Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How To Turn a Sow's Ear Into a Silk Purse

My 'sow's ear,' right, and the frame and panel clamped together for glue-up, to the left.
There’s an old saying that goes like this: ‘You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.’
I always liked the expression because it’s so visual, you can’t help but picture the process of trying to do just that, and the grotesque, inevitable end result.
Our last assignment before moving on to our first major project was called the ‘Sow’s Ear’ exercise.
We were given a big chunk of poplar – an inexpensive, generally unattractive wood most people consider to be ‘paint grade,’ and given a list of smaller boards to mill out of the thick, heavy plank.
Then, we surfaced the wood, made our final cuts, and prepared to join the pieces into a cabinet, starting with the frame – essentially two sides and a top and bottom, joined together with dowels.
Once that was done, we constructed a frame-and-panel for the back of the cabinet, and decided on design elements such as shelves and doors. Some students even decided to make drawers.
Essentially, the assignment was meant to pull together a bunch of the skills we had learned, teach us some vital new ones, and give us the experience of building a complete piece from start to finish, before moving on to the real thing.
It was a lot of fun, but also stressful. We’re lucky enough to be enrolled at one of the more esteemed and well-known woodworking schools in the U.S., and the pedigree here is high. A lot of incredible woodworkers have come through here and made names and successful careers for themselves. Most of us want to do that too.
As a result, there’s a general desire among people here to do everything well. Which is where the name of the exercise comes from. Even though this is essentially just practice, many of us stressed over our little cabinets, lost sleep, spent days struggling with certain details. All in an effort to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse – something we all know is impossible.
But anyway, in the end, though it’s made with cheap, unattractive wood, there’s something about this little creation that makes me happy, looking at it sitting beside my workbench.
Maybe it’s because it represents another step in this journey of becoming a woodworker, and the process of accepting that the struggle towards perfection is sometimes enough.
The final product!

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