“A state of perfection is a state of perpetual obligation to perfection, ritually solemnized… When men [sic] embrace such a state they are not professing themselves perfect already, but declaring their will to strive after perfection.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas, ‘Summa Theologia’
Some good advice I once received from a friend was to avoid turning forms on a lathe until I had some sense of myself as capable of good work in building furniture in general. Square things, sturdy things, useful things and pleasing things are a challenge in themselves. Learning how to make rectilinear forms both soundly and beautifully is perhaps a lifetime of work, and the danger of jumping too soon to the lathe is that “good” in a little of everything prevents excellence in anything. The contrary is also true for turners who wish to build things that are square.
And so I worked and waited and while I wouldn’t say I am yet a master furniture builder by any stretch, I decided it was time to work in the round. The wisdom of the aforementioned advice became immediately apparent, however, the first time I put gouge to wood. This felt like a different thing entirely, and yet, my hands somehow knew how to ease the bevel of the gouge into the spindle. The skew chisel is another matter, but the principle is not wholly foreign.
You do have to set aside some ego. The first few spindles will look juvenile and ragged from catches here and there. Three inch diameters become two inch diameters as they are leveled off for another try. Mysteriously, a curious alchemy of hand, eye, tool and wood begin to produce something better each time and at some point you feel the difference between making something and making something that might almost be called “good”.
If perfection is a fickle thing in cabinet making, it is even more elusive on the lathe. Even now I can see that (like all good things) this work requires time, discipline and humility. An “obligation to perfection, ritually solemnized” by chucking up another block and trying again. This is a spiritual discipline just as it is a physical one.
I am as yet a poor turner, but an eager student. I am exhilarated when I clean a bead up with the skew that shines without catching. I can see the beauty in a bird’s beak and filet even if mine are clumsy. I understand why this is addictive and I am beginning to see what it will require of me: practice and patience.