On Cheating…

It’s Get Woodworking week, and a great time for me to resume some blogging. It seems that each time I write a blog, it begins with an apology for not writing more frequently. I offer no excuses but to say I’m a furnituremaker and father first, not a blogger. Blogging offers a bit of a creative outlet when I’m not otherwise occupied.  Fortunately, I’ve been quite busy with work, for customers and for myself, and exercising my woodworking skills daily as a result. Which brings me to the subject of this post – something I’ve been reflecting on for years, but only forming coherent thoughts on recently.

Matt Kenney, Senior Editor at Fine Woodworking, and someone I consider a friend, posted about cheating in woodworking recently. Besides being a talented and accomplished woodworker (see some of his work at left), Matt holds a doctorate in philosophy, so I hesitate to disagree (my, albeit lesser, degree in philosophy gave me enough insight into the dangers of arguing with a Ph.D. in Philosophy), but I know he won’t take it personally. His point was that there is no such thing as cheating in woodworking, it’s just about the quality of the product. I encourage you to read the entire post, but here’s an excerpt:

“What matters when you’re making furniture is the furniture. When all the tools are put away and the finish is dry, have you made a beautiful piece of furniture that you and other folks find beautiful and useful? If so, then nothing else matters. So, do whatever it takes to make the furniture you love, even if that means using a router, tablesaw, or a chisel guide to cut dovetails.”

                                              – Matt Kenney, Senior Editor, Fine Woodworking

A key part of this thesis is that HOW it’s made is irrelevant, as long as it’s beautiful and nobody can tell the difference. This undercuts the value of creativity and craftsmanship which, like any skills, are developed with time, practice, and a little effort. This does not suggest that master craftsmen and artists, who have worked at their art for years and years, practicing and creating, don’t find efficient means to accomplish the same tasks. They do. But they have developed sufficient skills to know what is efficiency, and what is corner-cutting – ways of accomplishing things without developing your skills or learning the how’s and why’s of methods of art.

So on this point, I argue that whether it’s “cheating” depends on your goals: If you want the fastest way to an endpoint, it’s impossible to cheat, as Matt suggests. If your goal is to get better and better, hone your skills, craftsmanship, and creativity, then it’s entirely possible to cheat. I’d argue it better to learn well by trying and falling short of what you know to be possible, and to do it over and over if need be, to gain the unconscious competence that comes with mastery.

Wilbur Pan (of www.giantcypress.net), in the context of the importance of the “dovetail-a-day” idea, recently posted a link to the following video, created from a commentary by Ira Glass, contributor and host of This American Life, (a great, thought-provoking podcast/radio show for listening to in the workshop, incidentally) which makes this point as he discusses creative endeavors (in his case, the art of writing and storytelling):

If you just want a good-looking end-product done quickly without taking the time to learn how and why, a robot in a factory somewhere overseas can likely make one faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than you can, but that doesn’t sound much like creativity, art or craftsmanship to me.

No, there isn’t one “right” way, or, more accurately, there are many right ways, so try many, as Matt suggests, but don’t fall back on the fastest and easiest simply because some methods you know are “time-tested” seem too hard. You can be sure that the masters, who all have their own ways of doing things, have practiced ad nauseum, and mastered, many different methods before settling on the best way for them. You can also be sure the same masters had many years of disappointing results, which they pushed through, knowing they could achieve better. Cheating is not in the method, its in failing to try, to practice and to grow your skills.

This idea applies to learning to freehand sharpen, cutting without jigs, dovetailing without a router, etc., which I won’t get into here, but to point out that there are an abundance of things in woodworking (and I suppose in life as well) better to learn to do well by practice, than to just finish quickly. Developing the skills to make them unconscious habits will lead to doing it more quickly, and knowing when another method may be more appropriate.

My favorite comment from the rather lengthy comment stream in Matt’s post, from commenter “Pags”, a boatwright in Minnesota: ” I would hate to teach math to our children using only calculators instead of them learning how to do the math using their heads”. Amen. Having returned somewhat later in life to earn an engineering degree, I’m rather scared to know that 99% of my young classmates, now out in the world engineering our roads, products, robots, etc., stored the entirety of their understanding of fundamental engineering and the math skills needed in their Ti-85’s (calculators), not learning it and imprinting the knowledge in their minds.

So my parting thought is that for those who want to develop their creativity and skills, and particularly for those starting out: Don’t cheat. The results won’t be good at first. Simply try again. And again, and again. If it looks perfect for your first try (and this applies for almost anything creative), you probably cheated. Yes, the product looks great, but you probably took a shortcut to get there, and thus didn’t learn from it. You’ve cheated yourself. Rather, do a lot of work. Do it over and over (this is the basis of the dovetail daily exercises). It WILL be hard, but rewarding. You’ll soon find you’ve mastered techniques enough to know the most efficient way, but more importantly, you’ll understand why, and when to apply which techniques. This builds the creative foundation for being able to design and build your own works, and to do it well.

So go make, then make again…and again…and again. Years from now, you’ll reflect on how you’ve grown your skills, almost by accident, by constant practice.

Get Woodworking 2013


PS.  Moments after drafting this post, my thinking was bolstered to a degree, when I read this post, by Shannon Rogers, who appears to have practiced ripping solid stock by hand enough that it’s become second nature.

PPS. A couple days post-drafting (yet pre-posting), and again, this topic popped up in a blog post, this time from just down the road from me from the shop of Rob Porcaro, a hugely talented woodworker, who agrees that there is cheating in woodworking, though for a slightly different reason than I’ve given. His conclusion is, however, the same…get back to work.