I just finished reading Tom Lovino’s article in Wood Magazine and I have to say it really hit home. I even gave the article to my girlfriend to read and when she was done she said “that sounds just like you!”. If you haven’t read the article, the basic idea is that he was talking to a friend of his who was really bent out of shape because he couldn’t get his table saw into alignment any better than .002 inches. Then, he remembered that his friend is an engineer and is obsessing about details that are not necessary in wood working. He finished with the line “Close enough is usually close enough”.
I read this and I could fully understand the pain of the friend of the writer. I too have a table saw where I can’t get the blade parallel to the miter slots any better than .002 inches and it’s driving me nuts. I am at the point where I am ready to take the top off (again) and enlarge the mounting holes in the cabinet so the saw moves relative to the arbor far enough to get the blade parallel. I doubt it’s truly necessary, really, but to be honest, I can’t help it. I sit there and think about it. It vexes me. As Joaquin Phoenix said in Gladiator, “I’m terribly vexed.”
Part of what makes a good engineer a good engineer is precisely what make them unsuitable for much of anything else. I hear the title of this post thrown around all the time at work. It basically means that if I give one of the designers on my team a task and say he has 2 weeks to finish it I will get an answer in about 2 weeks. If I give him 2 months to finish it I will get an answer in about 2 months. If I give him 2 years I will get an answer in about 2 years. This is not because he is a bad engineer or goofs off for 1 year and 50 weeks and then does 2 weeks worth of work. The problem is that engineers can get so bogged down in the details and with the feeling that there is always a way to make any design just a little better, that you are never really ever finished designing something. If you reach the point where the part does its job and will not fail, then you have completed your task and should move on. Come up with the perfect design on the next part.
I can see a similar pattern developing in my woodworking. Up to this point I have only owned hand tools or hand held power tools. I only extected a certain level of precision out of those tools so I never really bothered wondering if there was any way to make them better or to achieve better results in my projects. My projects always went together well, have no gaps in the joints, and didn’t fall apart. That seemed like enough to me.
Now that I own a table saw something has changed that I can’t quite get my mind around. It’s unlikely that being off by .002 inches on a cut is going to matter when the wood is going to be 1/8” (.125 inches) longer when it swells from moisture absorbtion. I don’ think the fact that my saw fence is .025 inches out of straight is going to really matter much. I never cared how straight the straight edges I used with my circular saw were and I always got fantastic results with a careful setup.
Since buying the used table saw over the holidays I have purchased a dial indicator, vernier calipers, taken the entire saw apart twice, and am investigating methods for fabricating my own precision straight edges. None of this will probably make my work come out any better but it will pull the splinter out of my brain and let me function. In a conversation at work after returning back from the holiday break I was telling a junior engineer about my new saw and how I was able to get the blade to within .002. He asked me what project I was working on that required that level of precision. I replied “all projects require that level of precision”. It is a mindset that I really need to get out of if I am going to enjoy building things. It’s great when you are machining titanium parts that need to fit together with a gap of less than .0005 inches but doesn’t make too much sense in wood (at least to me, when I think about it rationally).
So forgive me and all the other engineers out there for the rediculous obsession we have with precision when working in a medium that is anything but precise or stable. Most of us just can’t help it.
-- Good Judgement Comes From Experience. Experience Comes From Bad Judgement.