American Woodworker

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I just messed something up.  Part of a chair I'm working on.  This particular piece has taken me about two and a half hours to make.  And I just ruined it.  I have to start over now with a new piece of wood.  There is no walk on earth longer than the nine steps from my bench to the lumber rack.


There are two kinds of ruining in woodworking.  One is physical, the other mental.


In the physical group fall simple mistakes of the hand.  I jerk my chisel the wrong way and it creates a gash that can't be fixed.  I angle my saw a couple of degrees off, and the joint doesn't fit quite right.


Crueler by far is the mental category.  In this instance, I simply don't think correctly.  I follow through perfectly on my thoughts (such as they are), and when I'm done I feel chuffed at my perfection as I walk away from the tool.  Until I go to fit the piece and wince to realize that I've made it backwards, or too small, or upside down.  That's when I invariably wish someone were there to witness my confession, 'God I'm so stupid!'  (I've actually opened my phone before and called someone just to confess a mistake.  Feels good to say it out loud for some reason.)


Today's mistake was mental.  Crap.  I hate doing that. 


Then again, I love doing that.  Because it reminds me that this art of mine involves risk.  Something at stake.  Always.


Perhaps the difference between crafting and manufacturing is risk.  When I applied for my sales tax license, I had to choose a category for my business.  "Furniture manufacturing" is what I checked.   But the words left an unsettled, metallic taste in my mouth.  I don't manufacture furniture, I craft it.  Manufacturing is all about eliminating risk.  Not reducing it, but vanquishing it completely.  Removing any chance that the worker might ruin a costly piece of wood.  Expensive computers tell huge machines what to do, and they obey perfectly.  Sitting at a keyboard is a man with a cup of coffee, thoughts on the upcoming weekend, and absolutely nothing at stake.  There will never come a time when he ruins a piece that will take him two and a half hours to remake.


So here I am, ruined chair part in my hand mocking me.  I scan desperately for workaround ideas, none coming.  Can I hide it?  Can I make it work?  Can I fix this?  Nope.  Nope.  Nope.  Man up Mark, remake it, and this time be more careful.


Does it make any sense that this is actually one of the reasons I love this job?  Maybe.  A skydiver wouldn't love jumping if there weren't at least some chance of splatter.  The risk keeps me awake, keeps me in the moment.  I actually like it. 


But there's another kind of risk that runs under the surface all the time.  Not just for me but for every artist.  That's the risk of my opinion of myself.  Am I any good at this?  Can I pull this off?  What if I mess this up, can I still think of myself as talented?  Easy to believe I'm a great artist when I'm standing in the gallery next to a finished piece.  But with a chisel in my hand I'm a little less certain.  No matter how much success I've had in the past, if I don't get this one right...then what?



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Chris Cander wrote re: Risk
on 10-27-2009 9:13 AM

What a thought-provoking entry for artists and artisans of any media. Beautiful!