The Woodcarver and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

If you studied economics, process engineering or are an enthusiast of popular psychology, you might have heard of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s alive and well in woodcarving too. Sunk costs are costs you have paid and can’t get back. 

That’s fine if everything works out. But if the project just hasn’t been the success you wished for, the temptation is to keep 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 the fallacy well. I called it “just one more cut.” The piece will work with one more cut to clean up that angle. Five cuts later, 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 come from all cuts sharing similar geometry; if one facet is out of balance, 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 write this, I can think of an eagle I’ve carved that I’d love to take one more cut on. See, it’s pervasive.

Here’s some advice I’ve offered that 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 various 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, study the effect of the corrective cut before you do it. What are the chances of that cut fixing the problem? 
  • Fifth, when realizing 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 scolded me that we can’t just throw everything that had a mistake away. We have to learn how to fix errors. That’s the value of the first steps, knowing what we did wrong, thinking about how it can be fixed, and evaluating if it’s worth fixing. Hopefully, we will learn enough to avoid repeat errors and the frustration of endlessly falling into the sunk cost fallacy. 

Fake Craft

Recently I’ve noticed that there is a new online marketing ploy. “Craft” vendors are placing ads that state they are retiring their entire “Great Waves” or other collections. They sacrifice profits to clear this valuable inventory as they approach retirement or other significant life events. Pardon me while I laugh. I suspect the items were mass-produced in China or some other offshore location precisely for this commercial maneuver. These days it’s easy enough and cheap to create a folksy online shop on any online marketing platform, present yourself as a handcraft creator and sell via social media ads.
Craft, by and large, thanks to online marketing, has become formulaic in the online marketing world. But the concept of the craft itself is on the cusp of great things; if you go looking in the offline world. More than ever, there is a wide variety of items available.
Almost every weekend, there are shows where craftspeople display their work for sale. You only have to get off your computer, get to the fair, and rendezvous with them.
You can feel the textile, weight, texture, and weave at the weaver’s booth. You can have an honest discussion with the woodworker about the choice of wood. And actually, sample the cheese you are interested in.

I’ve struggled with whether I would or would not open an online shop. At this point, the Magic Eightball suggests that the answer is no. In part, I am worried about the competition. No, I’m not concerned about the competition in terms of quality. But many online crafts seem involved in a race to a pricing basement. As a carver, I have a pretty good idea of what materials, labor, and overhead will be on the simpler products I produce; spoons, spatulas, and such. These lack the labor intensity, research, and special skills required for a ship portrait. A spoon is a straightforward product. But the pricing and the lack of unique form on many “handmade spoons” I see online lead me to suspect that they are machine-made to look handmade.

Deal with craftspeople, not online robots that sell fake craft. For example, talk to a potter about their pottery and a jeweler about that earring.

Hair Sticks

My wife enjoyed the hair combs I’ve been making but wanted some hair sticks for her long hair. So I went into the shop this afternoon and whipped these up for her as an early Valentine’s Day present. In making them, I was influenced by 19th-century Japanese originals I had seen. While not slavishly following their lines, I let them guide the outcome.

I used my favorite native New England cherry for the wood, sanded to 400 grit, and finished them with tung oil.

My wife has promised to let me photograph her using the sticks next time we go out for dinner.

Moving forward on combs

Well, we are almost out of the prototype phase with the combs. We have broken many, learned a lot about finishing them, and experimented with shapes, tooth size, and spacing. I’ve discovered that sanding to four hundred grit is sufficient for a smooth feel.

I am using food-grade tung oil for the finish. Right now, they glisten because the oil is still soaking in. Tung gives a soft, lustrous, and durable scent-free finish once cured. The oil I am using is not the same as in teak oil formulas or other finishing products. It is just pure oil without any additives. However, I am also testing other food-safe alternatives. My final choice must be non-allergenic and protect the wood. Right away, any number of food oils might spring to mind, but as in finishing spoons, you do not want to use anything that might turn rancid.

