Fail Gracefully

Mike and I spent today shooting footage for our new video course. We got off to a slow start because we’re wading into new teaching territory. This course is, as I’ve mentioned before, essentially designed to be rehab for the jig dependent. It is a series of exercises (that leads to a final project) focused on skill building. It’s about developing dexterity instead leaning on devices.

Today, we shot a lesson that involved knife carving in the round and I’m telling you… this exercise is worth practicing. My first attempt was pretty pathetic, I have to confess. The next exercise, which involved precise layout and chopping with a chisel, went a lot better. And that’s the way practice goes: You lose some, you win some. Although I’ve been resistant over the years in commending practice exercises, I continue to see impatient newbies jump into tasks beyond their reach, only to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. But none of that despair is necessary. More often than not, the reason we miscut or tear out is because we haven’t mastered the prerequisites. There are a handful of basic skills that every woodworker must come to grips with, but few are willing to practice. So, I have come around to believe that woodworking exercises are underrated.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a humbling course to teach. There’s no moment here in which I say, “Now you do it perfectly, just like I did.” No, it’s more like, “Here’s the benchmark. Watch me show you how to strive after it and fail gracefully.” Yes, woodworking is a journey, and the more we’re willing to put in and keep on, the further we’re going to go. And a big part of our progress is conditioned upon our ability to identify and admit our weaknesses. It does no one any good to do a lifetime of work without ever paying enough attention to get any better at it. The many years we spend sucking does not make up for the sucking itself.

In working through this course, I am realizing that when I get to the end of my days, as I look back on my life’s work, I hope I don’t see complacency and coasting. No, I want to be able to saw more accurately (and faster) each year. I want my tools to be sharper in each project. I want my dovetails to have fewer gaps as I age. To my mind, this is the only kind of craftsmanship worth pursuing – the kind that shapes me just as much as the material I work. 



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