Canadian Woodworking

Two simple words

Author: Gordon Graff
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: June July 2002
Two Simple Words
Two Simple Words

What it takes to be a good woodworker.


Recently, a newcomer to woodworking asked me, “How did you get to be the woodworker that you are today?” I thought for a minute and wondered if this fellow was ready for what I was going to tell him. Then I told him that I owe what I am as a woodworker today to two simple words, ”Not bad.” In response to the puzzled look on his face, I told him the following story behind the two little words that have had such an impact on my life.


When I was first married, we needed furniture and, as the son of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, I was expected to make it. I never asked the old man for advice or for help because, after all, I was the young man who he dragged around town doing side jobs with him. I must have learned something working all those weekends with him in his shop instead of having fun with my friends. I did well for someone with no formal woodworking training, or at least I thought I did. Unknown to me, my world was about to change in a way that even today, 18 years later, I am affected by.

As luck would have it, I came across enough oak veneered particle board and solid oak to build a wall unit. This would be my first wall unit and what a chance to show the old man that his son was a pretty good woodworker. I worked hard on that wall unit and, in a matter of weeks, it was finished and proudly placed in our living room. I told my wife, many times, how proud she should be of me because I was such a fine woodworker. I was so full of myself I could hardly wait until that old carpenter laid eyes on this wonder in wood.

The old man showed up one Saturday morning and went to sit in the living room while I made coffee in the kitchen. Any minute now, I thought, he would say, “My gosh, Gord, it’s beautiful.” I waited and waited, but it never came. I went into the living room with the coffee and he just sat there and did not even acknowledge that this beautiful wall unit was staring him in the face. He finished his coffee and said he must be going. By this time I was ready to hit the roof! The old man had said nothing about this work of art. I could not help myself, I just had to ask him, “Dad, what do you think of this fine wall unit?” He paused, for what seemed like an eternity, and quietly said, “not bad” and then he left for home.

Not bad?! I was furious. I was livid. I was fit to be tied. How dare he? Not bad?! Standing in the kitchen I swore, that day, in the fall of 1984, that never again would anyone, especially the old man, say “not bad” to anything I would ever build. Since then, I have endeavored to be the best possible woodworker that I can be. I have spent thousands of hours honing my skills and, along the way, I have learned much more than I could have ever imagined.

Over the years, I came to realize that my father was a wonderful man; gentle and caring. A year or so before he passed away, I asked him why, all those years ago, he had said, “not bad” to something he knew I had worked so hard on. He said to me quietly, “I knew that you were capable of better, and inspiration has only come to you when you were pushed, so I pushed you.” Today, that wall unit can be found standing in a place befitting it’s design and construction, in my neighbour’s garage, filled with gardening tools. After all, in my opinion, it’s “not bad”.

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