Excellence in the Craft of Woodworking

Over many years of working in management of development engineers, I witnessed the process of people developing into fine engineers with skills in design and development.  I also witnessed the opposite.  People with the skills and knowledge to become fine engineers but who never made it past mediocrity.  The difference seems to me to be in the willingness to take risks and the ability to manage them.  It also seems to me that there must be a reason that some people will take the risks and others will not.  I think that we can find that reason in an understanding of what is and is not acceptable to an individual. 

I often hear people at our woodworking Club say something like:  “I wouldn't even try doing something like that.”   Or:  “That sort of thing is over my head.”  These, to me, are distressing enough thoughts to hear from my peers in the Club; but I suspect that there are more prevalent situations of which we do not hear. One is for a member to begin something, and because he or she does not immediately accede to expectations, to just give it up.  The second is for a member to just not try to do something because of a feeling of inadequacy on his/her part.  I think that a great deal of talent is neglected, or fails to be developed, because people quit a project or skill simply for not meeting overly ambitious standards at the outset of a new experience.  I have some thoughts on this issue to share with you.  This is a personal philosophy, but I think it applies in this situation. 

Our club is made up primarily of amateurs.  Mostly, we do what we do for our own enjoyment – meaning to have fun.  In this regard, we get to set our own standards.  While anyone who wants to can criticize our work, no one can tell us how we do it or what it must be when complete.  We do that. What many woodworkers do not do is to actively set realistic standards for themselves or their projects.  In failing to do so, they have no way to know when they are done or whether they have succeeded.   There is a story of an interviewer, noting that an elderly worker on the finishing line in a North Carolina furniture shop continued working away after everyone else had left the piece, asking: “How do you know when you're finished?”  The old gentleman responded: “When they take it away.”  I don’t know if this story is true or accurate, but it does make a point.  There is seldom someone to take it away in our case.  It is up to us to know when we are done and whether we’ve succeeded.

Suppose you want to make a bookcase.  What are the primary purpose and implied requirements for the bookcase?  My first answer would be “To hold books and to not fall apart.”  There may be other requirements too.  For example:  To match the other furniture in the room and, thus, to be made from a certain kind of wood and be finished in a certain way.  If my bookcase is targeted to hold books and not fall apart in the unfinished attic of my house and your bookcase is targeted to be in the entryway of the city library, they may, and probably will, have different requirements.  In fact, appearance may be your primary concern while being of no concern at all for me.  My bookcase could be an excellent piece because it meets all of my requirements and not be at all suitable for your needs.  Is it a failure or a success?

I am not trying to make a case for shoddy workmanship either.  Nor am I interested in something that is just good enough for the job.  I expect my bookcase to be designed and crafted well.  After all, my specifications were that I wanted it to hold books, so the design had to take into consideration the physical aspects of the books, for example: weight and dimensions.  It also had to take into account the physical properties of the materials and the joinery details used in the construction so that they met the second requirement, that it not fall apart.  Then I needed to follow through with good craftsmanship to ensure that I followed the design, that joints were properly made, and that a proper finish was applied to protect the piece from the rigors of its use.  We could go on, but we’ve made the point.  If my bookcase holds the books and does not fall apart, then I have an excellent piece because it meets all of my requirements.

Your bookcase must meet all the same requirements as mine but also must meet the additional appearance requirements that you must address.  If you take the bookcase targeted for my attic, put it in the public library entryway, and stack it full of books, you will not have an excellent bookcase for that application.  It will not meet the requirements.  Is it a total failure?  Is it good enough?  We’ll have to leave that to the judgment of the patrons.  Some may feel it is good enough, but others may think it’s a mess.  It is doubtful though that anyone will think it is an excellent bookcase for that application.

I once attended a seminar in which a renowned finisher was telling how he finished furniture.  He said, when using clear film finishes, he almost never sanded bare wood past 180 grit and usually stopped at 150 grit.  One of the attendees said he always sanded to 320 because he always wanted to have a perfect finish.  The presenter had probably heard this before because he did not miss a beat in replying:  “Why?”  The answer was just as quick: “I want it to be perfect.”  The presenter then asked: “Can you see or feel the difference once the finish is on?”  The presenter went on to explain why the coarser sanding job was better than the finer one.  His answer was that by stopping at 180 he saved the time and sandpaper required to go on to 320.  That to him was value.  Then when he applied his clear film finish it filled in the coarser scratch marks left by the 180 grit paper and the leveling effect of the film finish completely obscured the scratches.  The result was a level finish through which one could not see or feel the 180 grit scratch pattern.  His was an excellent result.  The attendee’s attempt to attain perfection prevented him from achieving the excellence achieved by the presenter.  Don't take this to imply that there is no place for finer grit sandpapers.  In this case, 180 was the right place to stop for an excellent result.  In other cases, 2500 grit may be the answer.

You could argue that they had different definitions of quality -- defined as the degree of excellence. Embodied in the presenter's definition is a profit motive, hence the additional sanding time diminished his objective.  The attendee may have had little concern for the profit aspect or was just unaware that stopping at the coarser grit produced the same result.  The latter case being the more likely.

Since we've bantered about the terms, let's look at definitions for Perfect and Excellent from the American Heritage Dictionary.

