I Wonder!

I woke with a feeling about something this morning. Is perfectionism truly a part of who we are or is this pride that just gets in the way of our enjoyment in making? Are we obsessed about getting every facet of our work just right and is it possible that we do it not so much for ourselves but to gain the approval of others? I am not exaggerating if I say I have most likely made tens of thousands of woodworking joints on a daily basis throughout my woodworking life of 55 years. And in those hundreds of thousands, many have been dovetails, housing dadoes and mortise and tenons, but then there are many others too, ranging from splined mitres to combination joints comprising two and even three joints in one that has no name. Think the sliding housing joint I developed on my latest and newest triple-leg floor lamp stand with table. Or the breadboard cutting boards with tongue and groove joints along with pegged and stopped through tenons into mortises.

My method even works with less conventional dovetails as well as common (through) dovetails too.

This past few days I have been developing a a linen press, a sort of airing cupboard for linens such as bedding and bathroom towels and such. There are nine dovetails to each of the four corners and as I concluded each one I said to myself, “Perfect!” I actually do this to camera all the time too. So, am I being genuine if I say that and there is a gap or even a little looseness to some part of it? Perfection is in itself almost indescribable. Do we look at a part or the whole when we make such a declaration. In the Science Museum in Oxford there is a section dedicated to instruments that were part of capturing information for early science research. Perhaps a wooden telescope or a dovetailed wooden camera. Tripods were all wood with brass parts and zero plastic anywhere to be found. The joints holding them together were perfect in that they were developed carefully by an artisan of no name. His working knowledge was evident in the care and construction but knowledge of him was utterly hidden. I said to myself, “Perfect!” What was perfect was its functionality and its aesthetic. Yes, I could see small gaps here and there, a file mark left in the brass of a hand-made hinge and such. These character marks weren’t the excuse people use today for rough work, they represented careful thought for where the work needed to stop and the use of the equipment to begin.

As my dovetails seated into their individual recesses I could see one joint that had a perfect parallel gap to the line resulting in a gap. With around 54 joint lines surrounding the pins and tails it was the only gap and it was about 1/10 of a millimetre wide. The gap was perfectly parallel. I should reiterate this because, well, it looked nice. Showing my work to a hundred people, I am sure everyone’s eye would be drawn to this ‘imperfection’ and, as my work often does in videos or photographs on my blog, would induce someone to make comment assiduously on my erring saw cut. Smiling as they say, “I am sure no one else will notice but I did perceive a small gap there in the dovetails.” and tapping the side of their nose to say, “Your secret is safe with me!” Fact is, for me, what was perfect was that the joint’s efficacy did not depend on that joint aspect being tight. With nine recessed dovetails in place the joint will remain together for 300 years. Why would I worry? It was, indeed, perfect!

A sliding dovetail is a housing dado (cross-grain housing) and this one has a regular through housing dado on the underside too. I designed this joint for this particular application.

From time to time I have filled a joint where it truly mattered. Not for my own peace of mind or my reputation but to save others from not understanding what was important. I have had to deal with many a student who says of him and herself that they are ‘too much of a perfectionist’ when in reality it is nothing to do with perfectionism and all to do with their pride. Look over any of my pieces and you will find fault even if it si not a fault that you find. It’s not much different than people who say, and this often enough for me to say all the time, “I was doing okay with Paul until he put his plane sole down on the bench. Surely he knows this is a no-no!”

Whereas we all should strive for the highest standards in our work, we should also look at the reasons we do so. I just enjoy woodworking. I don’t do anything for the approval of my peers. if I did I would be long dead and buried by now. It is not good to choose the wrong piece of wood that sticks out like a sore thumb in the whole and say, “It’s character!” when it was a bad choice and often even laziness. It’s the same with careless cutting throughout our work that results in torn grain, stopped strokes and steps in the wood. This is not character. What is character are the plane strokes left from a plane with a cambered iron from 1650, the saw kerf marks left on the back of a cabinet that would spend 200 years against a wall and the cuts to the sides of dovetails that did not stop at the depth line on occasion. Think life! A skilled craftsman was given five hours to dovetail five drawers in oak or mahogany on all four corners and fit the drawers into their individual recesses. The methods were transferred to me 200 years on and I knew exactly how the pieces were made. Phenomenal!

