Know When to Quit

Your eye is the standard of tolerance. And over the years as your hand skills develop, so will your sense of visual discernment. Dovetails that you were happy with at the beginning of your journey will undoubtedly make you wince a few years into your growth as an artisan. That’s not only OK, it’s expected. It’s called maturation. But as you grow in the craft, don’t ever forget that it’s just woodworking, reader. Although the joinery of the past was intended to be as gap-free as possible, the tolerances of our furniture-making ancestors were much closer to those of house carpenters than those of space engineers.

Efficient craftsmanship is caring deeply about everything that matters and being disciplined enough to overlook everything else.

It’s common today for people to feel that fussing their way to a perceived perfection is somehow noble, but this can also simply be a matter of pride. Fussing over everything is not a workmanlike mindset, and I’m going to show you a different way.

If you’ve heard of the “Pareto Principle,” also known as the “80/20 Rule,” you might be able to picture the mindset I’m talking about here. The principle states that 80 percent of a perfect result is produced in 20 percent of the effort – roughing everything out is the quick part. The last 20 percent, involving finessing and fine-tuning, takes the last 80 percent of the effort – this is the tedious and fussy part. This principle, which has been applied across so many disciplines, is also true for handmade furniture. This is why vernacular furniture is often solidly constructed but rarely fussed over – Joe Farmer-Craftsman knew to avoid getting bogged down in the details. An experienced craftsperson can quickly discern when the work starts slowing down and getting picky. If you look at the insides of period furniture, you’ll see that pre-industrial artisans didn’t fuss where it didn’t matter. There is no glory in pushing through the last 80 percent of the work to make it just a little bit better. Bowl maker David Pye once postulated that “half the art of workmanship” is balancing the tension between precision and artful freedom.

We’ve got to know when to quit.

-Joshua A. Klein, excerpt from his new book Worked: A Bench Guide to Hand-Tool Efficiency, which is currently at the printer. Pre-order now for free domestic shipping.


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