Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough

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Blog entry by HungryTermite posted 01-25-2010 11:25 PM 1807 reads 0 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

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.

11 comments so far

View poroskywood's profile


618 posts in 3362 days

#1 posted 01-26-2010 12:00 AM

Good response to the article (I read the same one this morning) I feel his point was (also) that wood itself is ever changing / moving so wood perfectly machined will eventually be imperfect or “close enough” anyway. Thanks for some insight into your world of precision.

-- There's many a slip betwixt a cup and a lip.--Scott

View mnguy's profile


193 posts in 3396 days

#2 posted 01-26-2010 12:06 AM

As an engineer, I too enjoyed that column in Wood. Maybe it’s because I’m a chemical engineer, where +/- a few percent on the process is pretty good precision (not so good on the equipment!), but I’ve never been quite that obsessed by the accuracy of my woodworking machines. I’m much more focused on it than almost anyone I know would be, and I guess that’s what makes me ‘skilled’ in their eyes. I certainly have fought with my table saw getting it set up better than I received it. At least you recognize you have a ‘problem’ :)

I recommend anyone of us Jocks go to Colonial Williamsburg and watch the cabinet makers. They are making furniture more beautiful than I’ll probably ever aspire to, and entirely by hand with period tools. Not a dial micrometer in sight. It’s a good reminder that while many of us crave extreme accuracy and precision in our tools, we don’t need it to produce beautiful results.

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 3872 days

#3 posted 01-26-2010 12:15 AM


I know how you feel, because I am a perfectionist myself. But I believe I have learned to channel my OCD into a productive way.

As an engineer I’m sure you’re familiar with the difference between “Accurate” and “Precise.” The two terms are often wrongly interchanged. In woodworking, precision is more important than accuracy. For example, it makes no difference whether the table you are building is 30” tall, or 30.01” tall, or even 31” tall (accuracy). But it does matter that all the legs are the same height (precision).

So to accomplish this, we use jigs and stop blocks, and other “set-ups” to make sure that they are the same. (We don’t measure each one individually with a Starrett laser-etched yardstick) This is the same way you mentioned above that you successfully accomplished your early projects with a circular saw.

As long as your table saw cuts the same way each time, the 0.002” may as well be 1/8.” In fact, I actually angle my sawblade away from the fence toward the back just a hair so that I don’t get secondary score marks when ripping, and to eliminate burning. Hows that to throw ya for a loop?!

And like you said, the wood will move and swell several times the “error” in your tablesaw. I think too many people worry about the wrong type of details in woodworking and ultimately aren’t very productive. Welcome to woodworking… get over it :)

-- Happy woodworking!

View Dennis Fletcher's profile

Dennis Fletcher

467 posts in 3052 days

#4 posted 01-26-2010 12:23 AM

Wow, what insight. I am a designer, but not an engineer. Close is great, in my world. I am interested in function, but with that should come wonderful, eyecatching design. At least, whenever possible.

What I have to get over is not being precise enough. Where you will fuss over .002 inches, I am good if it is 1/4 degree. I figure I can sand it out.

I’ve never actually even checked my table saw, I figure if I put mu square on the table and square the fence with it, I’m happy.

Oh, the ADHD helps a lot, too. :-)

--, Making design and application one. †

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 3346 days

#5 posted 01-26-2010 02:09 AM

I have had the good fortune to have worked through virtually the whole range of precision. I grew up in my father’s machine shop which had me working to 4 decimal places tolerances and now decades later as an architect I have master planned projects where effectively the tolerances are measured in feet if not yards. Between those two extremes I have been involved in all manner of design projects and along that continuum the one lesson that always applies is to keep the design within the established tolerances for the project. Being more precise than required wastes the most valuable resource anyone has: time.

