Martin O’Brien: Perfect in 1000 words or less

Editor’s note: It seems hard to believe that my first conversation with today’s author was over a year ago as I was working through the copy of his article for the first issue of Mortise & Tenon magazine. I was blown away not only by his knowledge, but by his exacting attention to detail. Several months later I was fortunate enough to go visit him at his workshop and that same attention to detail was evident everywhere I looked. I had such a great time visiting and talking about all things woodworking (and some gardening) that I really had to pull myself away when it was time to go. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that he has offered to share his thoughts on the idea of perfection here on the Daily Skep. 



Learning to See: how it can pay to sweat the small stuff

by Martin O’Brien

Sometimes there is only the slightest nuance separating truly fine design and workmanship from something that doesn’t quite measure up. This can be harder to see than one might imagine. In my 30 plus years as a professional woodworker and stone cutter, I’ve fallen short enough times to know. These failures along with dedicated practice have given me the ability to discern these nuances. It has been a blessing, because I keep fastidious clients happy and returning for more commissions. A curse because I see flaws – lots of them – and learning to separate the significant from the insignificant is part of the quest. You would think that years of experience would be enough to produce fine workmanship, but passing of time does not necessarily guarantee this. Experience can actually perpetuate shoddy workmanship, especially if it’s rewarded like it is today. I believe this is because most people have not learned or are not motivated to really open their eyes.

Seeing and appreciating fine workmanship can be cultivated in many ways. For me, the foundation was my parents making me perform chores repeatedly until done properly. As good parents do, they patiently helped by demonstrating and encouraging me to do the job “right’. It was hard for me to appreciate at the time, but when they showed me where I had missed patches of grass with the lawnmower they weren’t being nitpickers. They were exposing me to the basics of fine workmanship.


I finally began to understand this when I was 13 and reading ‘Up From Slavery’, the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee University. After being freed from slavery as a child by the Emancipation Proclamation, he, like many, entered a life of poverty and struggle. The book is his account of triumph through hard work and education so that he could help others, and what inspired me most was a short passage where he describes painstakingly sweeping a floor and the unanticipated benefits of a job well done. Because the message was so clear to me, I consider it one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Yes, even more important than Krenov’s books. As un-romantic as it sounds, my motivation towards fine craftsmanship, towards a job truly well done, started not with a hammer and chisel, but with a broom.

The passage I’m referring to is in chapter 3, entitled ‘The Struggle for an Education’. Here, Washington dreams of attending Hampton Institute (Hampton University today), a school he describes being established for people of his race. After his formative years working in the West Virginia coal mines and scraping together a very rudimentary education, he sets out for Hampton, but runs out of money in Richmond, Virginia where after days without food, he gets work unloading cargo ships. He sleeps under a boardwalk so he can save money. Finally arriving at Hampton, he’s broke, malnourished and dirty, ashamed that he looks more like a bum than a student.

The faculty ignores him, probably hoping he’ll leave. But he stays and watches for hours as other candidates are admitted until finally the head teacher looks at him and tells him to clean the adjoining classroom. Washington is at the end of his rope, yet seems to relish the challenge, realizing if he manages to spotlessly clean this room, he might have a chance at admission, an education and a hopeful future. The way he describes meticulously sweeping and dusting the classroom, three and four times over is a story of a man on fire, wielding the broom as if the rest of his life depended on it. He finds a cloth and wipes every square inch of woodwork and furniture multiple times. He moves cupboards and turns over desks so that no surface is left untouched. When the head teacher inspects the corners and windowsills, rubbing her handkerchief everywhere, she is unable to find even a particle of dust. She says thinly, “I guess you will do to enter this institution.”


Washington refers to cleaning that classroom as his ‘entrance exam.’ Since first reading this, I cannot use a broom or shop-vac without thinking of him. What began to motivate me was the realization that someone might appreciate the attention to detail I lavish on a swept floor, or any job, and that this would allow me to advance as Washington did. Although people joke about how clean my shop is, sweeping is actually an exercise in seeing details and training myself to see the difference between somewhat clean and really clean. Ultimately this also translates over to discerning the nuances of joinery, proportions, color and texture.


The other lesson Dr. Washington’s example taught me is that examining and studying detail in a field unrelated to ours will allow us to come back to our craft with sharper eyes. It’s healthy to step outside of our world once in a while. One way I’ve found is through the study of calligraphy. The shapes of letters, something I had never really “seen”, suddenly helped me appreciate shapes in woodworking. Proportion in letter spacing helped me better understand proportion in furniture design. By drawing various letterforms, I gained greater ability to band saw curves free hand. Something I struggled with previously. The processes of brush lettering, made me much more skillful at handling a brush in all aspects coloring and finishing wood. All of these examples represent unexpected benefits from this exercise. I’ve found that the skills of one craft or profession are easily transferable to another.

There are countless places to find opportunities to develop your eye and your passion for fine workmanship. Nature, music, and sports to name a few, can provide pleasant surprises that can be taken back to the workbench. Just make sure to actively seek them and then be open enough to accept a eureka moment when it happens. Don’t be ashamed if it’s something as humble as a broom.



I also recommend reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. There is a video version of the book that can be seen on You Tube in multiple episodes. They start with this one.


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