How to Deal with Woodworking Mistakes

How to Deal with Woodworking Mistakes

Last time out, Rob talked about what he learned regarding woodworking mistakes from an older mentor. Several eZine readers shared your thoughts and philosophies about woodworking mistakes. – Editor

“Early in my woodworking life (I was about 55 when I started), a good friend who was a wonderful craftsman said, “Don’t keep mistakes around. Cut them up and burn them. If you keep them around every time you see it, you will then be afraid to try that again.” Being a bit more conservative, I’ve not burned ALL of them. If I could cut them up and salvage wood that could be put to good use (and I had a plan for it) then I’ve kept it.” – Ken Maurizi

“Years ago, when I was much younger, an older worker asked me to put in two 1/4″ holes 3 and 6 inches from both ends of an aluminum tube. I don’t know what possessed me to put 3 holes on one end. He said not to worry. Put 3 holes on the other end and no one will ever notice. As long as both sides look the same, nobody will question it. Blend your mistakes into your work piece and nobody will notice.” – Ted Sobocienski

“I had to laugh and agree wholeheartedly with your comments about mistakes. I’m an engineer working on high reliability products and spend much of my time with component suppliers on ‘poka-yoke’ activities – which is just the current vernacular for good old mistake-proofing. However, as a part-time woodworker, I know that the wood often has a mind of its own and doesn’t always follow rules. I have learned that when I’m turning on the lathe, sometimes I have to be willing to adapt a design to the wood instead of the other way around. Most of my work is one-off unique items where I have that flexibility, so I’ve learned to take advantage of it. This was especially true when I started working with exotic and highly figured woods. I found out the hard way that constraining my pieces to a very rigid designs and dimensions resulted in a lot of expensive scrap and even more frustration!” – John Anderson

The design aspect came up in a few comments. – Editor

“My father many, many years ago, having thought through how to build his current project, always then thought of alternate solutions. I still think about his approach and incorporate it in working through the design of my latest endeavor.” – Denis M.

“Take up woodturning! There are no errors, only design opportunities!!” – Paul Rose

“After 50 years of woodworking, I’ve developed something of a Krenovian approach to the whole process: I enjoy studying the wood, listening to a test stroke with the hand plane, searching for clues to what it wants to be. I’ve come to apply that philosophy sometimes to errors. More than once, I’ve missed a mark, dinged a surface, run the grain the wrong way – rookie mistakes all – and found the best fix is not patches or putty but patience. If I stop and take another look, another listen, I’ve found that a ding might be a cosmic suggestion to plane that board a little thinner, or to flip it over and reconsider grain on the other side. I mistook a tiny little bird’s-eye knot for a center mark and drilled in the wrong place; after an hour of tantrums and self-recrimination, I realized that the bottom shelf needed to be a little lower anyhow; made it look more stable. Twenty-five years ago, a bad cut turned a really nice table top into a nicer console cabinet that my wife won’t let me get rid of.” – Phil Gilstrap

We also heard more about the influence of friends and family on attitudes toward mistakes. – Editor

“I would rate my woodworking skills around an intermediate: have no fear about trying new things. I do not do it for the money but is a time to relax and it is fun to make original gifts for friends and family. What I have said in the past about making a mistake on a project, whether it is a small or large project, ‘I have been getting very good at making very expensive firewood.'” – Mark W. Miller

“Our youngest grandson’s second birthday was July 31st, the custom stool I began in February still wasn’t finished, and it was mid-September! I was about to box it up after some 10 coats of finish and several coats of wax, when I said, ‘I just cannot send this present out until I have a no-run finish.’ My wife, a mixed-media artist, countered, ‘Don’t you think little imperfections make the difference between a handmade piece and one you could buy that was made in a factory?’ I considered her point of view, but came to the decision that these runs fell into the same category as poorly-fitting joints, legs of unequal length, machine marks insufficiently sanded and corners that were supposed to be square, but weren’t: plain ol’ sloppiness. I’ve been working in wood since the 7th grade, and now, at age 62, my philosophy is, ‘If I make a mistake, learn how it happened, throw it in Ron and Cheri’s woodstove pile, and start over.’ Since adopting that approach years ago, the quality of projects that leave my garage is much higher.” – James W. Randolph, D.V.M.

“My wife used to tell me put two grooves in it, call it an ashtray and get it out of the house!” – Dan Gapa

Others remembered woodworking teachers who were, by profession, woodworking teachers. – Editor

“Making mistakes brought back memories. In 1955, I was a sophomore at then Stout Institute, a great college that prepared industrial arts teachers. I was lamenting over a mistake that I made in a hand woodworking class when George Soderberg, the instructor, put his arm around me and explained that Webster put the word ‘mistake’ in the dictionary for a purpose. Everyone makes them, especially people that create things (like woodworkers). But, he went on, ‘It takes a good man to correct that mistake.’ I’m still trying 58 years later. (Wood is sooooo forgiving!) I have hung on to that advice. Truth be known, I take pride in fixing mistakes and rather enjoy every experience. My neighbors and grandkids call me ‘Mr. Fixit.'” – Bob Dahlke

“I remember this every time I step into the shop! My first year of woodshop, teacher was letting everyone get a feel for the table saw. Teacher gave his tips on dos and don’ts; one of the guys in my class was up for his turn.The whole class was watching. First pass, his thumb goes flying across the room. It was amazing to me how fast this happened.Teacher wraps his hand in a towel and tells the rest of the class to find the thumb so they can sew it back on. I’m in my 50s now and still to this day remember it vividly. Every time I turn a saw on this comes back to me. I still have all my fingers and thumbs thanks to the kid who lost his.” – Dan

“It’s been 35 years since I graduated high school and, until recently, that was my last woodworking school. However, the lessons I took away from high school shop have stuck with me throughout my lifetime. The lesson I retained most (and thus must’ve been beaten into me well) was the importance of safety in the woodshop. I still remember my shop teacher pontificating on the importance of ten digits and keeping them out of saw blades and cutting knives. Likewise, safety glasses were required to even walk into the work area. Push sticks, feather boards and jigs to keep your fingers away from spinning, chopping and slicing objects were in regular use. Those lessons in safety have served me well over the years not only in the woodshop but in my real job as well. Thanks to my high school shop teacher for keeping me out of the emergency room! I also learned how to scoop up excess glue on your fingertip and wipe it off under the workbench top, kinda like a booger.” – Larry

And then there was this pithy philosophy. – Editor

Woodworking is like the Mafia: what is important is where you bury your mistakes.” – Rich Flynn

Teak Supply Discussion

Plus, we’re still hearing from readers on the issue of the teak wood supply, discussed in a WebSurfer’s Review here and in the Feedback section here.

“Use mesquite wood. It has all of the same qualities of teak and is easily grown. It is available in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southeastern California. Mexico has large supplies of mesquite and there are at least two mesquite lumberyards in Arizona. I grew mesquite trees in my front and back yards for shade and birds.” – Robert Finley


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