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BEN The Build-It Blog

New Year's Resolution: To Be Less Perfect

01/07/2021 By Joe Samalin

New Year's Resolution: To Be Less Perfect 1

Holidays have come and gone, and the holidays can often amp up pressures and make everything a bit more hectic, especially mid-pandemic. We are making tools at triple-speed, customers are buying more orders filled with gifts for loved ones, and some of us are rushing to finish making gifts for loved ones.

And so we wanted to take a minute in the aftermath to talk about woodworking and the idea of perfection. What does it mean to make the perfect cut, the perfect joint, the perfect piece of furniture? The pursuit of perfection can make us better (at woodworking and at life), but it can also put undue pressure and strain on us in myriad different ways.

How do you know when a piece you are building is done? When it is good enough? When your finish dries or cures? Is it the reaction of the person you made it for, or is it something you know when you see it for yourself?

I tend to look at woodworking as problem solving - how do I get from point A to B with the tools at my disposal. Sometimes that doesn’t work out so well, such as trying to cut down 4” x 4” lumber with a crappy circular saw that is way too small and relatively inaccurate.

I have always identified myself (half-jokingly) as a "lazy perfectionist", a truly challenging combination of personal traits. For a really long time I thought I was just lazy and unintelligent - an ADHD diagnosis in my late 30’s helped me start to see myself in a new light, and therapy and medication have changed my life.

I started woodworking as a more serious sustained hobby partially as a way to let go of my need for perfection - I thought getting deeper into something creative would help break the cycle of quitting projects halfway through, or even before they start, because I am so convinced I will mess it up.

And it works about half the time. If I have a bad glue squeeze-out and didn’t clean it, I have at times just quit on the project. Some projects take me months, even years to finish, or start. I look at other folk’s work and am convinced I will never be as good as them, so why bother.

New Year's Resolution: To Be Less Perfect 2

My first attempt at spoon carving green wood, a massive ladle that wound up cracking right down the center of the bowl. I am working up to being able to try green wood again...

So what does perfection look like in woodworking? I have met incredible woodworkers who measure every cut down to a 1/1000th of an inch, and equally skilled makers who eyeball it every time.

Here's 3 ways I try to keep going even while struggling with “perfection”:

I'm working to embrace the imperfections. I am ok with a saw burn every now and then, I actually kind of like them. A slight gap in a joint that doesn’t mess with structural integrity shows a piece is handmade. While I’m striving to be better each day than I was the day before, my real goal is to keep woodworking and not get caught up as much in pursuit of perfection. For me it is also about accountability, honestly owning the level of skill I am at now without slipping into beating myself up for crappy looking results. My first milk-painted project was a Swedish wall cabinet I made in a class led by Nancy Hiller. I wanted a layer of red topped with a layer of blue-grey, but only put on one layer of the red. When I went to distress the finish I wound up sanding through the blue and right into the raw wood under the red in places. Taking a step back and catching my breath (and after cursing a blue streak, true to my born-and-raised-in-New-York-City roots), I realized that I actually liked the look, the three tones made it all the more striking a piece to me.

New Year's Resolution: To Be Less Perfect 3

Reaching out for help and advice. Talking to friends and family and getting support is a boon, but so is talking to folks that know better about woodworking than I do. I have a few mentors on different skill areas and I reach out when I am stuck. Recently I have stalled in writing my series of spoon carving blogs (sorry Joel, almost done with the next one!) because I don’t think my spoon decorating skills are up to snuff. And so this past weekend I reached out to a carver I know and follow online and did a few hours of video lessons with him, and now am moving forward again. Check out facebook groups, local woodworking clubs or (virtual) meetups, a friend you know, or anyone else who might be able to help get you through being stuck. I can’t tell you the number of woodworkers who stop by Tools for Working Wood if for no other reason than to talk through some problem they are having with a build for a client that keeps going wrong.

