Editor’s note: It would be hard to overstate my gratitude for the work that Joshua Klein has done over the last few years and for the opportunity to have some small hand in that work through Mortise & Tenon Magazine. His unrelenting love of pre-industrial furniture and woodworking has been a breath of fresh air the in woodworking community and I have been eagerly anticipating this installment of the “perfect” series for quite some time. Also, as many of us are on our way (or just about) to Handworks 2017, and as Joshua is currently at home with his wife awaiting the birth of their third child I thought this would be a great way to bring his voice to the gathering as well.
A Perfection that Celebrates Humanity
By: Joshua Klein
The Daily Skep’s “Perfect in 1000 words or less” series has been a fascinating read. Each of the contributing authors brought great insight to the discussion such that it is hard to build on it. I especially appreciated Chris Black’s piece that touched on how the use of an object increases its beauty. Others have helpfully pointed out the humanness of tool marks and how important they are to leave behind as a testimony of creation. Amen and Amen.
If I could add anything to the discussion it would be this: I believe it is impossible to even define “perfect” workmanship without first determining your objective in making. What exactly are you trying to do or accomplish with your work? Are you making an artistic statement or are you simply set out to make a sturdy seat at a campfire? Both projects have very distinct guiding principals and will (probably) yield different results. Both finished products could be considered “perfect” depending on how well they satisfied their goal.
It is simply unfair to impose one set of tolerances on all makers and all objects. If a maker’s goal is to have the most immaculate and uniform result physically possible, then joinery without gaps and engineer-flat table tops become non-negotiables. On the other end of the spectrum, a potter whose fingerprints remain in the final piece consciously celebrates the humanity of the process. So “perfect” must be determined contextually. NASA’s tolerances for perfection are light-years away from a woodworker’s – at least they are from mine.
It is pretty well known among craftspeople that the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi relishes in “imperfections”. This concept recognizes the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” The connection of this idea to the antique collectors’ concept of “patina” is obvious. Antiquarians know that it is through the burn marks, scratches, and honest wear that we read the stories of our ancestors. They tell us the object is more beautiful with these scars.
Although, strictly speaking, patina refers to surface abrasion and discoloration, it is worth pointing out that some of the subtle inconsistencies that some consider “patina” are simply the pre-industrial tolerances and tool marks from the maker. The subtle irregularities of hand planed surfaces are something collectors are trained to spot from across the room.
Because of my own interest in the creative process, I love being able to find the maker’s tool marks on the object. The first time I see an antique piece, I drop to my knees and stick my head underneath. I’m looking for plane tracks, layout lines, and saw cuts. I often see the drawbore pins sawed off inside. There is always so much evidence of the creation process in these areas. When I find a reproduction’s underside sanded smooth (or worse.. varnished!) my heart sinks a little bit. I want to know about the creation of the object. I want to see what the maker went through to bring this piece into the world.
I remember on one occasion looking at a Windsor chair made by George Sawyer. George handed it to me to feel its weight as a group of us were talking. As we were engaged in conversation, someone blurted out, “I see you fondling that chair bottom, Klein!” I had no idea I was rubbing the undulations left from the fore plane. Completely unconsciously, I was seeking to connect with the creation of this chair. It’s that kind of tactile sensation that gives me the feedback I’m after.
So, in my work, “perfection” assumes that there are textures that remain from the tools used to produce it and that there are subtle irregularities and inconsistencies of dimension or squareness. My work will never be mistaken for machine work. Seeing it in person may surprise some of the more uptight and persnickety among us, but I can tell you that it looks like the stuff that came out of pre-industrial shops.
The unrelenting uniformity of machine work is the exact opposite of what I am after in my woodworking. I embrace the natural variation of efficient handwork. When I complete a new piece and stand back to look at it, my eye is looking for the way the raking light catches the texture of the surfaces. I then crouch in for a closer inspection but only after I run my fingertips across the lid can I say with confidence, “Ah. It’s perfect.”