One of the most difficult exercises we worked on in the first few weeks of our time here was called The Perfect Board.
And it’s really just as it sounds. The project begins with a small maple board, roughly cut to about 12 by 10 inches.
Our challenge was to rip it down the centre on the bandsaw, then join it back together along the ripped edges, using our new planes to smooth and flatten those edges until they mated perfectly – the joint nearly invisible to the eye.
Once that was complete and the board had been glued back together, we moved on to planing the two sides -- using our new smoothing planes to remove any ripples, high and low spots, and machine marks -- until those two surfaces were flat, free of ridges, and gleamed and shimmered the way only a perfectly tuned plane can make them.
Once that was finished, and believe me, these were all hours-long steps, the board’s edges must be flattened, made to be 90 degrees and perfectly parallel to their opposing edges.
I spent four days wrestling with this project. It was painful, frustrating, exasperating, and often seemed to be a hopeless and useless task.
I knew it wasn’t, though. In my heart, I knew I was learning valuable lessons about how to use my planes, how to adjust and tune them, how to take an imperfect surface and make it into something beautiful.
ButI won’t say ‘perfect,’ because although that’s the name of this exercise, it’s really not accurate.
There’s no such thing as a truly ‘perfect’ board. Our tools may not be precise enough to measure or identify the imperfections, but they are there. Wood, a living thing which still absorbs and emits moisture long after it goes from being a tree to a plank of wood, continuously moves, change and shifts.
That flattened surface, so wonderful one day, such a badge of accomplishment and skill, may be cupped or crowned the next as a result of nothing more than a slight change in humidity.
And that’s the real lesson we were being taught – that perfect isn’t necessarily something to be achieved in woodworking, but rather the goal is to get as close to it, in as beautiful, practical and as useful a way as possible.
Sarah Marriage, a student who finished her time at the school last year, put it this way in her own blog about the exercise:
“What I liked about the idea of the perfect board exercise is that there is no pretense of possibility. There is no romantic notion of some sort of actual attainment of perfection, just the romance of accepting the impossibility.”
At the College of the Redwoods we are taught to strive for perfection, and a craftsman always should if he or she values their work and seeks to do it well. But true perfection may lie not in the accomplishing of that goal, but in the striving towards it.
After all it’s in the striving that the skills are learned, the battles are fought, challenges overcome, and where the piece is refined and developed and pushed towards that standard.
And in the end it’s the complete piece, with all those millions of large, small and microscopic imperfections, that adds up to something that as a whole, could be called beautiful, and even perhaps, perfect.