"Perfection" in Woodworking and Construction
Perfection. Just what is that?
According to the dictionary it means, "lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind; being without defect or blemish.” In my experience very few things in this world live up this high ideal and those that do are purely subjective judgments. Thankfully I learned about the illusive nature of perfection when I was young.
I was 21 when I started my apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker and of course I knew everything. I was assigned to the semi-retired owner (his son-in-law now ran the shop). On my second day he asked me to pull an oak board out of the lumber rack. I brought it to him and laid it on the bench. It was a rough sawn piece, was uneven in width and thickness, had a twist to it and a crack at the end.
With youthful confidence I said, “Boy, they sure don’t make lumber like they used to!”
Sam, turned his head to me and in gruff voice but with a chuckle replied, “Son, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and they never made lumber like ‘they used to’”.
He then continued on and said, “All of the materials we use come to us in imperfect shape - always have and always will. And remember that people are imperfect and the whole world is imperfect. Perfection is a false concept. Your job is to take imperfect materials and make them appear perfect – note I said appear – not make them perfect. If you do that then you have taken the first step in being a good cabinet maker because your expectations will be realistic. Keep high standards but always be realistic.”
He then went on and said, “While I’m at it, there is no such thing as level, plumb, straight or square and ‘a joint is a joint is a joint’. Things just appear level, plumb, straight and square and joints are always visible. Now you have one day to whine about these things and then for the rest of your career you just need to deal with these imperfections and attempt to make things appear perfect.”
Of all the things I learned in my apprenticeship that was the most valuable one.
Every piece of wood I have worked with had some imperfection (although perfection is, in this case, subjective – beauty is in the eye of the beholder). Every house I have worked in, no matter how new or old, was out of square and level and the walls were out of plumb. (Your house is not unique in that regard! When you put 200,000 pounds on top of a foundation it is guaranteed to move no matter how level and plumb it was built.) I’ve also never seen a truly straight wall and seams seldom disappear no matter how much I try.
Appearing perfect is what I aim for. The best example is on several jobs through the years I have installed crown moldings out of level in order to make them appear perfect. In these cases the ceilings were not level and making the crown molding level would have accentuated the issue. It took some creative solutions (usually following a night’s sleep) but when it was done the crown and the ceiling appeared level.
Imperfect materials – imperfect people – imperfect world. That’s the reality. When we keep that in mind our expectations are then realistic and in the end we all will proclaim “Wow that appears perfect! I love it!”