Perfect -- 1. Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.  2. In a state of undiminished or highest excellence; without defect; flawless . . .

Excellent -- 1. Being of the highest or finest quality; exceptionally good; superb;  2. Surpassing; superior . . .

On the basis of the published definitions of Perfect and Excellent one would have to agree that perfect is of higher quality than mere excellent since the definition of perfect, "undiminished or highest excellence", places it on a continuum at the high end of excellent; thus implying lower levels of excellence.  I don't think this is a small point in the woodworker's domain. One could look narrowly at the "without defect" embodied in the definition of Perfect and say that there is no way of reaching a perfect goal with wood since it is basically an unstable material, but to do so would neglect the definition of a defect.

Look at the definition of a defect from the same dictionary.

Defect -- 1. The lack of something necessary or desirable; deficiency.  2. An imperfection; a failing; a fault.  . . .

Here we go again.  This definition places 'a defect' on the same continuum as excellence and perfection in that  "An imperfection" is one definition.  Let's consider a few more terms before bringing this together.  What about the word  'adequate'.  The definition:

Adequate -- 1. Able to satisfy a requirement; suitable.  2. Barely satisfactory or sufficient.

By this definition, my bookcase is at least adequate.  It meets the requirements set out to define success.  I will still argue that my bookcase is excellent because it meets all requirements.  Assuming you succeed in meeting the objectives of your bookcase, yours would be somewhere on the continuum, relative to mine, maybe above merely adequate -- maybe even "superior".  

Another story comes to mind.  A close relative of mine, being retired and with some time on his hands, was invited by his son to come help him with a building project.  The son was a building contractor in south Florida.  The buildings were to be constructed to south Florida building standards which required certain means of connecting structural members to keep them from blowing away in hurricanes.  That aspect could not be overlooked.  The father is a fine furniture builder and had built a timber frame home.  Both of these require uncompromised joinery.  The joinery strength of the Florida dwelling was provided by metal connecting plates, straps, screws, and bolts.  After a few days on the job the son came to the father and pointed out that his perfectly matched joints were not required.  Speed of assembly was required of him as a carpenter.  The joint, no matter how perfectly made, still had to have the additional mechanical means.  The result was that the father, unable to accept what to him was shoddy workmanship, came back to Tennessee and continued building fine furniture, and the son hired a laborer and taught him how to do an adequate job of joinery – for building houses in Florida.

The Quality Range:

Now let's talk about a quality continuum.  Since it’s ours, we can invent one of our own.  At one end, we will put Perfection.  At the other end, we will put Failure. Somewhere along the continuum, we have a range of Excellence. Lower than that, we have a range of Adequacy.  See the figure below.






Let's assume that all aspects of woodworking go into the quality of a piece.  Include design and workmanship.  Then it can be argued that my bookcase is excellent on the grounds that it meets all requirements and is of superior workmanship.  It holds books and doesn't fall apart because I took into account the size and weight of the books in my design and used good joinery techniques in both design and workmanship.  If on the other hand, I had merely nailed some boards together and the weight of the books caused the thing to fall apart, I would not have even met requirements. If on the other hand the bookcase headed for the library were to have a sound design, good joinery, but a marginal finish with runs and sags diminishing its appearance, then it would likely fall in the adequate range -- barely meeting requirements.  It holds books, but could hardly fall into a superior quality zone.

The Excellence Range:


Meets all requirements

Exceeds all Requirements

Superior Design and Construction

Now let's talk about excellence based on our own definitions and a quality continuum.  We would hardly accept as excellent a piece that did not meet the requirements that we set out to achieve, nor would we say that a piece that is superior in all respects, but isn't perfect by dictionary definitions, isn't excellent.  Therefore, there exists on the quality continuum a zone of comparative excellence ranging on the low end above that which is merely adequate and maybe just below that which is actually perfect in every regard.  This is the range in which sane woodworkers, and I suggest  all sane people, operate.  We must acknowledge that to muddle about in the barely adequate range is to entertain disaster.  One slip could put us into the failure range.  Likewise, to insist on perfection in every regard is to practically assure failure in that we may never finish anything.  Remember few of us have someone to say: "That's now done!" and to take it away.

Okay!  What’s the message on Excellence?  Here it is!   As woodworkers, we need to accept that the media in which we work isn’t perfect.  We’re not perfect either.  Our tools aren’t perfect.  In fact, there’s not much in woodworking (or life for that matter) that is perfect.  On the other hand, there’s not much use in making something that doesn’t do what we intended in the first place.  So we need to set standards we can reach with our own level of woodworking competence and work to them. 

If we strive for Excellence as we’ve defined it here, as we gain experience with each operation our quality will most likely improve.  Pieces we make at the beginning may just meet requirements, but our pieces will exceed requirements as we progress.  Ultimately we may do work of superior quality.  On the other hand, if we fail to set standards and just accept adequate work, we may not (and probably will not) ever progress above that level -- and may indeed fail.  In addition, if we cannot accept anything less than perfect we are very likely to fail by not producing anything at all.

I hope I have made the case for operating in the Excellence range since striving either for mere Adequacy or for absolute Perfection will put you at high risk for Failure.  Just remember, it’s your work.  You get to set the standards.