Enjoy your woodworking today!

Don’t obsess for the approval of others! It’s not an exam!


  1. Great piece Paul, so important that the search for perfection for perfection’s sake doesn’t actually impede the work. Many thanks.

  2. I’m often reminded of my Native American artisan friends, who leave a slight flaw, or even add one to each piece they make. The philosophy being ” Only Man Above is capable of perfection!” To me it’s a way of identifying a work forever as Human! Whether it is signed or not. Thanks, Paul, for reminding us what perfection is.

    1. I believe that one of the tenets of the Islamic faith is that only Allah is perfect which is why there is always a deliberate mistake woven into otherwise “perfect” Persian carpets. Following the religious line, when God created the earth he saw that it was good – not perfect. (For the record, I don’t subscribe to any organised religion.)
      I only came into woodworking about three years ago and have not achieved perfection in anything I have made yet. When I make something I make it as good as I can, secure in the knowledge that if I make another it will be better unless I find different mistakes to make.

      1. Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Hough, we, as a species, are a creative and inventive lot. You’ll discover there are an infinite number of new “Mistakes” to be made and an equally interesting number of ways to discover how (if necessary) to correct them.

  3. “Don’t obsess for the approval of others!” Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard, and not just for woodworking. I wish I had started following it a lot sooner.

  4. I have similar problems. It is difficult for me to decide how to spend the limited time that I have to devote to this hobby. To make matters worse, I’ve become more of a tool collector than a woodworker. Now I find myself believing that a $1000 dollar black and green floating tenon machine will make a difference.
    I kid myself that I am “setting up shop for retirement when I will have more time”.
    How do you decide what to do with your time????

    1. Dan, I don’t know you at all, so take my “advice” in light of that fact. I have nothing to go on, other than your post.
      But I do know this: you need to start living in the now. Do not live in the future. You are alive (and well, I hope) today. Tomorrow, you might be dead.

      I find great inspiration in a particular passage in the Bible, where Jesus says “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (from Matthew 6:25-34 for those who want to read the whole passage)

      Even for the secular world, this quote could give great inspiration and advice. If we constantly strive for the next thing, we’ll never have time to enjoy what we just got. “If you do not have time to do it right (in the first place), when will you have the time to do it over?” – John Wooden.
      If you are hoarding tools, my advice is to put EVERYTHING aside exept a saw or two (no more!), a hand plane, 2-3 chisels, a hammer, marking knife, sliding bevel and a square. Then get a 3 foot (about 1 meter) long piece of oak 4S, 10mm or so in thickness. Chop it in two pieces. Make dovetail joints and join the two boards. Saw off the joint leaving 1cm on either side. Set the offcut aside, rinse and repeat till you run out of material.
      Now you don’t need that jig-thingy. You will (probably) never be a manufacturer, so making a dovetailed joint is not time-critical. If that was the case, get a finger joint jig and go to town. Not as nice looking, but fast and efficient. If that is your thing.

      I see this “living in the future” all over the place, including in the mirrors of my past. Look at the guy restoring and/or rebuilding a glass fibre boat. The boat stays in the garden of drive way for years while the poor lad is working hundreds of hours on the thing. When he finally gets it on water, he’s sick and tired of the whole thing and/or spots the new and shiny thingamajig moored at the dock…
      He should’ve gotten something he could’ve USED while he restored it.

      I have fallen into a similar trap. I will not do that again. Therefore, I enjoy my shop time. I make. As a father of two girls aged 2 and 4, the shop time is very limited. I have some machines to do donkey work, so that I can focus on tasks I enjoy.

      Go make! 🙂 And toss the brochures…

    2. Dan. you have stopped being a woodworker. You are also not a collector. You are a hoader with more money than good sense.

