Tolerance

This has nothing to do with getting along with people, or those “Coexist” bumper stickers you see.

Instead, it regards a term that I used all the time for machining.  When a dimension was specified, it was usually followed by a ± symbol, then a number.  In machinist shorthand, this meant that the part needed to be a certain size, give or take a certain margin for error.  That margin varied, but it was usually only one or two thousandths.  This margin was known as tolerance.  And it was important to work to the tolerances specified because either the machine parts wouldn’t go together, or it would fail in use (usually catastrophically).

Woodworking very rarely has tolerances specified.  The metric for success is usually “does it go together?”  And while it may be expedient to work to that tolerance, it doesn’t always lead to a worthy result.  You end up with gaps in dovetails, or out-of-square assemblies, or pieces that have to be bashed together with a hammer.

Realistically, we could very easily go down to the big-box store for flat-packed furniture.  It would probably perform the task required, at least for a while.  And it would almost certainly be cheaper.  Why do we spend the time fiddling about with chisels and saws, when the opportunity cost is so high?

The answer is to strive for better.  Look at a mass-produced amalgam of MDF and plastic veneer and the visceral response is “I could do better than that!”.  I would ask, though, if that rings true during the fulfillment phase.  Do we indeed create better?

Or is your work good “enough”?

If you look at the ragged surface your planes leave, but shrug and think “The sander will take that out”, that’s good enough.  If your trial fit shows an assembly that has to be cranked into square with a big clamp, that’s good enough.  If your dovetails have to be put together with thick epoxy because regular glue is too thin to fill the gaps, that’s good enough.  Do you embody the slacker’s doggerel?

 

A little putty,

A little paint,

Makes a carpenter,

What he ain’t.

It’s true that artisans in the past worked incredibly quickly.  They were trying to make a living at handicraft.  And it is true that they tried to do as little work as possible (It’s not lazy, it’s efficient!).  But they did not work until things were good enough.  Instead, they worked to a standard.  If they failed to meet that standard, they were sacked.  Insulated from that threat, we can today allow things to slide that would not have been to tolerance.

So today, challenge yourself.  Work to a higher standard than “good enough”.  Don’t care so much about completing a project that you become careless with how you complete it.  It will make you more satisfied with your work, because you know that it was done to the best of your ability, not simply kluged together.  If you will do this, an interesting phenomenon will occur.  In the future, looking at a piece you put together some years ago, you shake your head in embarrassment, thinking “Wow.  Was that all I could do then?”.  But you will not have to turn aside in shame, burning in the knowledge that back then, this was good enough.

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