Thursday, July 7, 2011

Aiming for Perfection

A comment submitted by Mike about my previous post has reminded me of a short article I wrote a number of years ago. The article was an attempt to explain that it is impossible to achiece a perfect result, but that it is very important to aim for perfection. Maybe some of you may find the message to be encouraging - here it is again...


The middle-age man stood quietly, brush in one hand and paint container in the other. He was carefully observing the hull of his boat, which stood upside-down on a pair of saw horses, the smoothly sanded timber hull glowing in the late afternoon light. 

The construction of this boat had taken the best part of eighteen months of his spare time, but seemed to have taken up all of his spare thinking time! Throughout the man’s adult life, he had been planning to build a boat, but the pressures of work and family had meant that his fiftieth birthday had passed before he had commenced making sawdust. 

Highs and lows dominated his emotions when the boat was under construction. During the years of planing for the project, the man had formed a vision of perfection – he had gone over every detail in his mind, and being a careful and methodical person, he was sure it would all go together just as he had anticipated. A stack of books and magazines provided witness to his thorough approach, and many of his friends had given advice. 

It had therefore come as a surprise to him when things didn’t work out exactly according to his imagined perfection. Over the months he learned to come to terms with broken screws, incorrectly measured pieces of timber, batches of epoxy which went off too fast (and some which didn’t go off fast enough). He came to discover that no matter how much effort he put into the construction, perfection was not within his grasp. No matter what element of the construction he attempted, he found himself wishing that he could do it all a second time in order to get a perfect result.

The desire for perfection, and his inability to achieve it on the job, almost defeated him. However, a friend had pointed out to him that as long as a person tries to do a perfect job, the average standard of work will always be impressive. With that in mind, the man didn’t become depressed if his jigsaw strayed from the perfectly marked line – he just concentrated on the rest of the cut and made sure that the average of the cut was on the line.  

There were hundreds of processes he came across during the construction – many surprises lurked, just waiting for him to relax his guard. What he discovered was that while it is impossible to attain perfection, a determined effort will yield good results. The satisfaction gained from knowing that his glue joints were sound, and that he could work around mistakes, eventually convinced him that his boat was going to be a good one. The materials were of high quality, and he knew that the boat would last a lifetime. 

Towards the end of the structural work a new and pressing problem arose – when was enough enough? Each time he sanded or scraped a deposit of epoxy, he found another blob which hadn’t been seen before, and stood proud of the smooth surface of the plywood. Every time he put the “final” application of filler into cracks and nail holes, he discovered unseen blemishes after the “final” coat was sanded. It sometimes seemed that he could work for another year just on the sanding and filling… 

In the end, he made the decision to apply the first coat of paint – regardless of imperfections. So here he stood, paint brush at the ready, and the result of a year-and-a-half of work in front of him. Taking a deep breath (through his protective respirator, of course) he commenced painting. What a relief! Once started, he knew that he had crossed a threshold, and once again, having fallen short of perfection had not been the end of the world. 

As the painting progressed, his mood lightened, and he found himself enjoying the process of working the thinned primer/undercoat into the smooth surface of the boat. The paint was absorbed deeply by the wood fibre, and although the painted surface showed up previously unseen imperfections, he knew that the end result was going to be good. This boat had not been slathered in epoxy (the epoxy had been used chiefly as an excellent adhesive, and also used in matrix with glass cloth in areas which needed reinforcement), so the man was able to gain satisfaction from seeing the paint lock itself into the grain of the timber. He had, of course, epoxy-sealed the insides of the buoyancy tanks, and a few other areas which would not be well ventilated when the boat was in storage. These areas were not subject to ultra violet radiation, so he was happy to leave the epoxy un-painted. 

A couple of weeks later saw the same man surveying the end result of all of his labours. The painting was finished – all eight coats counting the priming and undercoating – and he was able to see what his friend had meant about the “average” of the job. Sure, there were imperfections, but the boat gave off a distinct feeling of quality. The lines were highlighted by a subtle combination of colours, and the depth of the high-quality, single-pack paint could be seen. In fact, the man was pleased that he had been unable to attain a perfectly smooth surface, as the boat could now be seen to have been hand-made, and it was obvious that the building material was wood.  

Some of the glue joints could be seen, but there were no gaps to hold water that could otherwise induce rot. The man knew that even though the finish was not perfect, all of what really mattered had been done without compromise – the gluing, the fastening, the marking-out and the painting – all had been done properly, and with the best materials. Structurally, this boat was really good. 

Perfection is unattainable, but if you pay attention to what really matters, you will end up with a boat of high quality. However, boat building should carry a health warning – it is highly addictive.

1 comment:

  1. I have finally come around to this way of thinking, as well as gaining some comfort from something else I read. This basically said that as long as it works and is the best you could do, you don't have to take it to boat shows.
    Along the way though, I've had to revise my understanding of statistical mechanics. I foolishly hoped there was a 99% chance that small randomly distributed errors would cancel each other out to produce a perfect job. Wrong! The errors compound each other and stimulate creativity in the builder.

    Colin

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