Keep moving. Especially during the holiday season, to take some of the pressure off and to remind myself that I actually enjoy working with wood, I started making cutting boards. They say the simplest things to make are often the hardest because you have to get them just right, whether a simple cutting board or a pasta with nothing but lemon and olive oil. Still, I find that shifting projects for a while can often get me out of my own head. We just got in this book on cutting boards written by David Picciuto of Make Something on Youtube and I am going to try and make a few as gifts for folks.

My first cutting board
My first cutting board, and hopefully not my last.

I hope everyone enjoyed whichever (if any) holidays you celebrated, and feel free to share what you do when you get too caught up in your heads…or what you consider “perfection”!

Join the conversation
01/07/2021 John Alford
Your comments about "settling" for less than perfect results has struck a chord with me. As a life long woodworking hobbyist with far more interest and enthusiasm than skill or talent; it has been very frustrating to say the least. I often seriously wondered why I persisted in punishing myself in pursuing something for which I was so poorly suited. I too have deferred projects out of concern about the final results, delayed completion of work because I was upset with the quality of what I had accomplished and obsessed over insignificant, minute details.
I am now approaching 80 years of age and perhaps my maturation has finally made me rational. Only recently have I been able to (somewhat) gracefully accept my shortcomings. I often remind myself of two things Steve Latta has said; "it is only a piece of wood-the sun will still come up in the morning", and " it is just a workbench-not a shrine". Putting things in perspective has been immensely helpful. I have stopped torturing myself by imagining how embarrassed I would be by what an accomplished woodworker would think/say if he saw my best effort.
01/07/2021 Heike Childs
"Good enough" should be the goal:
A very skilled and super talented graphics person once caught me trying to create the perfect project. At the time he noted that our deadline was fast approaching and I wasn't even into the meat and bones of the project because I had allowed myself to get caught up in the game of perfecting on one of the digital images I was stitching together. His comment: "That's good enough. No one will ever inspect this picture with an eye as critical as yours." In other words, they won't be able to see any imperfections at all because they can't see what I was striving for and if a deadline was going to be missed they'd have nothing at all to look at. Now that would be a real loss.
In wood working there is naturally a lot of room for creative expression as well. However the difference to digital media is that wood moves all the time. With every humidity change there is opportunity for wood to change dimensions, to cup, to bow, or to warp. Over time, I've come to appreciate that woodworking is somewhat similar to a game of wack-a-mole. Problems are always looking for an opportunity to show up. So the goal is in any wood working project to get the job done and locked in place before the wood is granted to opportunity to to twist or to warp. For example, if the quarter inch piece of wood is going to get captured in the groove for the drawer bottom, the completed structure will help the keep the drawer bottom from going berserk. The trick is to learn where to allow a certain amount of tolerance and making things "good enough" while avoiding getting swept up in the striving for "complete perfection". So, if your project suffered a crack in the spoon, drill a small hole in the end of the crack to prevent it from going any further, then enhance the crack with a decorative carving and call it a slotted ladle. It will be perfect for fishing the English peas out of the pot without all that extra water. Unless you tell about your change in plans, no one will ever even suspect that your slotted ladle is not what you had initially intended. They'll be impressed how smart you are to make a slotted ladle for just right for "English Peas."
01/08/2021 Stephen Bozzone

Great article. I too was diagnosed with ADHD two years ago, I'm in my mid 50's. Thanks for having the courage to bring that out in the open. Therapy and medication was a life saver for me. Now I know why I had a trail of unfinished DIY projects around the house all those years :)
01/12/2021 Joe Samalin
John - thanks for reading and for sharing your comment. Glad for the validation that it isn't just me that struggles at times. Also really love the Steve Latta quotes - I wasn't familiar with them and they really struck a chord.
01/12/2021 Joe Samalin
Heike - I love the wack-a-mole metaphor, fun game and keeps you humble. Thanks for the English Peas suggestion as well, I might give that a go!

Joe S
01/12/2021 Joe Samalin
Stephen - Thanks for the comment and I hear ya on the DIY projects. Best of intentions but cannot seem to finish them. Shifting projects works for me, but unfinished ones can build up too. A delicate balance to be sure.

Joe S
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.