I can hear the gears stripping from here. The general mutterings are something along the lines of “First he’s talking about woodworking and now he’s talking about Sun Tzu? How do those two things go together?”
Well, the principle meshes nicely. First of all, we have the “enemy”. In this case, we can equate this with the wood we’re working with. Do we know the characteristics of the species we’re dealing with? For instance, pine and other softwoods compress somewhat under stress. This means that when we dovetail in pine, we can make an extremely tight fit, knowing that the wood will compress when it is brought together. Try that with something like oak or especially some of the tropical hardwoods, and the dovetails will splinter apart under the stress. Some species, such as oak or ash, split readily and can be riven closely to size (almost exclusively so until better metallurgy allowed for pitsaws and sawmills). On the other hand, elm and eastern cottonwood don’t want to split for love or money. But that very feature makes them invaluable for, respectively, wheel hubs and oxen yokes.
The other side of the Sun Tzu’s equation is you. Like Alan Ladd said in Shane, a person’s got to know their limitations. Now, what I’m not saying is to give up in frustration before starting. Instead, design for failure. Setbacks and mistakes happen. But allow for them to happen, so that you can learn from them. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
If you know that a particular point is going to hang you up, don’t shy away from it. Instead, do it first. Whether it’s making sure that your dovetails go together well, or using a skew chisel to turn beads, start with the point that you are most likely to mess up, as soon as possible (of course lumber has to be dimensioned and a turning blank has to be turned from a square to cylindrical cross-section, but don’t belabour the point). In this way, if you make a mistake, you don’t lose umpteen hours of work, only the little bit that went wrong. Start with an undifferentiated box instead of drawer. If you have to cut a quarter-inch off the box to redo a series of dovetails, it’s not likely to be a big deal. A quarter inch missing from the side of a drawer is another matter. Allow room for experimentation and mistakes. I’m constantly experimenting, in both breadth and depth, trying to better understand the craft. It doesn’t mean I’m always successful. But I make allowances for it, and my workload isn’t affected.
So that’s how the Art of War is also woodworking. Knowing what the wood is likely to do, and knowing what you are able to do, will let uncertainty become habit and chaos become merely an inconvenience.
Where this ties in with what we’re doing here is where last week I mentioned that for any order that I had to fill, I always made cutting boards first. The reason came up in the last batch I made. When I cut out the blanks, one of them turned out to have a big dead knot in the handle. Once it was cut back far enough to remove it, the handle was spindly and off-center.
But because I allowed for chaos to occur, it wasn’t that big of a problem. Instead of a cutting board, the same lumber will yield eight small spatulas, our next project.
In this way, waste is minimised, and what may have seemed like a tragedy was simply an obstacle to flow around. Wood is not a uniform, lifeless substance. It is laid down fiber by fiber by a living thing: responding to light, to rain, to pain, to cold and heat. Therefore it behooves us to be flexible enough to adapt to its vagaries.