Constructive Criticism

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Blog entry by Ethan Sincox posted 12-22-2006 12:57 PM 1463 reads 0 times favorited 17 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Funny enough, I’ve been “connected” for many years and, being in the software industry, I think I do a pretty good job of staying in the mainstream of technology. I’ve been actively woodworking for about two years now, but it didn’t dawn on me to combine the two until very recently. With that realization, I pulled up some woodworking forums a few weeks ago and started plugging away at them.

I must say, so far I haven’t been too impressed. The first thing I noticed about the biggest of the forums I’d found is that nobody seemed able to offer any kind of constructive criticism about anyone else’s work. What’s more, it didn’t really seem that anyone was LOOKING for constructive criticism… they were mostly looking for validation.

That’s not really the way I like to work; and it’s not really what I want to read about! It doesn’t help the person who created the piece to grow and learn as an artist, and it doesn’t really help me learn as a woodworker! Maybe it comes from my background. During my pursuit of a degree in Art History, I had to fulfill a well-rounded requirement of studio art classes. Even though I went to a liberal arts university, our art classes were anything but the happy-go-lucky-everyone-does-great-work variety. We had peer critiques of our work on a weekly basis and let me tell you, some of my peers were very critical!

As it turns out, it was a good thing. Several years of that kind of feedback is great life experience. It prepared me for the real world where my bosses weren’t always happy with my work! Believe me – it is easier on the writer and the writer’s boss when both understand the definition of “constructive criticism”.

Again, I guess it is just a mindset? I probably shouldn’t have been surprised with the forum… When my wife and I first started dating, it didn’t take me long to figure out she’d never really been exposed to any form of constructive criticism, either. I’m still working on that – baby steps, right?

But the other side of the coin is I have to constantly remind her to tell me what she really thinks about something and not what she thinks I want to hear! We had a breakthrough after I’d cooked a dish the third time and she really hadn’t really like it the first two times. She loves my cooking – when it is something she likes – so that got her started with expressing her dislike for certain foods in more definitive terms in order to keep it off the table in the future.

So what’s my point in this thread of thought? Oh yeah… don’t be offended if you post pictures of a piece, asking for opinions, and I say something other than, “Great Work, Bob!” or “Another fine piece, Jim!”

But I’m not just going to sit there and say, “Wow, John, that sucks!” It isn’t really useful to you and it isn’t good for my karma. It would probably be something more like, “Well… while I do love the look of curly cherry, I think maybe using it in every single part of your nightstand, including the top and the sides and the ship-lapped back and the drawer fronts and the rails and the stiles and the internal partitions, is maybe just a bit much, no matter how simple your design is. On your next night stand, try using the curly cherry as a focal point of one aspect of the piece, like drawer fronts and door panels, and use non-figured cherry for the rest.”

See? Painless! Or close to it, anyway…

-- Ethan,

17 comments so far

View frank's profile


1492 posts in 4207 days

#1 posted 12-22-2006 03:17 PM

Hi Ethan,
Ah yes, “constructive criticism”, that pearl in the rough that so many despise and are fearful of since what you are saying here, might just go against my ego!

I have a friend who was into graphic arts and design before she took some years off to home school her daughter. This friend of mine has done quite well in preparing her
daughter for what I believe will be a fruitful and aspiring art career. Well recently I was talking with the daughter and she was telling me how her mom judges her work when preparing for a show. She told me that her mom will usually take that first piece with all the hours she has spent with it and just tear it up and say, “not good enough, now start over.” And the daughter is quite glad about this now, as she has learned that instead of defeating her ego, her ego has learned to be under control and do better.

I have learned that when no one is telling me I can do better, it becomes easy to settle for less then that which is really within me.

Constructive criticism is allowing someone to reach into my soul and push my envelope, till I burst out of those bounderies and go on to be the all that I am.

I liked what you wrote here and want to welcome you to and keep those blogs coming as we all keep our wood curls curling. Have a very good day!!!

