Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It is the 'average' of the job which matters - advice for the perfectionists

This is the text of an article I wrote many years ago - the message is still important...

A Phil Bolger Micro and an Iain Oughtred Tammie Norrie in the workshop I rented after first turning professional

Ian lay against the wall of the workshop, seated on an off-cut of plywood placed across a pair of sawhorses. He raised his eyes from the jumble of boating magazines on his lap and contemplated the scene within the building. 

Mike Rowe was completing the final stages of the scarph joint which had changed two sheets of 9mm plywood into a single 4.8metre panel. Ian had been able to watch the whole operation as though a fly on the wall, his friend being almost unaware of another person in the shop.  

What interested Ian was the speed with which the scarphing operation had taken place, despite Mike having been interrupted by a customer call. 

“Hey Mike,” he called, “Do you realize that you would have taken three weeks to do that job a few years ago, but that that one took less than fifteen minutes?” 

Mike Rowe glanced over at him as he tossed a pair of disposable gloves into the bin and washed his hands in the grubby wall-mounted sink. “The reason that I used to be so slow,” said Mike, “was that I used to be frightened of making a mistake. I would plan the whole operation (whatever it might be) in great detail, but the more I planned, the more complicated it became in my head. Fear of wrecking the job really slowed me down.” 

Warming to the theme, Mike continued. “I’m still concerned about making errors, but part of the learning process involves understanding that mistakes and accidents will occur, but that just about anything can be fixed properly.” 

Having dragged his body away from the empty coffee cup and stack of books, Ian cast a critical eye over the scarphing job. He noted that although it was not perfect, it was neat and very accurate. The feather-edge of the plywood scarph showed some unevenness where the razor-sharp blade of the block plane had jagged the wood fibres – but these were minor errors of no structural concern. 

“It is the ‘average’ of the job which matters, not the occasional fault,” observed Mike. “If you just keep trying to be accurate and thorough, the job will work out well, despite the saw wandering or the chisel slipping”. 

Mike flicked on the kettle. “What used to happen was that I’d become discouraged by mistakes. Then I would either walk away for a week, or I would drop my standards because I thought the job was no longer perfect.” 

Nodding slowly, Ian reflected on the number of times he had experienced the same feelings…

A Phil Bolger Harbinger catboat in my second professional workshop. She was built strip/diagonal from one lamination of Western Red Cedar strip planking and two laminations of Hoop Pine diagonal planking

Let us leave this imaginary pair in the imaginary workshop, but think about their story. Once you lose momentum on a project, it is very difficult to get going again without encouragement.  

Most amateur builders work alone, juggling work, family, finances and time. A minor setback can seem disastrous, and it is no wonder that some boatbuilding jobs are never completed. Others get finished, but in a slap-dash manner because reality hasn’t matched the dream. 

Don’t lose sight of the dream, but be realistic about the outcome. As long as the wandering saw keeps coming back to the line, the overall result will be good, and the care will show. Attend to errors where they occur, but keep on working with accuracy in mind.


  1. Good common sense advice for all amateur boat builders, including me!

  2. A good post - I have just come out of a 7 month first build of a stich and tape canoe - I decided to build it as a practice run for a sail boat. I made a few mistakes and learnt a lot along the way about patience and having faith that it will come together. I spent waay to much time pondering the design and by and large my best work was when I commited to a course of action without too many time constraints. To be honest once it was built and i took it out on the water all that frustraion fell behind me. My wife has made me promise to complete a list of DIY tasks for her before i start on another project. Right now i miss that level of instense engagement between my self and materials. A few beers will sort that out :O)

  3. Thanks for posting this- it's precisely what I needed to read!