Canadian Woodworking

Chasing perfection

Author: James Jackson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: June 2024
Chasing perfection
Chasing perfection

“Perfect” might be what many people aim for when completing a woodworking project, but it’s not what I’m after.


Want to hear a dirty secret I’ve been keeping for years? My house is full of cheap, mass-produced furniture.

I’ll pause for a second to give you time to absorb this potentially shocking information, but it’s true. My kids’ dressers and beds, a couple of bookshelves, a TV stand and a few bedside tables all came from cardboard boxes and were assembled using nothing more than the accompanying hex wrench and a screwdriver.

I think it’s natural for woodworkers to be unhappy with this kind of furniture. I know I am, even though it’s in my house. It’s typically made of inexpensive, low-quality materials on a massive scale, and it certainly won’t stand the test of time compared to a similar hand­made item built from higher-quality material. (Not after my kids get their grubby little hands on it, anyway).

Not everything can be as robust as a harvest table made of reclaimed threshing floors from a century-old barn, though. Price is certainly a barrier, but there are other factors to consider like per­sonal taste and lifestyle.

I contend one of the bigger problems with this mass-produced fur­niture is that it’s usually too “perfect.”

I don’t mean structurally or stylistically perfect, but rather visually perfect – there are usually no visible flaws or little mistakes like you might find on a custom piece. It seems that no matter where you buy them, the bookshelves or the side tables all look the same. There’s very little variation in the wood grain, there’s little to no character and nothing much to set them all apart.

This is, of course, the result of the factory production process where items are designed to look the same and have interchangeable parts, all in the name of efficiency and ease of production. But for woodworkers (or those who prefer to buy handmade furniture) that perfection also removes some of its charm and appeal.

Now let’s take that concept of “perfection” and apply it to the myr­iad woodworkers and hobbyists trying to launch online businesses or channels on YouTube.

There’s an almost unspoken competition between woodworkers online to see who can create a unique item that’s the best or most appealing to the point where a hobbyist just getting started (someone like me) may feel intimidated to post a photo online of something they’ve made out of fear it isn’t “perfect” enough.

I know I’ve stopped myself from posting photos of projects that I’m proud of because I’m worried someone might see the flaws and comment on them.
It’s a huge barrier to entry – almost as big as the expense of some of the nicer tools – and was actually one of the reasons why I wanted to start writing about my beginner woodworker journey in this magazine.

Perfection might be important in a production setting where the name of the game is efficiency and repeatability, but inside the wood­shop of hobbyists or weekend warriors (which I imagine most of the people reading this column are) you also need to consider what the piece means to you, and what you hope to achieve with your wood­working. If there are slight gaps in your mitres does that take away from the love and care you put into the rest of the box? Probably not.

There’s a common argument against CNC machines or lasers in the workshop because they’re “cheating” and aren’t real woodwork­ing. I have both in my shop, so I don’t necessarily agree with that argument, but I think some of the pushback against these tools is similar to the argument against mass-produced furniture – they make things too perfect and without much input from a human aside from programming the computer files and pushing the start button.

Then again, are modern power tools, mitre gauges and other pre­cise measurement tools “cheating” compared to the methods used a century ago? It’s an interesting perspective.

I suppose what it means is there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to how we operate in the workshop, much like there isn’t one way to decorate and furnish our homes. I enjoy working with reclaimed wood and imperfect slabs of wood, but I also love watching my laser or CNC carve a perfect logo or family name into a piece of wood infinitely more accurately than if I’d done it by hand.

And sometimes all you need is a bookshelf that will easily assemble straight out of the box so you can try and put some order back into a disorderly basement.

James Jackson - [email protected]

James is a woodworker, a freelance writer, a former newspaper reporter and father to two amazing girls.

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