-- --frank, NH,

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 4238 days

#2 posted 12-22-2006 04:01 PM

Nice Job Ethan. LOL Fortunately for me, I don’t post very many items on here beacuse i critique my stuff so harshly that I feel like most of my stuff isn’t good enough to post. And my friends and family critique me enough. From the burn marks on the sides of the tables I sell them at discount rates just to pay for the wood, to their opinions of ways I could have made something better, even though they couldn’t cut a board with someone helping them. BUT, you have a point. There are some things on here that I think are ugly but I don’t want to offend someone when it might be their first work, and they just want to hear that it’s a nice job and let them decide if it’s good enough to post or not. If you are going to buy something, or if you want them to make one for you, that’s one thing.
Woodworking is an artistic kinda thing. Each artisan has a different eye. I like flaws in the wood to show the way nature made the stick. I have a few pieces where I left the knot in the board and tried to accent it. In a world where consumers are trying to buy that “Perfect” piece one needs to realize that wood isn’t like that. If you want something all uniform go buy a particleboard item with vinyl “wood-grained” sticky crap on it.
Hey, I’m all for the critique, and if someone can show me how to make something better, or nicer or more pleasing to the eye, bring it on. Be prepared to be challanged.

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 4178 days

#3 posted 12-23-2006 12:01 AM

Ethan, I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve been posting to a large Australian woodworking forum for the past five years. It’s a great forum, and many of the regulars have formed a close ‘mateship’ (an Aussie term). But for me, it suffers excessively from the ego-stroking syndrome.

Woodworking for me is a solitary pursuit. I do it alone in my own shop. I want to improve my craft, so I need those more skilled and experienced than I to give me unbiased perspectives on my work. In some respects, it’s similar to my other creative pleasure, writing. When I write, I know what I am saying, or mean to say – but often when others read it they pick up an entirely unintended meaning. So I need people to help me see things through their eyes.

Did you ever read the book that was popular several decades ago entitled, “A Whack on the Side of the Head”? We all need an occasional ‘whack’ to help us wake up and see things as they are rather than how we want them to be.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View thewoodwhisperer's profile


604 posts in 4185 days

#4 posted 12-23-2006 01:31 AM

Hey Ethan. Your observations are dead on. But remember that everyone goes to these forums for different reasons. Some people want validation, and others really do want criticism. In fact, on most forums you actually have to specifically request criticism before you get anything more than an ego stroke. But remember that forums are mostly full of non-competitive hobbiests. And if they get a kick out of turning some beautiful figured wood into Popsicle stick houses, then more power to ‘em! :) And if they decide to post pictures of their popsicle stick houses, most people just take the safe route and assume they don’t really want serious criticism.
Its kind of funny though since one of the reasons I dove head first into woodworking was because of encouragement I received on some of these forums. Fortunately, my competitive spirit pushes me to improve my skills regardless of other people’s opinions, but in the early days, a pat on the back can make a big difference.
So although the mood of some of these forums is almost sickening sweet, I honestly feel they can serve their purpose.
And honestly, there is nothing wrong with you posting a constructive criticism of someone’s work. In my opinion, posting pictures on a forum is generally an open invitation for criticism.
I would be interested to see what would happen to these forums if everyone actually gave a critique of the work. lol. Give it a shot and see what happens. :)


-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 4178 days

#5 posted 12-23-2006 02:41 AM

Well, I suppose most people are concerned about offending. Perhaps we should establish a convention. If we want constructive criticism we should conclude our post with, “CCA” (Constructive Criticism Appreciated).

And to define “constructive”, it should contain a suggestion for an improvement, or alternative approach. I don’t think it’s good enough to simply say, “I don’t like…”

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4328 days

#6 posted 12-23-2006 04:01 AM

When I was a graphics student, we also had weekly critique sessions, in both graphic design and fine arts courses. We didn’t bash each others work (we’d tend to rely on the teacher for the “you should haves”) in some classes, along with any critique, positive or negative, we had to say something nice, which can be challenging… but it did help us to look at something on different levels. “I like the overall design and shape of the piece, but perhaps if the was ...)

