American Woodworker

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“In the elder days of Art, Builders wrought with greatest care, Each minute and unseen part; For the gods see everywhere.” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Why am I down here on the floor, Mark?”

Because it was you who taught me that everything on a piece of furniture matters. You were the one who had me sand the bottoms of drawers and table tops to perfection, who always said that the back of a piece has to be just as good as the front, who always made me lift things to move them across the shop so that the bottoms of the feet would not be scratched.

“Because I want you to see that joint, Michael. The one at the very bottom, the one that’s angled in such a way that nobody will ever see it unless they are lying on the floor on their back, looking up, with a flashlight. Like you are now.”

You are the reason I spent two solid days of work getting the curved shoulders on that mortise and tenon joint to fit just right. The shoulders that nobody else will ever see. And now you will see that they are absolutely perfect.

“Oh yes OK. Wow, nice work!”

The six years I spent apprenticing under you are the reason my furniture is as good as it is now. And after all these years away from you, I can still hear your voice saying ‘It’s not quite right yet, keep working on it.’ It is the greatest gift you gave me. And the greatest curse.

It was the part of woodworking I had to learn. I am not, by nature, a perfectionist. As a trained minister I don’t expect flawlessness in things or in people. I was taught, and I have taught others, that perfection is impossible this side of heaven. It doesn’t bother me that the bottom of my grandparent’s old desk, the one at which I’m now sitting to write, is not perfectly finished, or that the painting on the wall next to me is listing slightly to the left. I can live with these things.

When I started working wood 16 years ago it was the idea of imagining and crafting something of my own that pulled me in. It was the draw of the wood, the honesty and integrity of the work, that made me want to do this. It was not, it was never, the drive toward perfection.

Perhaps this is why, according to Someone’s great plan for me, I landed an apprenticeship with a perfectionist. (My dad always said that God never gets enough credit for his rich sense of humor.) Fresh out of seminary, greener than a fresh piece of poplar, I found myself one morning with a piece of 400 grit sandpaper in one hand thinking, “Did I hear him right? He wants me to sand thebottoms of the table’s feet?” In the weeks to come I became more vocal with this type of question. But then as weeks added up to months, I stopped asking them. Because the answer was always, Yes. Always.

What I came to realize, quietly and painfully, was that the question of whether the client would ever actuallysee a cut corner was irrelevant, not even worth the breath to ask. It didn’t matter at all that the customer would never notice how perfectly finished the bottom was. Because we weren’t making this furniture for the client, we were making it for…whom? That was always the question, the question I eventually learned to keep to myself.

The closest I ever got to an answer was the time I pleaded, “But if I cut this corner we will save time, and honestly, who will know?” His reply, “You will know.”

And that is the answer. I will know. I will know that I didn’t make it as good as I could have made it. I will know that I gave up a career to pursue woodworking because it is honest and true, and yet even I have begun hiding things in my work. I will know that the image of the lone craftsman working carefully in his small shop to rescue this gasping art from the churning metal claws of cheap and quick industrialization has become nothing more than a romantic lie, a marketing gimmick, a retouched photo.

And if I know this, and if I begin to accept these things, how long will it be before the compromises crawl like vines from the bottom, around the sides, and up to the top?


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