This entry needs little introduction. The same could be said for its author. Over the past few months I have sought out woodworkers, writers, tool makers, and other people who are passionate about our craft and have asked them to write about the idea of perfection in 1000 words or less.
Today’s guest writer Christopher Schwarz is a craftsman par excellence, as well as a researcher of rare and arcane woodworking texts. As a historian, writer and aesthetic anarchist he has made an indelible mark on the world of woodworking, but there is something more. When I contacted him about writing for The Daily Skep he agreed to do so on the condition that I would write an entry for the Lost Art Press blog in return. I believe this is indicative not only of collaborative spirit that Chris has fostered among a new generation of woodworkers and craftspeople, but also (and more importantly) of how his work has encouraged, empowered and enabled many of us to write our own stories rather than living into the narratives that others would write for us.
And so, without further comment…
On Perfection, Urine & Trees
I don’t give much thought to the idea of perfection because it’s not something people are capable of. In fact, we’re the obstacle to it.
When I was about 13, my father sat next to me on a Florida beach to administer the lecture on the birds and the bees. First he asked me if I knew how babies were made. I nodded my head. (It was obvious and something I’d learned in the fourth grade – the female drinks the male’s urine and is therefore knocked up.)
My father explained how reproduction was a beautiful thing. And as he was talking, a large wave swallowed our legs, sucking the sand around us back to the ocean. A small eddy formed to my left, and as the current flowed back to the sea, my dad stopped in mid-sentence, and I forgot all about Virginia Bedell with a Big Gulp of pee-pee.
The receding sea water had cut three perfect arcs in the sand. They were just a few inches long but were like hearing – for the first time ever – three clear voices in harmony. My dad and I forgot about the sex lecture.
“You’ll never see anything like that again,” he said. And he was partly right.
Every time I visit the beach, I attempt to reproduce that experience. I sit with my legs flat on the sand and use my fingers to gouge a valley, encouraging the ocean to come in and show me those three arcs again. But it’s no use.
I long ago concluded that perfection is never the result of human effort. The only time I have glimpsed it is when time and nature intersect.
Think about the trees in your neighborhood. If they are like mine, they have been disfigured by the electric utility to prevent them from snaring the overhead wires. Or a tree service has cut the branches so they grow around a house. Or the owner has tried to force them into some more aesthetically pleasing shape, such as a torpedo or pelican.
Now think about the trees you have seen in the forest. Whether they are sprouting, thriving or rotting they have shapes that are almost always beautiful. Even an untrained eye can tell if the canopy or bole has been tinkered with by humans, spoiling the natural shape.
So what does this have to do with woodworking? Plenty, I think. Suffering over surface perfection to the point that you’re chasing tear-out that only you are bothered by, for example, is not productive. Yes, do your best work. Always. But spend more time on the joinery and the form because those are far more important after you surrender the piece to the world.
Once time gets its claws into your work, it must be strong enough to endure abuse you never anticipated. It must be beautiful enough to avoid being kicked to the curb. Your “perfect” surface will be made “more perfect” by 10,000 hands, scratches and big meals.
Man-made objects – no matter if they were made by James Krenov, Sam Maloof or Cub Scout Troop #34 – are never perfect to my eye when new. But time’s effect on our best endeavors allows those things to approach the perfection of a tree in the forest, a rock on a cliff or a switchback in a river as seen from the sky.
The closest I have come to seeing perfection is the H.O. Studley tool cabinet. Yes, the cabinet itself is impressive. But what makes it amazing to me are his tools inside. His Stanley No. 1 plane, for example, is unlike any other. The blade is almost used up, but it is sharp and ready to go. The tote and knob have been worn to where they are down to bare rosewood, but they are smooth and begged to be touched.
Perhaps after another 100 years of use, the tool will someday interrupt a birds-and-the-bees conversation and present an indelible image of what is possible if we do our best and let time do the rest.
— Christopher Schwarz