I Stood Back . . .

. . . looked up, and I said to myself, in my head, ‘Perfect!

This was a month ago.

Last night I mowed my grass. It was just before dark. I looked up and I said to myself, ‘Hmm, not so perfect!’

An ancient proverb states that “Pride comes before a fall, but humility before honour!”

Why do we strive for perfection if nature ultimately makes us realise its mastery over what we make? I spent time getting the angles to perfectly intersect at the apex before making the two cuts. I offered them in place and used a spirit level to establish verticality. There was no guesswork at any point. I have often looked up at external mitres to such pieces in different countries. I’ve been surprised at the gaps in the internal corners twixt left and right. Well, I did that in the early days of my woodworking. Judgementalism often follows us around like a nipping terrier, snarking at inaccuracies as though we are more perfect than others.

George and I were working on some architraves around some doorways. The mouldings were extravagant and complex. We were actually replacing the oak architraves because, well, the mitres were gaping. I was critical of the new work and George listened to me quietly as I bemoaned the quality of another’s work. Yesterday I looked inside my shoe tidy for a measurement I missed on the drawing. As I looked beneath a certain part I saw what would have been a square hole caused by a mistaken cut. I didn’t remember making the mistake but I did think that after I had made a plug to fit it would have looked good and I might then have said to myself, “Perfect!.” So, was the whole then made perfect, was the fix-type perfecting an imperfection perfect, or was the fit of the filler piece perfect? Perhaps not seeing the hole seemed more perfect than the former level of imperfection!

I recalled patient George gracefully standing there bemused by my judgementalism. I knew I had done/said something that troubled him. George went to the wood rack and pulled out a piece of pine. He told me to cut the 1 x 4 into as near a perfect mitre as I could and then nail it to a plywood backer which I did. I was pretty proud of my effort when I showed it to him. He ruffled my hair and said, “Very good. Thank you! Now let’s get on with these architrave mitres.”

There was no such thing as a mitring chop saw back then in our workshop. We cut the angles, placed them on edge in the vise and planed the mitres with a #4 bench plane duly sharpened. Each mitre was checked against a combination square and here was where I learned the skills of planing mitres to moulded stock without a shooting board.

I didn’t notice George to my test mitre away from the bench. We went to the house to replace the mitred architrave and brought the previously fitted ones back with us the shop. I continued to bemoan and George continued to listen. The following week George said he needed to speak to me about something. I felt nervous. I knew the tone and the way he was speaking didn’t have the usual feel of approval. What could I have done?

From behind a heating radiator, George pulled out a plywood panel and when he flipped it over he said, “Do you remember this, Paul?” Of course, I did.

“How does your mitre look?” he asked. I looked and saw that the mitre gaped at the heel of the joint. How could that be? It was perfect before.

We sat down together and George started with, “Before we pass judgement on another man’s work we should understand that circumstances can affect the longer-term outcome.”

Our talk brought home the reality of wood shrinkage and expansion caused through the absorption and release of moisture from any source. It was far from the true lesson I learned in the humility it takes not judge another person’s work from first appearances and indeed all of the endeavour’s of others.

In the case of the mitres we removed, the wood was dried down to a good level but had reabsorbed atmospheric moisture by being stored in a humid place for weeks before cutting and installation. This was unbeknown to the craftsman fitting the architraves. The new host building, being now air-conditioned, had a super-low level of moisture in the atmosphere, so the wood shrank rapidly. George created a similar situation with my mitres by putting the support board and joint against a heat radiator. The wood shrank and, as with alomost all mitre cuts, the wood shrank more on the heel of the joint and the long point remained fixed against the opposite point of the other. I then understood the essentiality of matching the wood as best you can to its likely permanent placement.

My mitre on my shed was indeed spot on when I fixed it, and I knew the wood was quite wet. Fixing the boards in place in a dry summer, I understood that there would be a gap on the heel and that in our humid periods, and being outdoors, the gap would open and close according to these atmospheric changes. Indoors we have better greater control and thereby reliability, but outside, with zero control of the weather, we just do our best. You may judge someone the more if yo see something like this. . .

