Making peace with failure

Yes, that’s me jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft.

No, it’s not scary (to me).  At least this time I had a parachute.

But what is a little scary sometimes is trying out something different.  A new design or a new joint can be a little nerve-wracking to figure out.  This is compounded because invariably, this situation comes around on a client’s piece.  They say they want a particular design and there will be something that I’ve never done before in it.  And of course that new bit is always front and center.  This is usually compounded by the fact that there usually isn’t a spare bit of timber to use if the first one fails.  No, I have one shot to make it right.

No pressure.

There’s a few ways to deal with this.  The first is that you take the Farragut approach: “D*** the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!  This way is faster, but it entails a lot of risk of a mis-cut joint.  You can sort of make it a little less obtrusive (usually) with a little tinted epoxy, but it’s not ideal by any measure.

Next is that you cut some practise joints.  Take some scraps and join them.  Make one or two (or a dozen!), and get familiar with how the joint goes together.  That way, when you do it “for real”, it won’t be foreign to you, and you have a better chance of cutting it precisely.  You spend a lot of time working on what turns out to be firewood, but it is more prudent with regard to the primary workpiece.

Third is that you can do a few projects beforehand that include the joint you’re using.  If you’ve made a half-dozen boxes, you’ve probably figured out dovetails by now so that joining the carcase of a blanket chest isn’t such a big deal.  This takes up more time than the “practise joint” option because you’ve got several whole projects to finish before you get to the primary workpiece, but you end up with something more usable than firewood.

I am partial to the third option, but it does come with a price.  When you later see the projects you’ve completed as a learning avenue, it can be a little horrifying.  “I built that?  How could I think this was satisfactory?”  It can be enough to throw you off the whole idea of woodworking if you’re like me.

See, I work on evolutionary designs in work I do for myself.  As an example, I worked out the design for a jar box (we’ll do it one of these days) over several weeks.  Every so often I’d build a box with the same exterior dimensions, but with different characteristics.  The bottom went from a nailed on piece of plywood to being captured in a groove.  The handles changed shape and dimension.  The sides went from nailed butt joints to several different flavours of dovetails (including mitred through dovetails).  Even the most basic thing, the thickness of the sides, went through at least four iterations.  All of those variants work, and are piled in a back room holding jars.  But they’re pretty ugly, as I look at them now.

I see things like gappy dovetails, and carcases that aren’t quite square, and patches of pretty bad tearout, and plane tracks, and…

The point is that these boxes are a temporal continuum.  You can see the work getting more and more refined over time.  But if all you see is what would now be considered failure, it can be hard to live with as a craftsman.  Every day you look at something you built, and all you can see is how horrible it is, despite what other people say.

It’s tough.  But, for an analogy, I would point out the work of the great artists.  Curators and such can point out how a painting is an “early piece” because of the minor flaws on a canvas.  Maybe the colours were mixed wrong, or the brush strokes were crude or whatever.  But said artist kept improving until they attained their “mature style” which can be pretty amazing.

How to reconcile that both of those pieces came from the same person?  How to accept work that you look at and say “This could be better”?

The key to this is you.  The rest of this bit is predicated upon you trying to produce perfection, not just slapping something together.  If you’re taking shortcuts and making mistakes that you justify as “no one will notice”, I would suggest that you start there.  But what if you’re really trying?  What if you’re doing your best?

Ah, there is the key.  If you are doing your best, you have nothing to be ashamed of.  Life is change, on every scale from the microscopic to the geologic.  Just because something may now seem second-rate doesn’t mean that it was so when it was built.  It may be a little embarrassing that your skills were so rudimentary at one point (sort of like those blackmail pictures your mom keeps), but shame doesn’t factor into it.

When you are surrounded by work you did to get better, and you see all the flaws, remember how much has gone on since then.  Give every piece the benefit of your best work (at the time), and you can rest more easily.  You are not accepting failure.  You are accepting that everyone learns, and that no one becomes a master overnight.  When you do your best work, and then later (with more experience) see the flaws in it, just remember that it was an “early piece”, and keep working!