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  • alpineflower

On standards

By all accounts, I'm still very much a novice woodworker. I took a class in high school, and didn't get into it again for 25 years. In the three years that I've been seriously learning how to make things out of wood, my productivity has ebbed and flowed, mainly with the seasons: in the depths of winter and summer, my garage shop is beyond uncomfortable to work in. Family life and a brief stint of employment have also contributed to my slow learning curve. Getting motivated to perfect a skill is difficult for me even in the best of circumstances. Needless to say, there is a lot I wish I knew how to do.

Sofa table, 2017. Make no mistake, the only reason it stays upright is because it's propped between the wall and the sofa.

In a bid to resolve some of this lack of knowledge, I follow quite a few woodworkers on Instagram. They are all more accomplished than I am, but even within their ranks there's a lot of variation. There are a couple that I particularly pay attention to, and they can easily be classified as “Fine Woodworkers”. Dovetail joinery! Beautiful finishes on exotic woods! Inlays and splines and through tenons! Then, there are several who are mostly interested in trying new techniques. They use CNC machines to carve intricate patterns or pieces of furniture. They pour epoxy and build mandolins and learn how to weld. Finally, some of the woodworkers I follow are busy doing other things most of the time, and post simple projects they worked on while the baby was sleeping, or took six weekends to finish. It's a broad mix, as the internet so often is. All of them produce high-quality work, and all of them inspire me to keep at it.

I started following the high-end people first – they have a ton of content and have generally been doing this stuff for a decade or more, although they're relatively young and are naturally drawn to the patient, attentive work of managing to connect two pieces of wood perfectly using a chisel and a hand plane. They have high standards for their work, and they seem to meet those standards on a regular basis. I've naturally absorbed some of their ethos, even though I'll probably never build a Victorian highboy cabinet out of wood I've milled in my own backyard. I would, however, like to learn how to hand-cut dovetails or build a rocking chair.

Here's the thing, though. I'm not a perfectionist. I don't need something to be absolutely flawless in order to be satisfied with it. I see the need for it in many circumstances: if you are building a chair, having the angle of one arm slightly different than the angle of the other arm can feel uncomfortable and can ultimately stress the joints to the point that you don't have a chair anymore, you have a wobbly pile of sticks. I, however, simply don't build chairs. I just don't have the attention span or the patience to try over and over to get something exactly right.

Or take my shed (I know I keep talking about it, but seriously. I built a shed.). I totally understand why a structure like that needs to be on a perfectly level, stable foundation, and why the walls should stand at right angles to the floor. My shed, however, doesn't meet those standards. There are all kinds of weird issues that I could have avoided if I'd paid closer attention or been willing to take things apart and try again, but my approach is more along the lines of “It doesn't have to be perfect to be functional”. The doors open and (mostly) close, and the roof doesn't leak. We can keep all manner of things dry and safe in there, which is why I built it. Will it last for generations? No. But I think it'll last for a few years, at least. It was a great experience, and I loved learning all the different techniques required to build a structure like that.

While I love the details, I'm not all that good at paying attention to them. I doubt that my dovetails will ever fit together perfectly, and if I do build a rocking chair, I'll have to repent for all the swearing that will be involved. But here's what I try to remind myself: the work I do is still worthy. I'm learning – slowly – and finding my own way to my own mastery. The reality is that my personality is different from my inspiration's personalities, and that's fine. Many of them are driven by a desire to meet very high standards, and their work reflects that. I'm driven more by a desire to create functional and sturdy furniture simply and relatively quickly, and my work reflects that.

What it comes down to is that measuring yourself by other people's standards is a losing proposition every time. Instead of assuming that someone else's assessment of their own work is a good tool for assessing my work, I find that taking the time to set my own standards gives me the freedom and grace to tackle all kinds of projects that might not cross my radar otherwise. There's nothing wrong with inspiration, and in some fields, external standards are totally necessary. But for things like the arts and small business, I think it's safe to say that the only person who knows how to measure your success is you. Your motivations and interests are by definition not the same as anyone else's – they're yours – and when you can identify that fascinating quirk that sets you apart from everyone you admire or compare yourself to, I believe you find your voice, your confidence, your purpose.

And when that happens, you are no longer a novice, no matter what anyone else may say.

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