. . . declare to yourself, “I wonder what that’s hiding in there?” You might think it differently now. I hope! Maybe the maker might be doing us a favour, to stop us from being just a tad more judgemental. I don’t know.

Perfection? You define it. My shed’s perfect!

38 thoughts on “I Stood Back . . .”

    1. You mean you prefer the gap and people thinking about what poor job that is. I don’t think that it’s as you say, people love finials, just that they don’t like the gaps.

      1. I don’t think I like a gap or a finial… I think u said what I thought I said.
        No I’d rather see the gap than it be disguised by faux design.
        I need humility and I have nothing to even get proud over! Gotta laugh.

  1. I learnt a similar lesson a few years ago when my mother-in-law asked me to make a sandpit for the grandchildren to play in. I made it out of decking boards. It was my first woodworking project to get such a public showing and I was keen to show off my prowess, so I mitred the seating deck around the top edge of the sandpit, taking ages to get the mitres just so. I was pleased with the result and started to entertain vain notions about making sandpits to sell and eventually becoming a celebrated sandpit maker, etc. etc. But I forgot to take photos of the end result. Never mind, I thought, I’ll do it on our next visit. I duly removed the cover, camera at the ready, and found my mitres were not just gappy, but gaping, and the boards had also lifted and twisted. I cursed Wickes for supplying me with wet decking boards. I look at it slightly differently now. It’s not just that there was no way I could have achieved perfect mitres in such a context. It’s that it doesn’t matter. It was good enough. The kids didn’t care in the slightest and piled in to the sandpit. Nowadays I tend to be much happier with good enough, and if I accidentally achieve perfection, all well and good.

    1. For me, I enjoy working wood. I always strive for perfection, but I know it might not be possible due to the fact I am not a pro. I built my deck and saw the same wood movement. It’s the joy that I get when using my hand tools or even power tools. The experience of it is my enjoyment. To Paul, I enjoy watching you and other wood workers out there building furniture. Kinda like a weekend golfer watching the pros.

      1. People who actually make things, be it a carpenter or a machinist; gain a certain level of humility over time. If they are wise.

  2. The well made plans of mice and men, it has ever been thus. Or perhaps, “From the cooked timber of humanity, nothing has ever been made straight.”

  3. It’s easy to judge the work of others, and even ours, but understanding the way wood and nature work help to forgive. Thanks for sharing the lesson!

  4. Every time I read about George, I think “what an excellent teacher.” This is both because of what he taught, and also because what he taught lives on so strongly in his student. I am grateful that Paul Sellers was so teachable that I can count myself as one of many thousands of George’s “grandstudents”.

  5. Beautifully written and a great message Paul. Living in Texas with wildly unpredictable weather, I’ve learned to give myself some grace in my chase for Paul Sellers-ish perfection. This is a good reminder to give others the same grace in all of life’s endeavors. Thank you for taking the time to share bits of your life and thoughts. The world is just a little better because of it!

  6. Nikolaj Thøgersen

    “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes. Then you will be a mile away, wearing their shoes”

    1. Hi Nikolaj – did something get lost in translation? Sounds like – don’t judge someone but instead steal their shoes. Which may or may not be what the originator intended!

  7. Funny. We wanted solid maple kitchen cabinet doors. One of the installers commented that the white wood doors would show a crack at the joint of the mortise and tenon over time and that was why most people preferred MDF pressed doors on their white kitchen cabinet these days.

    I’ll take the cracks thanks. I think it is a sign of craftsmanship oddly enough.