The small designs were added using my laser engraver. Using the laser, I can also add names on the combs.

My next post on combs will be the last as I develop these ideas into actual projects.

More Combs

Why break a perfectly fine comb? Well, to see if it can take some punishment.

January being my month for prototyping and study, I eventually settled on combs as a project. If you view many Youtube videos about making a comb, it appears to be just a one-two-three proposition, and there you have it. But, unfortunately, what seems to be straightforward is not. as is often the case, things can become a little more complicated than they first appear. Yes, anyone can make a comb using the video as a guide. How practical, durable, and effective that comb will be may be an issue, though.

At a show, one year couple came to my booth, and while the wife was picking out spoons, the husband was flexing them to see how sturdy they were. Luckily none snapped, but I was alerted to a tendency of some people to absent-mindedly bend and twist woodenware. Since then, I’ve designed the shafts of spoons to be graceful but strong. With combs, I’ve adopted a similar practice and put a bit of effort into testing the structural abilities of some of the prototypes to bend. Can you still break it? Sure! But I’ll know that much more than average effort was required.

The key to the added strength is making the comb’s spine thicker. It turns out that this also aids in making it easier to grip and use the comb and improves the appearance. You get all this from the cracks and crunches of breaking an otherwise good comb.

Why does a wooden comb need a thicker spine? Because the strength of the comb teeth requires that the wood grain flows the length of the tooth; be perpendicular to the body. Too thin a spine, and the lovely piece of wood cracks.
I am still making prototypes. There is a bit more to test out, and time spent at this stage on structural concerns means fewer issues later in making the combs. My wife has agreed to test the product but insists that the drawings I’m working on of hairsticks for long hair get a priority on the work schedule. There is a certain amount of compersion, a joy in seeing my wife get pleasure from using the comb I made, that exceeds anything possible if the comb had merely been purchased.

Combs of wood, ivory, bone, and shell were probably the origin of good grooming. A good comb can shape, hold, or groom hair into shapes. Combs are found in archeological sites going back thousands of years, but most of us never give more than a casual thought to something essential to beauty.
Like a spoon, a comb is something essential; its utility is valued, but its aesthetics makes it a pleasure to use.

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.

Whittling and Woodcarving

It is not on any list that I hand out to students. But E.J. Tangerman’s Whittling and Woodcarving got me started as a woodcarver. My rather ragged copy is a 1962 Dover edition of the 1936 publication. By today’s standards, it’s light on actual technique and long on ideas and illustrations. But the book launched a craftsman journey and changed my life.

Today there are easily a dozen titles I’d recommend to starting students for better-illustrated books with better descriptions of techniques. But in 1968, this was what was available to me for the grand price of two dollars.

My tool kit was that book, a pocket knife, a small boxed set of Millers Falls carving tools, a Speedball fishtail gouge, a C clamp, and an improvised carver’s hook that allowed me to carve at the kitchen table. With this little kit, I carved walnut trays, candlesticks, wooden jewelry, my first eagle, and many other pieces. Then, in the fall of 1969, an Ottawa crafts gallery took a chance on me, and I sold my first pieces. Soon after, my eagle was included in a gallery show with other carvers. I was on my way.

Carving is rarely trendy, and If I wanted more attention, I might have stuck to painting ( which I was also experimenting with at that time). I think carving matched my temperament better. But I had no premonitions that the tiny kit of tools would grow into an entire workshop. Or that carving wood could become such an essential part of my life.

Stocking Stuffers

These cherry spoons and spatulas are stocking stuffers for my daughter-in-law and her mother. The cherry is our native Massachusetts stock with its distinctive coloration and grain. Making these allowed me to use the laser engraver to personalize the traditionally made treen.
I love combining the traditional with the high-tech. In this case, the combination works well.


