I have written on the illusion of perfection before now. How in some fields perfection is a number, a calculation; it follows that in some fields an outcome can indeed seem to be perfect, or at least it might seem perfect at the time and then for a period too. The Swedish inventor of a perfected solution for carrying things from place to place and storing things like food can no longer claim perfection in his invention that went on to choke every corner of the earth and pollute even the purest of intent. Surely plastic still has many redeeming qualities too – those plastic pots that arrive one inside the other in lots of fifty are reused many times – lightweight too! But I am not talking of this kind of perfectness. Many things make life better and don’t end up in the landfill and the ocean deeps. The wood I use and make for life don’t follow such a path. MDF and pressed fibreboard goods eventually do.
I try to imagine how many times I have surprised myself by perfection in my work. I sweep my shop and see the order of something completed and though I might not say it out loud I often say in my head, “Perfect!” That first shaving from my plane when just sharpened gets the same exclamation. So many things deserve such praise but what of the ill-fitting joint with the hairline gap and the hairline crack by the outer pin of a dovetail recess? What of the scarcely visible grain flaw when the fourth coat of varnish dries and shines but exposes a missed spot that could have, no, should have, been scraped a stroke more? Three joints aligned with one another perfect a breadboard end with a solidity that will last for two centuries of daily use and more. Great joy and wellbeing came with the making. Serotonin encouraged the gut in that undefined fourth dimension only making seems apt to give. A day of making, no two, and then three and a fourth too, filled your mind with an indescribable loveliness. All seemed flawless in the book-matched unison of heart and soul and mind as the halves melded seamlessly together within the framework of your working. The experience was so incredibly multidimensional you were breathless at times, as the excitement gushed back and forth. You had to stop from time to time to absorb the purest of delights as your hands traced their fingertips over the parts, like a parent the parchment skin of their newborn in their arms.
I have been in this place many times in my making life. There is indescribable happiness in such moments that can send tears to your eyes and it is this that few can know and speak of. Your hands fashioned something that hitherto did not exist and it came from a handful of tools and a human hand and mind. The three joints hold well a perfect flatness to the end of the tabletop. You look at the edges of the mortises and you see an undulation you didn’t see moments before because of your delight. You think for a delete button, but none exists. You look for a layer in the toolbar, but that too has not been created. You want to hide the mistake because another will come and point out your flawed work, you will seem, well, more human, less super. Oh, the rejection! There must be a matching filler somewhere, surely. Shall I make an inlay to cover the unevenness? Do not let that enemy rob you of the joy you felt in the challenges of making. Does the unevenness diminish the longevity of your wonderful working? No! Go back to the school days, the mocking days by friends, a rogue teacher, the disappointment days and the bad results when examples were made of those who did no more than judge and criticise. What of the bully days, the aggression days, the ways others manipulated life for an outcome and you will find the hidden spheres where we lost childhood and become the man-pleaser and the woman-pleaser and the constant striving for that illusive approval and acceptance by peers. Take a look at life back there where nothing you did seemed good enough for others and you tried so hard to please them. It’s no small thing to put an end to those influential days present still in your current work. A day comes when we stop striving for the approval of another in what we make and we can be the true artist we are. This condition of settledness defies our past and we settle for the very best we can do in our working. This is peace!
Gaps, an over-shot cut, a missed mark by a minute margin in a momentary lack of concentration. These are of no consequence to the honest man and the true crafting artisan. The joy in the working should never be destroyed by such things. Never point out your disappointed point in a project to another, for most will never know or understand that of which you might speak. Remember that joyfulness in the saw’s stroke sliding by the new dovetail and the chisel’s paring to the knifewall. Don’t forget it, hold to it, record your happiness in it, in the privacy of your wonderful mind. Concentrate on these things. Every so often, I am surprised by perfection in my work as if something happened more by accident than intent. For me, it is more the rarity than the norm. Such surprises are the gemstones of making, but then there are the diamonds yet to be cut and these come only in the making of what you craft. They are woven into every piece you make. Happiness, joyfulness, silences, sensing, texturing, the fitting of a well-made joint. These are the diamonds to remember the reflecting facets of refracted light, they’re the colour in our making day to day.