put down the heirloom stepstool

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

humans are extremists. it’s not a subsection of the population. it’s everyone. we just tend to apply it to different things but we wouldn’t need revolutionary teachings like the buddha’s “middle-way” or jesus talking about a life of self-abandoned public-service if we were naturally more balanced. we’re not. and this is a problem in so many spheres of life — we tend to either eat too little or gorge ourselves, drive so slowly we drive everyone crazy or get speeding tickets, spend a month sober or wake up the next morning wondering exactly when we lost count of the shots the night before. of course, as we get older we often learn to be more moderate. but that doesn’t mean the automatic-impulse to be extreme disappears. we just change it to new focuses. foci. i know. we’ll go with focuses because it doesn’t sound like someone having sex with your optic nerves.

some tend to become extreme instead of in their drinking and eating in their politics. from moderate desires to reactive conservatism. others become more extreme in their hobbies — every moment is about collecting model cars or building the best possible set of tarot decks. but i believe the most common is actually an extremism in consumption, not of food but everyday goods, especially clothing and furniture. and as someone who loves making these things — especially furniture but, fun fact, i have actually done quite a bit of the other thing and even taught sewing and embroidery at a high school — i worry we may be collectively missing the boat on what’s important.

i’m going to talk about this in terms of furniture as examples but the same goes for all objects we possess in the modern world — clothing, jewelry, cars, even houses. it doesn’t really apply to luxury goods but here’s my basic belief about luxury goods — if you own them, you’re a bad person and a huge portion of the problem with modern society because you’ve used your money for self-indulgence instead of helping others. no, it doesn’t matter if you donate to charity. you’ve still spent money indulging yourself in ways that were unnecessary when that money could also have been used to help those in need and you should be ashamed of yourself. you have no excuse. with that out of the way, let’s continue.

if this has offended you, it’s only because you already know you’ve acted shamefully by not doing everything you could to save starving children or displaced migrants, buying a fancy new car instead when you could easily have had exactly the same benefit from something else and had thousands left to serve. what would jesus think of this self-indulgence? i doubt he’d have approved.

let’s get back to the issue at-hand, though. the idea of “perfection-or-shit”. i’ll give you an example. you like tea (who doesn’t?) but your kettle has died. you need a new kettle so you go to the store. you think of this process as having two simple options — do you need a cheap kettle (ten bucks?) or do you want something that’s seriously a quality piece of engineering? two extremes. and that’s what’s out there — there’s very little in the middle. either you’re getting a kettle that’s made of plastic and smells like the inside of a chemical factory (what does your tea taste like, dude?) or something from brushed stainless steel and glass beyond the hundred-dollar mark in most cases. there’s very little we can do about this dichotomy in the marketplace. but you can see where this dualistic extremism is coming from. you’re either cheap af or you’re a longterm investor. people tend to fall in one category or the other.

that’s already a problem. but when making things this can be completely self-destructive. and you need to avoid that if you’re ever going to get things done you can be happy with.

so you want to build a table. i know i use tables a lot as examples. they just make such great examples and everyone needs a couple of tables in their general living experiences. we eat on tables and work on tables and sometimes even dance on tables. if you haven’t danced on a table, you really should try it sometime. but if you fall it’s not on me. you just picked the wrong table. there are two types of woodworkers and there’s a serious issue with both approaches.

the weekend-warrior-type woodworker goes to the shop, ignores the design stage, grabs some framing lumber and screws the whole thing together in a couple of hours. then it’s sanded, painted and shoved in the kitchen as a complete thing. it just feels and looks like a big pile of “tableness”. and that’s certainly one way to do it — it’s functional. but it’s not very satisfying. and those projects tend to feel lacking — and fall apart. if you’re putting something together with mechanical fasteners and it’s going to be used every day (like a dining-table, for example), there’s a very good possibility they’re going to become looser and looser over time and you’re going to end up some day in a few years discovering just how hard it is to get your breakfast off the floor because the whole thing has collapsed. but, of course, much like ikea or walmart furniture, it’s built to be temporary. and that’s the point.

the other extreme is what i call the compulsive-heirloom-builder. every project must be perfect. even the first one. a thousand hours of youtube before cutting the first set of dovetail joints and hundreds of dollars of wood for the most basic project because it will be passed down through generations. bespoke finishing and complex joinery on absolutely everything. even the parts you’ll never see. these are usually the people who refuse to use plywood on drawer-bottoms because it’s “not traditional” or “what will future generations think?” — seriously, future generations won’t think anything because your furniture probably won’t last that long. no, not because it falls apart. just because nobody’s going to keep it six generations from now to the point it’s ending up in a museum. most of the time, furniture is damaged long before it gets to that point because, for example, someone is dancing on it. or it simply gets moved one too many times and the legs crack off. most furniture that’s well-built is destroyed beyond the point where it’s worth repairing long before it actually wears out or falls apart on its own. we live in a perpetually-nomadic, adaptive world. it’s not like it was five hundred years ago (or even two) where people lived in the same place for generations and kept the same things in their homes. stuff moves. and moving stuff breaks it.