    3. Dan – decide what’s important to you and what really matters, what brings you joy – then aim for that. As for buying tools and yet more tools I have limited resources and ask myself “Can I justify getting it? Do I need it or just want it?”

    4. Dan, my brother was similarly waiting until he retired. Cancer took him at 65. Every day I think of him and I say to myself “I have life today where he doesn’t; get on and do something with it”.

      1. My group says “one day at a time” and
        Worrying about the worst?
        The worst never happens

    5. Hello Dan, Hope you are well. I contemplated this for a while because it’s important to me to feel I am helping you with your question. I am preparing a blog post because you are not the only one feeling as you do.

    6. I also respect handwork but
      I love to make things
      I guess I am a maker
      Sorry to admit For this column but
      The domino is fantastic
      How’s this: it gives me more time
      To make things for others
      I love woodworking

  5. It is a very interesting article with a nice point of view. But, a real perfectionnist is in fact an obsessive person. I know someone who will not sleep for days because of a simple mistake of any nature. When you speak to him and say the word perfectionnist, he simply laugh and say you have no idea … it is a mental disorder.

    But yes, a self proclaimed perfectionnist is a badly place ego. We all need to learn humility! But most of all, learning comes with mistakes… and plenty of it!

    1. Ah! I am in no way speaking about a mental disability or disorder here, Marc, just those who think that they are too ‘special’ to accept that they can make a mistake when in reality it is little more just being too proud.

  6. The only approval that means anything to me is that of another woodworker who has an idea of just how difficult it is to do what I do. Those that do not work with their hands I find most often to not see the little flaws I see. Being judged by someone that does not work with their hands means little to me but the huge smile that comes when I deliver a piece is priceless. I get major satisfaction when a project is finished. It is the only one like it in the world most likely. There is also the satisfaction of making something for someone that is not capable and likely never will be. We are a very small part of the population whether we tend to be perfectionists or not. We are the most critical of our own work I think. Seems most others are quite happy to have what we make. Then again, making one off projects never puts us in a place were they are all well done. I am ok with that. At least I DID something! Not sitting on a couch drinking beer and eating potato chips……..

  7. Paul, I totally agree with you. For me perfection is doing my best. I generally know what the so called “perfection” for each specific part of the project is considered to be. Some days of a project are better than other days. And some parts turn out better than other parts. But in the end I know that I have done the best that I could. The good thing is that from every imperfection in a project I have learned something and I will apply that learning to my next project. Thanks.

  8. In the actual making of hand tooled woodworking we are all Intimately familiar with every imperfection we have made. I often am very disappointed in these errors in the moment and then step back and look at the finished piece to see that it almost disappears in the totalIt’s of the piece and get rave reviews from non woodworkers not versed in the intimacy of the work. And while I do not suffer my Woodworking imperfections easily l have given up on the perfect piece as l don’t think it exists in reality. To do otherwise would diminish the joy I get from making these hand wrought pieces

    1. Agree totally. I too am my own harshest critic.

      Last weekend, I replaced the garbage disposal in our kitchen sink. The new adapter plate with the company name embossed on it got twisted very slightly off center with the final tightening the disposal unit. My first instinct was to start fussing around to twist it back, but my wife convinced me to leave well enough alone. She was right, if someone else had done the installation, I never would have seen this tiny imperfection and twisting it back I would run the risk of messing up the seal requiring a complete disassembly and reinstallation.

      I’ve learned the hard way that too much fussing can make a problem worse and that stepping back and looking at your work with fresh eyes is often the best approach.

      1. Oh, how my mind went back to a very rare saw where I wanted the split nuts to line up as near as possible and I turned the one nut the smallest fraction only to hear the handle crack and perfection was totally lost in the irreparable break, Al. Hence the adage, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!”

  9. Perfection is a human construct, and the definition of flawless is subjective. If it is acceptable to what the “creator” strives for then it is perfect to them. God does not build in straight lines. But in all creation, He said, “It is good.” Each creation from a maker is an expression of their soul. When it is finished, it is surveyed, and a satisfied maker says good…perfect.

