• Thursday, February 12th, 2009

I make ‘em. You make ‘em. Some people say we don’t learn much unless we make mistakes. Whether thus a necessary evil or simply an omnipresent nuisance, I feel mistakes do not get enough attention. We generally try to correct and forget them. Here I would like to give them some thought. After all, it surely won’t be long before I’m again dealing with a live one on the line.

So how do they happen? Sometimes it is simply having the wrong plan for the intended result. A poorly designed joint, though accurately cut, produces a weak structure. In making a bent lamination, maybe the plies are too thick, the wrong type of glue is applied, and the resulting curved rail is not what you had hoped for. Study and practice.

Sometimes it’s just a slip up. Perhaps I lost concentration and sawed past an end line despite obviously being fully capable of stopping at the correct spot. Pay attention and be patient.

There is, however, a sneakier type of mistake that accounts for my most frustrating experiences in the shop. These develop from a subtle loss of control of the process, an insidious evolution.

For example, I’m planing a surface and gradually feel slightly more resistance in the cut signaling early dullness of the blade. The task is almost done but I wonder a little too long if I can get by without resharpening, then hit a grain reversal, and #*@&!, a tearout. I plane further to erase the tearout, then plane surrounding areas to compensate, and now I’ve gone a bit too far and lost an accurate fit for this piece, which mates with another part, which houses another assembly, and so forth. I am no longer working in peace.

What happened? A barrier developed between intention and execution. There was a loss of the working rhythm and flow that is so important to success. When a craftsman senses that subtle break in rhythm, a true mistake may be around the corner.

However, the first little error is usually not as important as it may first seem. (“Put the ax down and move away from the bench.”) For example, maybe that tearout is in a place where it will be unnoticed and is best left alone. I must remind myself to stop and think before engineering a correction. It is usually the loss of flow, less than the error itself, that raises the unnerving feeling. Then I know it is time to step back, look at the big picture, refocus, then get back in the game. This approach should prevent a major Mistake.

I believe this is more of an issue with one of a kind projects or innovative designs, especially when using unfamiliar or innovative techniques. Since you’ve not been down the road before, you’re skeptical of the map to success.

It is not easy to craft a project that turns out to fulfill your hope. The creative vision must be carried through with a controlled flow of work that takes place in many interdependent steps. (By the way, don’t fall prey to “perfection”, discussed in an earlier post.)

One thing is for sure, when the work is flowing, you know it. Life is good in the shop and real mistakes seem to be miles away. Be careful, but enjoy the ride. 

Happy woodworking!

Category: Ideas
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4 Responses

  1. I obsessively sharpen, so the dullness error rarely catches me. A different type of creeping error catches me regularly. When I get careless and forget to return to the original corner or plane for referencing. Each error builds on each error, until it starts to take real work to figure out how to fit it all together.

    Amazing how quickly and badly I can mess up angles when I am careless.


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    Thanks for the comment. Yea, there are countless ways to slip down that slippery slope.


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    I’m with you completely on this post. I fall into that gap between intention and execution at least once on every project. Part of it is the sporadic nature of my shop time. It takes time to get back into the rhythm and flow. Part is inexperience, and part is fatigue. It’s easy, just as you said, to think you can get just one more thing done at the end of a long day when you’re tools are not quite sharp and you’re just that much too tired so you’re not thinking well.

    And sometimes it’s just a failed plan. I made a TV table for my first project. It has a shelf below the top and I did the typical over-engineering we do on our early work. I glued up the sides, then glued up the skirt and rails across the front and back on which the shelf would rest. When I went to put the shelf in, there was no physical way to fit it through the openings. I would never have been able to see this in planning. I had to build it first to discover it. I ended up taking this as a “design challenge” and figured out how to make it work.

    And that, in the end is what it’s all about. We plan and we draw, but when it comes to it, we have to work with real materials and that requires that we think and adapt. Good thing that’s what humans are pretty good at.

    Great post. I enjoy your blog and this kind of writing is why.


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    What’s that saying? Success is built on experience and experience is built on failure.