While engineers may tend to be more precise than required the opposite can be even a bigger problem. Those who work with relatively large tolerances often become very frustrated when having to work to tighter tolerances then they are accustomed. A classic example is a rough carpenter when asked to do finish carpentry work often they decline claiming that sort of fussy work drives them nuts.

Btw of course everyone is free to spend their time the way they want. whether its fretting over .002 runout or fretting over why someone is worried about fixing a .002 runout…

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View RichardinSeattle's profile


10 posts in 3041 days

#6 posted 01-26-2010 02:32 AM

That article was like reading a really well written Onion article where you slowly really how crazy you are by reading the words of someone else who definitely has your number (my favorite: “Area man Can’t Believe New Girlfriend Has Never Seen Apocalypse Now”). I swear there are times when I head down to cut some wood and I get so caught up in setting my saw up right that I never actually get around to cutting the wood.

I have a bit of an excuse in that we use this crazy hard wood called Jatoba a lot, and if you are even the slightest bit off it tends to burn and bind like crazy. And sanding out burns takes forever…

But whom and I kidding; I clearly have OCD for one particular aspect of my life; setting up my saw. At least I don’t wash my hands obsessively and count sidewalk cracks…

-- Richard Huffman,

View patron's profile (online now)


13603 posts in 3339 days

#7 posted 01-26-2010 03:02 AM

that is quit a concept ,

if i can get my saw to .000” ,
i will never make a mistake with it again , (LOL) !

i’ve been working in an adobe ( mud ) house ,
they put ikea closet cabs in there ,
my job was to put finished ply panels on the ends and scribe them to the wall .
and across the top , to keep things from being forever lost in the space behind them .
in 8’ of height , the scribe was tight at the floor ,
and 7” out at the top !

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View RichardinSeattle's profile


10 posts in 3041 days

#8 posted 01-26-2010 03:38 AM

Hah! When I was remodelling and rebuilding my house, my helper (whom I am declining to name to protect the guilty) decided to build a corner of my new closet while I was at work. When I got home the thing looked dreadful, like something out of a 1920s German expressionist horror film. The angles were stunningly askew. It’s 90 degrees, he protested. Sure enough, when I measured exactly in the middle (about chest height) it WAS 90 degrees. But on the floor? 85 degrees. On the ceiling? 97 degrees.

He spent the next hour trying to convince me that the drywall will hide all the mistakes….

-- Richard Huffman,

View HungryTermite's profile


90 posts in 3047 days

#9 posted 01-26-2010 05:07 AM

Some people don’t believe me when I tell them the epic battles that go on at work between design and manufacturing when I need something that is 12 feet long to be 12 feet long +/- 0.001. It’s just rediculous when you think about it.

Now that I think about it though, what attracted me to working with wood in the 1st place was the ability to fix any mistake if you are off. There are times when you can’t do that obviously, but it’s a nice rest from the riggors of work.

-- Good Judgement Comes From Experience. Experience Comes From Bad Judgement.

View kshipp's profile


179 posts in 3776 days

#10 posted 01-26-2010 05:59 AM

Is this an article that was online? I tried to find it by searching some but I didn’t see it. I am also an engineer who was drawn to woodworking because wood is so easy to machine. I often struggle also with how accurate my woodworking equipment must be.

-- Kyle Shipp,

View MOJOE's profile


548 posts in 3267 days

#11 posted 01-31-2010 09:42 PM

Nice response….I read this article as well, and even though my soil engineering doesn’t require that type of precision, I completely feel your pain. Until I purchased my saw and some better quality tools, “pretty good” always made me pretty happy. When I started to use the better tools and my first sets of joints only matched “pretty good”, I started to get a little wild with the tool set-up. I too went a little overboard, but I guess that is just how my brain is wired. I have since loosened up a bit, but still with fret over loose joints a little. I will say this, people wired like us engineers are beneficial in this world, if everyone took a “pretty close” approach, life would most likely be a little tougher for us all.

-- Measuring twice and cutting once only works if you read the tape correctly!

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