This is the time of year I am busy stacking firewood and preparing balks of wood for future use as cutting boards, and bowls. This fall, I am particularly busy preparing bowl and cutting board stock from a supply of ash that came my way. I precut the balks to my preferred size, measure the moisture content ( most of these are about 14 percent), paint the ends to reduce checking, and carefully store the wood to allow plenty of air circulation. I’ll periodically check the moisture over the following months. I won’t start serious work with them until they are at about seven percent moisture. When the humidity is proper, I’ll resaw the wood meant for cutting boards to about an inch in thickness and let it set for a while, as it loses additional moisture exposed by resawing the wood. After that, I’ll plane it to about 3/4 of an inch, joint straight edges, and glue up blanks for the cutting boards. After the blanks are prepared, I’ll let them proof for a few weeks before carving and finishing. I’ve found that this final proofing reveals weaknesses in the glue-up before it becomes someone’s property. Failure in use is something I work hard to avoid.

Remember, the wood I am using comes to me reasonably green. It’s not kiln-dried stock from the lumber yard.

Bowls are a bit different. I’ll start working them like cutting boards at about seven percent moisture. My first job is to joint the edges straight so I can glue up a wider blank for the bowl. I prepare several blanks at a time and wait several days before I begin rough shaping the contours of the bowl. Next, hollowing gets done with gouges. After rough shaping with the gouges, I’ll gradually reduce the inner bowl to a smooth surface with electric sanders and old-fashioned card scrapers. The final sanding is by hand. Which finish I’ll use varies; mineral oil, tung oil, or a food-safe varnish. Each finish has advantages and issues. And sometimes, the choice comes down to aesthetics, which brings out the beauty of the wood best.

Ash has become an on-again and off-again item in the shop in recent years. The emerald ash borer has destroyed much of the ash in New England, and what I get comes from salvage cuttings. Someday I expect that ash will be like chestnut before it, a rare and precious visitor to the carvers bench.

This is sad when you consider the many uses of ash in furniture making, basketry, structural timber, musical instruments, turning, flooring, and marine uses. As a carver, I was introduced to it through commissions to carve eagle heads on the ends of long ash tiller handles.

Another part of the tragedy the emerald ash borer brings is the inevitable decline of the environment where it grew. Species dependent on it suffer because their habitat shrinks. I have included a photo below of a piece of ash firewood. The picture shows the tracks of the borer on the wood.

I’ll be thinking about the implications to the environment, craft, industry, and aesthetics as I work this batch of wood.

An Online Shop

A few years before the pandemic, surgeries on both eyes made me pause my schedule of annual outings to boat shows. After a year or two elapsed, I substantially retrained my eyes and hands to the new realities of my vision, was carving again, and considered resuming shows.

Without warning, Covid hit. I hit the pause button once again. I used the time in isolation to work on technique, research, and develop new products and methods. But I didn’t stand still.

I’ve started researching and will probably launch a show schedule this December; local one or two-day shows. I decided not to do any more three and four-day extravaganzas away from home. Between the eye surgeries and, now, the hip, I’d like to stay closer to home. But my thoughts have also moved to online sales. So a few months ago, I began investigating starting a shop online.

I figured it would help fill in the holes of the local shows, attract a broader audience, and allow the “rudder kickers” to go online and make choices after seeing me at a show. I also admired some of the online presentations I had seen.

I could start another blog about how this is going, but suffice it to say, It’s not pretty. My close friend, and partner at many shows, Ralph, laughed and stated, “Good Luck!” I am now appreciating the sarcastic twist in his tone. They all say, ” set up is easy,” “we make shipping simple,” and it goes on. Unfortunately, I’ll have to buy a book and view a dozen videos to get the basics because their tutorials and FAQs are all impenetrable. In the meantime, I am still working full-time and carving. And no, you can’t spend like crazy on my shop yet!

Woodcarving is the easy part of this craft. The business and marketing…well, that’s an entirely different story!

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