  10. Great post! I have often thought about this very topic myself.

    I must admit that I often consider what others might think of my work and that often drives me to strive for perfection. I use it as a measure for work, even when I know that it is likely to never be seen, and as such, it is a tool that motivates me and helps me to focus. But have learned that I need to recognize when I am taking such behavior too far.

    Up to a certain point, this is all a normal and even healthy part of human nature. Afterall, if we cared nothing at all about the opinions of others, we could end up in a state of self delusional narcissism. On the other hand, there is a reason why “pride” is not only one of the seven deadly sins but also called the “father of all sins”. Taken to extremes, we end up placing ourselves above others, and from there, we can self-justify all sorts of bad behavior.

    As in all things, balance is the key. A healthy degree of pride in one’s craft is powerful motivator, but it always needs to be kept in check.

    1. Haha yeah, best is the enemy of good was the mantra I discovered a few years back and I live to it now. It has set me free from my ego and the interesting thing is that in letting go I produce better work and more of it!
      Not aiming for perfection doesn’t equate to sloppy work, just evaluating what’s important and putting the energy there.

  11. Thanks Paul. When things aren’t fitting as nice as I would like, I remind myself that it’s not like you are going to knock on my door for a pop inspection. My wife is thrilled when I make her something and wouldn’t know the mistakes unless I point them out.

  12. You know i have bought furniture at ikea that has lasted until i moved it into my other daughters room and ripped itself apart. Or a couple years at most. Yet I have this old chest of drawers that my dad bought used at a thrift store in the 1950s. I have no idea how old it is but the dovetailed drawers look like they were cut with a disston rip saw. There are gaps and other parts of the chest are “boarded”. Yet it has survived multiple moves of several hundred miles that I know of and who knows where else it has traveled to. Has been in the back of pickup trucks and moving trucks, up and down stairs. Dropped. It doesn’t look as “perfect” as the ikea furniture. And yet, here it is. In one piece.

  13. A timely piece Paul. I have been thinking and fighting with myself about this recently during construction of a coffee and end tables.
    I had to learn to accept myself and my skills then move forward without letting perfectionism stop my forward progress.

    As the old saying goes; Perfection is fear while excellence is freedom.

  14. Sometimes the goal is just to do your personal best. I strived to teach this to my kids as they grew up. Take pride in what you have accomplished even if you are not the best of the contest winner. I know people that are so obsessed with perfection that they end up never being able to even start a project let alone finish one.

    1. I liked when Paul had people send in their first dovetails and he critiqued them live on Youtube. There was one that had gaps and not square etc, and Paul kindly gave advice to improve and them told the guy that it would still last 100 years or so. Thats what we have to remember as well while learning is the utility! If we make benches and tool chests and totes etc first, even if the joints look far from perfect they will last for their intended purpose if done right.

  15. Oh, this is a good one – an issue we all struggle with judging from what are left of woodworking magazines, their online entities, and the sales materials all over the place. We seem to strive for “perfection” in all we do … as if that was even possible? It was a british phrase that really made me stop and think – “Perfect is the enemy of Proper” or rather, ‘good or good enough’. Striving to make all our edge tools shiny and comforming, our joints gap free and other aspects of our life perfect can be a losing proposition. I have noticed just how many time Mr. Sellers has said “Perfect” on camera, and I chuckle as I understand what he means I believe. This is after all the man who has told us all numerous times, “It’s not what we make, but HOW we make it” so I do believe if anybody knows the difference it would be him. We can always strive …… Please keep up the good work and stay safe!

  16. Paul I thank you for you wonderful words, sharing your art, your skill and passion with the world. Nobody is perfect, everyone does and will make mistakes. What makes the person is how you respond to them. I watched your splined mitre joint video at breakfast today. It wasn’t perfect at first, but how you calmly investigated every part to identify the problem was awe inspiring. No it wasn’t magic but you demonstrated that passion for the wood and project to get it just so. I learnt more from that than the rest of the very informative video.
    I have spent 50 years of my life trying to please others. This led to an emotionally abusive marriage and doing job that I didn’t really care for. I have now learned that love of self and pride in you and what you do is the most important thing. Paul you have taught me that passion and desire and got me back into something I love. Once again thank you and long may you enjoy your passion.

