Perfection, not in a day

January is my month to discover and prototype new things. The shop and the rest of life are slow, so taking advantage of this to do something that you may be too busy for otherwise is a good use of the time. But the creation process does not happen in a blinding flash of light with celestial trumpets blaring. Instead, things gradually fall into place, sometimes with a bit of annoyance and pain. 

It helps to have a process. Some of the methods and strategies I use came out of a background in Japanese Martial Arts. As a teenage Judo student, I was taught to examine my technique and progress and strive towards gradual improvements. Unlike cinematic martial arts, students often don’t have spontaneous inspirations or become black belts in a thirty-second montage. Instead, progress is made through good practice and incremental conscious work. Many businesses have heard of this as Kaizen, which has been at the root of many quality improvement techniques.

As I mentioned, I use January and February to investigate and create things I haven’t mastered or want to make. Right out front, I’ll tell you that carvers don’t bury the things that don’t work out. We either keep them around to learn from or use them to heat the house.

The real glaring failures feed the woodstove. Those with “promise” decorate the house. They are imperfect prototypes of things that I later mastered. Some examples are the curves on the little dolphin that are just a bit too chunky or the lovely portrait of the 1900-era trawler not designed with enough negative space for framing.

The prototype combs below are good examples. I set out to make some wooden combs only to discover that lots of the information available were “nuanced.” Some information was not given, some didn’t work for what I wanted, and some were bad when I tried to use it. So after research, I had to take the good information and my insights together and create some prototypes.

Prototypes are not finished products. They are functional but imperfect. Lots still need to be worked out. They say, “OK, it can be done.” Then the tough work of making it pretty and functional starts.

With regard to the combs, some things that needed working out were the wood species, grain orientation, the thickness of the comb along the spine, and the thickness of the teeth. Combs are available in various exotic kinds of wood, and some I have on stock from when I carved quarter boards and transoms for boats in teak and mahogany. But sustainability and material costs are significant issues for me. And I frequently need to apprise customers about how sustainable the products are. Luckily the species I use are both local and sustainable in New England. So my initial choices are cherry and maple. They have the strength and beauty needed.

OK, I have the basics worked out. Now, work on making it pleasing to look at and use. Perfection does not come in a day. We work at it bit by bit.

Sunk Costs Fallacy; Woodcarving and Kaizen

If you studied economics, process engineering, or are an aficionado of popular psychology, you may have heard of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s alive and well in woodcarving too. Sunk costs are costs that you have paid, and that you can’t get back. That’s fine if everything worked out. But if the project just hasn’t been the success you wished for the temptation is to keep on trying to fix it. Sometimes it can’t be fixed. And that’s the sunk cost fallacy: The belief that just one more project revision will allow the Goony Bird Mk 29 to fly.
I knew it well. I called it “just one more cut.” Just one more cut to clean up that angle and the piece will work. Five cuts later, and the chip carving is worse off than when I started. I was most familiar with it from chip carving because some of the balance and symmetry of a piece comes from all cuts sharing similar geometry; one facet out of balance, and the carving looks odd.
I saw it a lot more when I started teaching. I start my courses with chip carving to teach tool control and the importance of sharp tools. An occasional student could not stop cutting and adjusting. Rarely did any of this result in a saved piece of work. I described it to my students at WoodenBoat School as “just one more cut.”
Later, over dinner, an engineer in my class told me about the sunk cost fallacy. As I am writing this, I can think of an eagle that I’ve carved that I’d love to take one more cut on. See, it’s pervasive.
Here’s some advice that I’ve offered before, but applies well here. First, turn the carving bottom for the top; how bad is the perceived defect? Second, using a hand mirror view the work from a variety of perspectives; once again, how bad is the defect? Third, put down the tools and work on something else for the rest of the day. Come back later. Fourth, before over cutting the piece, study the effect of the corrective cut. Fifth, when realizing that you’ve wasted hours mulling over ten-minutes of carving, throw the junk into the kindling bucket and do it right. It’s harder to do the further along the piece is; I’m not telling you that I have no struggles with this.
So, Robert Elliot, a colleague of mine who produces gorgeous Windsor chairs, once chided me that we can’t just throw everything that had a mistake in it away. We have to learn how to fix errors. That’s the value of the first steps, learning what we did wrong, thinking about how it can be fixed, and evaluating if it’s worth fixing. Hopefully, we learn enough that we avoid repeat errors and the frustration of endlessly falling into the sunk cost fallacy.

In Japanese martial arts, and in quality control, this is called Kaizen; a process of continual improvement. Warning, no relfection, no improvement.

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