Sunday, January 13, 2013

How Perfect Does It Have to Be?

Like many of you, I started my woodworking hobby using machines.  About six or seven years ago my wife and I renovated our spiral staircase, which included replacing the ugly carpet lining on the steps with some really nice beach planks.

Completed stairway renovation.

I got the idea from our next door neighbor, who had her steps lined with oak.  Her contractors used 18mm thick laminated wood from the home center. 

The beach I bought was inexpensive (don't you wish you lived in Europe, too?) so I got plenty.  The thinnest rough lumber I could get from the local lumber yard was 40 mm thick as opposed to the 18mm that the Frau and I had in mind.

What did I do?  I ran all of that beautiful 6/4 roughstock through the thickness planer until I had all of the 3/4" thick material that I needed.  What a waste.

What should I have done?  I should have resawn those boards and flattened them with a hand plane. 

Does that seem like an awful lot of work to you?  It did to me.  Let me tell you, all of that thickness planing was no fun either.  One of the reasons I didn't do it by hand was I was having a hard time figuring out how to use a hand plane to get the two opposite faces of a board perfectly parallel, like a thickness planer would.

Since then, I have learned the secret to getting the two opposite faces of a board perfectly parallel.

The secret?  Don't.

Please do not misunderstand.  Good work is good work, and the pursuit of perfection is a noble cause.  Also there are times where precision work on this level is required.

There are limits, however. 

One of the reasons a lot of machine-made furniture looks so different than hand-made stuff is that many craftsmen know what needs to be perfect and what does not.

As an example, If I would have resawn those beach planks and smoothed both sides with a handplane without regard to how perfectly parallel the two faces of the boards were, would anyone care?  Would the steps somehow look wrong?  Of course not.  In fact, the small differences in the steps may have given it a more charming appearance.  They certainly wouldn't work any different.

One can use these ideas in many aspects of woodworking.  If you are making a dovetailed box, for example, there is no rule that says anything has to be flat and square other than the inside surfaces.  A drawer, on the other hand, needs to ride inside of a case, so the outside of it should be square and parallel as well.

I have spent time on my recent layout square projects to ensure my stock was perfectly six square to begin the project.  I am confident that these small bits of wood turned out pretty darned accurate.  For a tool like this, they need to be. 

Should you spend time making every project perfect like that?  No.  Think about a table.  The part of the apron you see should be flat and perpendicular to the top.  What about the part you don't see? 

Who cares?  No one will ever see that part.  The only reason this face should be perfect is if you are aligning things from this face for some reason. 

For that matter, does the table top need to be reference-surface flat?  As long as it looks nice and your beer glass will sit on it flat, you are OK.

That should be your real goal:  Does it look nice?

Will a cigar smoker use a micrometer do see if your work on his humidor is accurate to within 1/1000th of an inch?  No.  He is going to look at it and say, "Won't I look like a badass pulling a double corona out of that!"

Do yourself a favor.  Before you get too crazy about making opposite faces parallel, ask yourself if it is really required, or if having a flat face with a square edge is enough for your application.


  1. Brian, thank you. I have caught myself doing what you describe, struggle with making i perfect, and never do.

    1. Don't struggle with making things perfect that don't need to be.

  2. Does it look nice - yep, that works for me, but I also need to consider 'Will it bug the *&@* out of me if I don't fix it now, while I still can?'