  17. A friend of mine who was a metal fabricator gave me the best advice about building that i have ever received. Put simply, shoot for perfect. What you get will work. That has fit any endeavor I have under taken.

  18. Excellent ain’t perfect. If you drill down far enough nothing is perfect in the universe. There are always irregularities. Excellent meets or exceeds standards. Going beyond that is wasteful ego.

  19. >Don’t obsess for the approval of others! It’s not an exam!

    I think I may write this quote in letters six feet tall on the walls of my shop.

    Thanks, Paul!

  20. Three deadly p’s:

    Perfectionism. Procrastination. Paralysis.

    Nothing wrong with setting perfection as your goal. But never let the ideal drive out the good enough, or you’ll never complete anything. Over time, as your skill increases, you can raise your personal definition of “good enough”… but the mark of a craftsman is as much in understanding what doesn’t need to be reworked as in knowing how to rework or how to avoid reworking.

  21. Paul – What a fantastic piece of writing and philosophy.

    It reminded me of an occasion when I was making a corner cabinet out of very well seasoned and repurposed oak for my son. I was unhappy that there was a slight gap in two places. One was in a dovetail joint and another in a through mortise. He told me that it was fine as in his words “it shows it was hand made”. His face lit up when I delivered it to his new house and he smiled when it was fitted into the corner.

    Everytime I see the cabinet it reminds me of his smile as sadly he was taken from us almost two years ago this weekend in a road traffic accident at just 33. So those gaps no longer matter as I know it gave him pleasure for the years he looked at and used the cabinet.

    I also agree with Vidar – Live for today not tomorrow as tomorrow may never come.

  22. To me, the joy is in the job itself. When it’s done what is there to do? I always do the best work I can do, otherwise, why bother doing it?
    It always gets to a point where something is not quite as you would like it, something small, and you say that’s OK, it’s good enough. Is it worth doing the whole process over again? No. And in the end, it’s never noticeable anyway.

  23. Paul,
    I enjoy your articles and your philosophy about a person’s work, I have a couple of California bishop’s chairs I made close to 17 years ago now. The joinery is through tenons and there are gaps of 3/16th inches in them filled with glued in wedges sanded over. I still use the chairs and they are just as sound as when I built them. Kind of reminds me of the saying “just how flat is flat enough?” What you may see as rough or sloppy cut joints may be the best that the worker could do at the time. My mortice and tenon joints are a bit better now although I still need to use wedges to fill in gaps on dovetails (and mortice and tenon joints) occasionally, but smaller wedges now.

  24. I have just read some of the most well thought out and written feelings and opinions on perfection. Well done and PERFECT gentlemen

  25. Reminds me of what William Cumpiano, the man who wrote the “Bible” of guitar making, about “excellence”, it gets in the way, it can not be conjured by persuing it, it burns you out, it is the enemy of “good”.

  26. The pursuit of perfection is a lifetime goal. At least, it has been for me. I watch you make joint after joint and in spite of my years of working with wood, I admire that quest. I see that you also work for it in every project. Keep it up.

  27. When I started on dovetails, I decided that each and every DT box would be put into service. Some are in the house and look pretty good. Others are in the garage and hold everything from extension cords to rasps, files, and batteries. The garage boxes definitely have some flaws, but when I look at fifteen of them of different sizes sitting together on the shelves, they look pretty good. Poplar, pine, and oak. I can even trace my progress in making dovetails.

    But, I rate all of them as 100 year boxes. They work very well. They should be around for a long time.

  28. I went to Turkey last year and I saw some ladies weaving carpets with very intricate patterns. I was told that every handmade carpet has several flaws in them because it was not possible to make them perfect by hand. I would defy anyone looking at these exquisite examples of craftsmanship to spot any flaws they were to my mind perfect.

