Perfection is a Matter of Perspective

Furniture Construction

Source: skinnerinc.com

Ever look closely at a really fine piece of vintage furniture in a historic building or museum? The vast majority, if viewed at a low angle across their flat panels, have a very subtle but distinct scalloped surface finish. This, of course, was due to the final shave with a smoothing plane – one with a slightly cambered edge.

Since most of the furniture we purchase today is mass produced through automated, computerized processes, fit and finish usually appears precise, even if overall quality of construction and materials is lacking. As a result, many casual woodworkers are subconsciously conditioned to pursue machine-like perfection. I can personally attest to feeling frustrated and disappointed when my labor of love and endless hours of work failed to produce a result that achieved the level of precision I saw in store bought furniture. Convinced that my deficiencies were a direct result of the tools I was using, I invested in more and better quality tools and obsessed over my mastery of them. Woodworking became a matter of investment in tools and their mechanical proficiency.

Then, a few years ago, something happened that changed the way I view perfection and altered my entire approach to woodworking. It wasn’t so much a sudden epiphany, but there was definitely a short trip to ‘hang on, maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong.’ Instead of using modern production furniture as a benchmark, I started climbing underneath and inside 18th, 19th and early 20th century furniture – the stuff that was made by hand using human-powered tools. In addition to educating myself on the design and construction, I started thinking about how the woodworker cut, shaped, finished, and assembled all the parts. Understanding that everything was made without the benefit of table saws, jointers, and router bits, I wondered what tools and techniques were employed a hundred or so years ago. And I noticed something else, too. The construction, while solid and cleverly engineered, was certainly not precise in the way I was used to seeing in modern furniture. The joints, cuts, and surfaces all very clearly reflected the working hand of man, not machine. And somehow, despite its imperfections, it was more appealing and more beautiful than almost anything I can purchase new today.

Once I came to understand just how classic period furniture was made, and started to recognize the beauty of the ‘fingerprints’ of the craftsman who made them, my entire mindset and perception toward woodworking changed. Perfection is a relative concept. The real beauty in a piece of handcrafted furniture is not in its machine-like precision, but rather in its reflection of the person who built it. Well executed technical prowess is undeniably impressive, but it’s the signature hallmarks of imperfection – of man working wood with his hands that give the piece character and life.

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