Screw the process: Make Nice Things! Part One

Part one: Screw the process.

This project began with the famous phrase, “Well that Crate and Barrel table is way too expensive, I’ll be damned if I spend 1500 dollars for some old splintery barn wood mounted to a metal base.” And lo it was begun.

The design phase began with my wife and I walking around our living room and figuring out our approach to the table. We have a large, rectangular space, with lots of rectangular things in it. We first wanted a rectangular table, but we figured out that sizing the dimensions of another rectangular object in the room was too difficult. Another rectangular table will make our living room look like a tetris level 10 puzzle, so we decided to make the table a circle. “But won’t making a circular table be harder than a rectangular table? How long is this going to take?” Melissa asked, as if she wanted the table to be done in less than two months. I scoffed. “A circle is just a series of straight lines, so a circular table is basically a rectangle. No problem, I can do this in like, a few hours.” I informed her. “Okay,” she said.

I gathered supplies: 48 board feet of poplar in 1×8” planks, 20 feet of 2×3” raw steel tubing, 4 feet of 1×1” steel tubing, some steel plates, some screws, some finishing materials, sand paper, screws, dowels, biscuits and glue.

Here is where everyone says, “It’s about the process.” When people are saying this, what they are really saying is, “Be patient, things can take some time and if you’re rushing to finish it, it will turn out crappy.” They are not wrong in sentiment, but the literal meaning of the statement itself is very annoying to me. Pandering to the importance of enjoying the process is a putty-spined way of saying that it’s okay to half-finish things as long as you enjoy what you do in the meantime. I beg to differ: “IT” is about finishing something that you did correctly, and taking pride in not cutting corners. It doesn’t count if you don’t finish it; and you didn’t finish it if you cut corners. Enjoying the process does not put food on the table until the process is finished.

When you have gratitude for completing each successive step, patience to do things correctly, and an eye for spotting your mistakes, your finished product will draw you to return to the river of creativity, inspiring you to do a better job than you did last time. You will enjoy the process a lot more if you finish what you started.

Screw the process; take pride in your finished work. Change your self-view to that of a task-assassin, a deadly finisher of difficult projects.

I would like to add a note about cutting corners. Cutting corners refers to skipping steps that are necessary to achieve a goal. This is not the same as failing to achieve true perfection. The table I built is not perfect, but I really do not think I cut any corners. I am not an experienced woodworker, and I relied on tremendous help from others to finish it. My inexperience is evident in the table. For instance, The finish coating has some blemishes, as I struggled to apply the polyurethane evenly. Am I cutting a corner by not sanding off the finish completely and starting over? I do not think so, even though I suppose I could do that. Come to think of it, there is not a single perfect aspect of this table: the metal has dings in it from the factory, the wood has some dings on the side where I bumped against it with the belt sander, and so on. These imperfections did not stem from cut corners, they stemmed from the human enterprise of creation. Cutting corners is different from accepting setbacks, fixing things to the best of ones ability, and moving on. Cutting corners would have entailed not adjusting for the warpage of the supports caused by the welding, failing to do the proper jointing of the boards so they fit together, failing to plane the boards to the same thickness, et cetera. Given these problems, one could argue that I am cutting corners by not throwing my table in the trash and starting over again. My next project will turn out better, but not because I will cut fewer corners. Cutting corners is its own dangerous temptation, as it will lead to failure of a goal. Cutting corners creates more work, as we know, but it is not the same as accepting imperfection and moving on anyway. In creating things, I find that holding a standard of perfection to the point of paralysis is in itself a cut-corner–we are in fact cutting the final corner of finishing what we started.

With an eye on a nice finished product, the table’s undertaking spanned many wonderful weekends.  My friend that made the whole thing possible, Gar, and I were talking about how long it took to finish the project.  We came to the conclusion that since we had fun every day while we were building the table, it was better to have taken a long time since it is better to have more fun days compared to having fewer fun days.

+++++++++++++++

After working with metal and automobiles for so long, I found there to be something intrinsically beautiful and delicate about woodworking.  Wood is in many ways still living in your hand when you work with it, wood is always moving, warping, stretching, expanding. Wood, so easy to damage, is capable of holding up a bridge, or being made into a boat; its characteristics bleed into every design decision.

The precision you can have working with wood and a couple of saws is nearly impossible to do with metal.  Miter joints can vanish, gaps between separate pieces of wood disappear when care is taken to cut them properly. The downside to woodworking is that these gaps cannot be readily filled with extra weld material, joints cannot be ground down after one does a sloppy job binding two sticks together.

Woodworking puts us in touch with history in a way that metal work does not.  The path to complete a project with wood is always well-worn, the techniques one uses, no matter how exotic, have a long standing place in the history of making things.  Someone else has done what you’re doing, probably with fewer tools, and with a better result.  There is an ancient quality to working with wood that I really enjoyed–call it a grateful nostalgia.

Leave a Reply