so we need a middle-way approach to building furniture (and everything else you’re making, whether you’re a tailor or weaver or just down with the construction of candlesticks — and if your table has gone out to sea with its nursery-rhyme, that shit’s as good as firewood already, i suspect). i call this approach the “leviticus furniture challenge” — because that’s not just great for seo but sounds like a competition to build shit that’s going to go on the international-space-station. it’s not, though. if you know your religious history, leviticus is the origin of the number seventy being used as the “middle-ground-expectation” for many things. how many years should you expect to live? seventy. how much cattle should you sacrifice? seventy. (i know, i know, don’t sacrifice any cattle — there’s an app for that now and i believe we call this a mental disorder, “bovine-pyromania”, don’t we?) how many days do you need to wait? well, seventy, of course. cause that’s enough for anyone. yes, jesus took the thing a little more in that direction when he started talking about seven seventies and such but this is as far as the analogy needs to be dragged — at this point we’re not just kicking a dead horse but starting to worry about doing damage to its hooves from repetitive-stress.

what does a middle-way look like in the “lfc” model? aim for seventy years. this isn’t a science. it’s a practical series of questions and answers. assume you want everything you build to last seventy years. you’ll probably be dead then and your kids will either like it or won’t but you won’t be too worried about the table. twenty years and you’re going to be annoyed to see it go. two hundred years and there’s almost no chance anyone’s given enough of a shit to keep that thing around this long — great-grandma made that thing? who the fuck remembers? pass the kerosine, will you? … it sounds sacrilegious but we really should be realistic about these things.

if you want it to last seventy years, that means several things.

  1. you have to plan, design, prototype and pay attention when you build.
  2. if there are mistakes, you should try to repair and minimize but there’s no need to obsess about them because the piece is eventually going to be replaced.
  3. there’s no need to describe your failures to others because, despite being designed to be beautiful, it is still overall a functional piece — don’t tell people you cut gappy dovetails if they didn’t notice!
  4. you can buy good-quality raw materials but there’s no need to go to extremes. pine is almost-never a good wood for furniture. you don’t need ebony drawer-fronts. cherry is a happy place. walnut is a source of great enjoyment. you can join the knights of the white oak and raise a glass of maple syrup to your balanced bank-account.
  5. when you cut joinery, make sure it’s solid but there’s no need for it to be decorative — your mortise floors don’t have to be accurate because nobody will see them but you should take time cutting the shoulders because everyone’s notice those — work smarter not harder, as my grandfather often said when i was obsessing over meaningless details while ignoring the important ones.
  6. stop thinking about reversible glues. nobody’s going to take apart and reassemble your joints. they’re just not. and pva can be separated with heat and moisture, anyway. but if you’re using epoxy it’s really still ok. if the furniture breaks, there’s a 99% chance it’s going to end up in the firewood pile or on the side of the road as scraps — remember, seventy years is a good life for a table and resurrection is even less likely in the land of woodworking than in the afterlife.
  7. sand your surfaces. stop obsessing about “this was kissed with a handplane”. nobody cares. if that’s what you want, that’s totally fine. but like plywood-construction where it makes sense to avoid the effort and pain of wood-movement (like a cabinet-back or a drawer-bottom) it’s an unnecessary concern. being able to get a finished surface straight off the plane doesn’t make you a better person. using sandpaper doesn’t make you a bad craftsperson. they’re both totally valid approaches and there needs to stop being pressure. remember, nobody’s looking at your piece in a museum judging you. do what gets the result and don’t take the time to think about what will make you look skillful to future generations. as with your views on popular music and marijuana use, future generations are unlikely to give enough of a shit to listen.

of course, seventy is an approximate goal. no, not everything you or i make will last that long. some will actually last generations — if you make a stool, for example, there’s every chance it could have a life of hundreds of years moving from kitchen to kitchen and toddler to toddler. a big table is likely to be the wrong size in the next house and be disposed of, eventually being too damaged to worry about, likely far sooner than seventy years. but the point of the exercise is to stop focusing on furniture with an afterlife or, on the other side of the spectrum, furniture without a real life at all, only a childhood.

this isn’t an instruction-guide or a revolutionary philosophy. i mean, we have enough of those from the buddha, jesus, guru nanak and master kung. among others. nobody was left off that list out of disrespect. just saying. (yes, i get comments like that.) just next time you make something — whether it’s furniture or clothes or fabric or dolls or whatever floats your metaphysical sailing device — think about it in a realistic timeframe. it won’t be an heirloom. it shouldn’t be disposable. it should have a good, full life then go the way of the elderly elephant — fading off into the sunset in a blaze of memory and tusk joy. thanks for exploring this with me. your shop is calling you. go make something. make it good. good enough to last. enjoy!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.