  29. I tried to leave a long nice comment and I even screwed that up. However, at the end of the day I always say that I did the best that I did do. The next morning I get up and try again. Sometimes I miss and I think that I have done a perfect thing but find out that I drew or marked a line in the wrong place. I often look around and see perfection in nature. I look in the mirror and see a work in progress. Thank you Paul for causing us to consider our lives and the world in which we live.

  30. In my freshman year of school (1969-70)
    I made a rocking chair as a Christmas gift for my mother. It is square, has not nearly enough take to the back, back slats badly positioned.
    Looking at it now here on my front porch I know it is an ugly chair. So many mistakes I made not knowing better. Still my mother (rest her soul) loved it.
    I sit on it and rock and feel close to her and think”perfect”.

  31. When I was an apprentice to an Ecuadorian cabinet maker in Manhattan in the 1970’s, a man who learned his trade in using hand tools alone, I would stress over getting all the joints perfect in a shop full of machine tools. Luis counseled me with the adage of a sage. He would say “Ray no one gets it perfect, but you must know how to fix the faults”, and he taught me a hundred ways to fix the faults. His alternate way of conveying this wisdom was “…don’t expect to make something perfect you cannot fix”. I have never forgotten this wisdom because it set the scale of expectations of my entire life.

  32. Thank you for all of your guidance. Perfection is very troublesome for me. I watch one of your videos and then try it myself, and the result is so not perfect that I am discouraged and I give up. I want my work to be ‘more’ perfect. Lately, I just keep trying but I don’t think I’ll ever reach the point where I can call something perfect when I see my flaws. But I watch your videos and get re-inspired, so thank you. Take care, Jim

  33. Thank you Paul. Thank you for sharing your craft so that others might be inspired to experience the calming wonder of woodworking. I am one of those. You, through your woodworking master classes on YouTube, taught me how to cut my first dovetail. Through no fault of yours, it cut it backwards. The dovetail angle was open instead of closed. Dyslexia is a bitch. I laughed at myself and never made that mistake again.
    My peers at work, I’m a local paramedic in Southern Oregon, noticed how I had changed once I started woodworking. It’s the best stress release and coping mechanism I’ve yet discovered. Several of my peers have since taken up the craft, saying, “you inspired me.”
    Your love for your craft and willingness to share it with others has opened the creative door for countless.

    Humbly and respectfully,

    Scott Darland

  34. Thanks Paul.

    I grew up with a dad who is an idea guy, not a craftsman. If and when he made something it was as a last resort. Measurements were always “close enough”.

    As I got out on my own, his idea of “close enough” increasingly bothered me. As my skills grew, I grew more righteously indignant, (silently) striving to be more and more accurate and precise on my projects.

    As time has passed I have started to realize more and more, that these things are universally relative. “flat” to a guy building with wood might be .001 off, though a machinist might find that far from flat. I can see more and more that dad’s “close enough” fits the bill too as just as valid as anybody else’s opinion, as does your exclaiming something as “perfect”.
    In that light I have come to realize that these things equate to “success”, and you should be defining your own meaning of success… maybe it’s building a table that only needs to last for a wedding, or maybe it’s building a chest to last 300 years, or maybe taking the grandkids for a walk to the park.

    Id say the key is to hone in on what success means to us at many levels and then use that awareness to fill our lives with success. I hope you all are, I am trying my best.
    thats close enough to perfect for me

  35. Paul, those were some insightful words. I just got started in the art of woodworking just in the past few months. I find myself going through a project with a fine toothed comb and criticizing myself about every little flaw. When I point them out to my wife she says don’t worry about it they are just fine and give it character. I know I don’t have the experience of so many of you out there but I want that so called “perfectly fitted joint”. I also know this will come with time and I must take the time I have just to enjoy the process and learn for the mistakes.

  36. Thanks Paul. Confirmation of what I have come to accept at a young age. I grew up with the notion that “there is no such thing as perfection”, taught to me by my elders. I came to the conclusion though, that it is an aspiration that drives accuracy, art and every thing else we attempt in life, and that the so called mistakes we make are learning opportunites not flaws in our character.

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