• Sunday, May 01st, 2011

Myth: Woodworking is easy. If you simply follow [whatever clever procedure], you can do it quickly and it will come out perfect every time.

Reality: As with doing anything well, woodworking takes a lot of skill, few procedures go lickety-split, and there is a degree of uncertainty in making any piece.

Where is this myth promulgated? Look at several issues of most woodworking magazines: “made easy,” “perfect every time,” “quick, fast,” and similar catch lines are rampant. TV and, of course, ads also seem to thrive on this approach. Perhaps this sells but it must discourage many woodworkers who find a different reality when they get into the shop.

Also, I wonder why, in conversation with fellow woodworkers, I more often hear how a particular technique is so easy and “no problem,” than about the likely reality of uncertainty, trials, and mistakes that preceded such ease. I guess this is understandable since most people like to talk about their successes more than their failures. I’m sure I’m guilty of this here in the blog.

High quality woodworking requires artistry, imagination, engineering, knowledge, physical coordination, and patience. Building a piece involves many subtractive processes and without constant awareness, errors are prone to accumulate. Different woods require alterations in technique and often hold surprises. So, maybe it’s just me, but I think woodworking is not easy.

As for “quick,” sure, to get things done and to make money, work in any field has to move along efficiently. However, speed comes only after study and experience; without those, quick usually means poor results.

Perfect every time? Even if one employs highly systematic procedures, even with machinery, there is a host of gremlins poised to thwart perfection in woodworking. Among these is variability in the wood itself, tool sharpness, and tool calibration. Excellence certainly is an achievable goal, but perfection is not a realistic expectation to hold out to students of woodworking – and we’re all students.

I learn more from the hype-free literature and discussions that are out there, where I can appreciate the difficulties as well as the successes of woodworking. That’s the real stuff that makes for happy woodworking.

Category: Ideas
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6 Responses

  1. 1
    Tico Vogt 

    Hi Rob,

    You’re right on the money. Recently I’ve encountered a legion of gremlins in manufacturing my product: from veneered MDF panels that vary in thickness piece to piece, thereby offsetting the accuracy of of jig-based operations, hardware items that I expect to be repeatably uniform and aren’t, machining inaccuracies that remain mysterious, the list goes on. All these experiences ultimately teach you a lot and prove invaluable, though it may take the sawdust a while to settle before that becomes clear.

    To craft things well requires you to be deeply engaged, hands, heart, and mind. That is why there can really be nothing “easy” about the pursuit of woodworking but also why it can be so deeply satisfying.

  2. 2
    Matthew D 

    This is a great post, and it came at just the right time for me. I’ve had a few setbacks lately, and this is a very helpful (and ultimately encouraging) reminder.

  3. 3
    William Ferullo 

    I couldn’t agree more. I laugh every time I see magazine covers or ads that boast quick and easy and perfect every time. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t have success like that. Great post!

  4. 4

    Yeah, excellent post.

    I’m in the homestretch of making a Bogg’s shave horse based upon the sketchy information that was in the three page article in FWW 139. I mean it has some measurements and few tips about some critical operations, but I have to say that it has been a test to figure out how to accomplish many aspects. I also had the inevitable inattention slip up. I fashioned a large piece that supports the lower jaw with the grain running in the wrong direction, and had glued it on to one of the main body parts before it dawned on me. I was able to recover by using a circular saw set to depth, to crisscross the part and chisel chunks off quickly, and then remove the remains with a plane and scraper. I mention that only in that it reminds me of the old one about mistakes being inevitable, but how you recover and respond being the difference.

  5. 5

    Tico, Matthew, William,
    Thanks. Reality is so much more interesting than hype, don’t you think?

    I hear ya, yea, like life.


  6. 6
    Ken Speed 

    Quick!, Easy!, Fast!, Perfect! are all woodworking magazines version of the same hyperbole one sees in all magazines, “Get washboard abs in six weeks” Lose twenty pounds in twenty days! Thats what sells magazines.

    If it was quick, easy, blah, blah, blah…we wouldn’t do it; we’d be bored! I’m convinced that we make a lot of things, just to see if we can! We’re challenging ourselves in much the same way athletes do. If this wasn’t true the world would be awash in birdhouses!