    1. we just replaced 34 year old solid oak kitchen cabinets they had no cracks anywhere we replaced them with solid maple you’ll like them

  8. AmI the only one that had to google what an “architrave” was? You learn something new everyday, especially if you follow Paul’s blog and youtube channel…

  9. I cannot always remember what life was like living in more humid areas, it was at times miserable with humidity close to 95% and temps as high or higher. I grew up and now again live in the dry western US – our average humidity is around 20%. That is bone dry to many who live in much more humid climates! That makes wood do bizarre and uncertain things, and we try as best we can to plan for that. We see lots of extra pieces of small trim covering the gaps that are inevitable with extra dry wood – indoors and out. Working with natural products like wood we know it will do something, planning ahead is all part of the craft.

  10. I guess that’s why a lot of sheds have a diamond shaped lozenge of wood nailed over the apical mitre. Anyway when all’s said and done a shed is just a shed and not a mansion.

  11. Peter Brandt Petersen

    Can we not just agree that wood is a wonderful living material! It is always in motion and will work no matter how perfect we work with it,
    Don’t worry! be happy!

  12. So, very true. Perfection is only a goal to strive for, unobtainable where man and nature come together. Perhaps planning for the imperfection, as best we can, would help. How about a cover over the edges like a batten of some sort or a design element like a carving.

  13. In the area where I worked as a chippy the older work with wider flat architrave they would mitre in 1/2″ to cover the bead mould then butt the rest square. Then when the boards shrink the joint stays tight.

  14. tayler whitehead

    i had a client who wanted a breadboard end dining table made from some recycled rimu she had. i was wary because of the wood movement and the fact she wanted to do the finishing herself. well i duly made the table top and it looked marvelous. i rang her to collect. well she arrived a month later, and we had a hot spell. needless to say the breadboards by now were projecting past the ends of the table. this is why i am very wary about doing breadboard ends and not sealing them up as fast as i can to minimise movement.

    1. Don’t remember where I read it but an old time woodworker said uneven ends on a breadboard table is the sign of a true craftsman, the ends built to allow for movement rather than developing cracks or splits, sounds like you built it just right👍

  15. Perfect is the enemy of good. I’d rather be good for a long time than perfect for a few moments!

  16. Another life lesson: “Don’t be too hard on yourself, or others”. If we build well (enough), it will outlast us. I have furniture my father made, while I hope that some of the things I’ve made will go down to my children one day.

  17. Wood shrinks much more across its grain, either radially or tangentialy, than it does along its length, due to the nature of its cellular makeup. And, this a measured in inches (mm) per inch of length or width as a function of the percentage change in moisture content. At a miter joint, when you measure the piece width at the outside corner/tip, the width is very small and approaches zero, thus the shrinkage or change in width is very small or zero. At the heel, Paul had a 3.5” wide piece of wood which would shrink (or expand) much more than near the contact point at the tip. The only way this can happen with an unreinforced joint is for the heel to open up as his photos show. This is pretty common on mitered joints which are not reinforced in some way to try to counter these actions. This heel gapping potential is somewhat less a problem on picture frames, and the like, with narrower frame pieces.

    On Paul’s shed, there is another way (additional way) this joint, up at the ridge, on the rake facia trim piece might have opened up at the heel. If the rafters (the two roof planes) are not properly tied to each other, across the bldg., there will tend to be some lateral movement (lateral thrust) of the rafters at their bearing points at the top of the side walls. And, this small movement can cause that joint to open up at the heel, the way his photo shows.

  18. Pingback: George Bridged the Gap - Paul Sellers' Blog

  19. I’ve found that coating the end grains of those miters with yellow glue is helpful in keeping moisture from wicking into the grains. Not perfect but helps.

  20. Paul, I really appreciate this blog post. As a former machinist and tool maker I became very use to working with very close tolerances – tolerances that are absolutely unnecessary for woodworking. It has taken me many years to learn this. I experienced a lot of frustration because I kept trying to achieve levels of “perfection” that could not and would not be reached. Nowadays I still work as accurately as I can and many of your techniques have helped me do that. The difference is that I try to take into consideration how the wood will react over time. I feel as though I am closer to reaching the point where I can say “that’s close enough”. Thank you for your perspective.

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