, an awesome design tool.

In fact, I don’t think you can say that symmetry is either old school or new school. Same with asymmetry.

So when is symmetry invaluable? In joinery. Period.

Today at a class I’m teaching at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, I demonstrated dovetailing all day. First I showed off some dovetails in 3/8”-thick material. No problem. Then I demonstrated how to cut through-dovetails for a small chest we are building from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.”

I cut the tails. No problem. I transferred the layout to the pin board. I made jokes. No problem. I cut the pins. This is so easy. Then I went to ease the inside of the tails so they would slip into the pins without fuss.

And I had the board turned all around.

Yup, I chamfered the outside of my tails in front of 11 students and two staff members at the school. But instead of running to the bathroom, locking the door and sobbing (don’t ask), I flipped the board over and drove the tails into the pins. Even upside down, the joint went together tightly.

I was deeply embarrassed by my mistake, but it was symmetry that saved me. So until I run into something as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn, I’m sticking with it.

— Christopher Schwarz

You can read other stories from this class at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship:

Tapping Threads Without Tapping Out

Blue Tape Fixes Twisty Boards

4 thoughts on “On Symmetry and Screwing Up

  1. Steve_OH

    That’s just one kind of symmetry (2-fold rotational symmetry about three orthogonal axes). I suspect that the symmetry that is far more frequently encountered in woodworking (reflection symmetry–most pieces have “right” and “left” parts that are mirror images) leads to substantially more headaches than rotational symmetry solves.

    -Steve

  2. mjuliana

    You didn’t even break a sweat when you flipped the board over and tapped it into place–I was impressed. It takes a lot of courage to announce and even celebrate your mishaps in public and print. Well played… -mj

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