You hit the nail on the head with that last comment Don.
There are certainly people here who may not like something about each others particular work – be it the style, color or wood choice, but we can certainly appreciate the work each other puts into something, and see it for it’s own merit – without having to see the piece in our own homes.

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4175 days

#7 posted 12-23-2006 05:57 PM

Marc, I agree and understand my needs are very often far from the needs of others. That is why I don’t believe I’ve ever commented on such things. Maybe the next time I see someone post a project, with the request for the constructive criticism, I’ll actually take them up on it!

But maybe that’s why I’ve never really found much that I like on most of the forums I’ve visited. I get enough validation from my family members. I couldn’t PAY them to say something critical about my pieces, unfortunately…

Don, that is indeed the definition of “Constructive Criticism”; otherwise, it is just criticism.

I don’t think we even need to take it so far as to put special codes after any projects we post. If one is looking for useful constructive criticism, then I’m sure they’ll as for it. If one isn’t, then I can pretty much guarantee they won’t! I don’t think there are many people on this site (if any) who would just criticize for the fun of it.

Coming up with a code to put at the end of a post would quickly evolve into a LIST of codes we can put at the end of our post. All of a sudden, those codes become limiting and restricting requirements we must use at the end of every post! I think we should be able to get by with our common sense, don’t you?

I don’t think we should be afraid of offending. That seems to be the current trend of many societies today, and I don’t really agree with that trend. I say most people these days are too easily offended. I say they are offended because they CHOOSE to be offended. Personally, I think people look for ways to be offended.

We should be conscious of others’ feelings, yes, but not afraid! I have every right to make some piece of art as I see fit. You have just as much right to like that art as you have to NOT like that art. You can even tell me such! Why should you not liking my art be offensive to me?

-- Ethan,

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4315 days

#8 posted 12-23-2006 07:30 PM

Welcome aboard Red! I’m a little offended at the way…just kidding. So please pick a project and give us a sample. You have stired up alot on interest. You are more than welcome to rip into one of my projects.

View thewoodwhisperer's profile


604 posts in 4185 days

#9 posted 12-23-2006 08:45 PM

I couldn’t agree more about our society being too easily offended. It pains me to see how “thin skinned” people have become. But then again for those of us who like to push buttons, its a very fun time. :)


-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

View Don's profile


2603 posts in 4178 days

#10 posted 12-24-2006 12:28 AM

Well, just to let you know that I put my money where my mouth is, I’ve added CCA after all my projects – I seriously want others to help me improve. If the convention adding CCA doesn’t catch on – fine.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

View SST's profile


790 posts in 4196 days

#11 posted 12-25-2006 05:03 AM

Well, this is the first time I’ve commented on anything, but I’m new, so I have an excuse. Although I’ve not browsed any other woodworking forums (I just found this one and it seemed interesting, so I joined) I can imagine that you’re accurate on the “strokes” thing. Everyone needs validation at some level and we all suffer from fear of criticism…even if it’s only a tiny bit. I’m all for providing constructive criticism on projects (just not mine…it’s my first, and if I hear any, I’ll pack up my tools and go home) It should be noted here, that I have, on occasion, been known to be a bit “tongue-in-cheeky”. Wow, this blogging thing is kind of fun…SST

-- Accuracy is not in your power tool, it's in you

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 4238 days

#12 posted 12-27-2006 10:55 PM

I’ve learned that you can’t really see all that apiece has to offer when looking at a photograph, so to try is foolish. I’ve made things that looked beautiful in a photo, but I could tear it apart when actually looking at it. To critique a piece of furniture is like critiquing a painting, and when I get to the point where I can do better than the artist did on a piece of furniture, even then I don’t think i’d critique a piece unless they asked. I was told many years ago “As soon as you start picking on somebody else’s work is probably when I’ll start making the same mistakes they did, so I avoid it at all cost’s.

View Ethan Sincox's profile

Ethan Sincox

767 posts in 4175 days

#13 posted 12-28-2006 03:47 PM

I’m afraid we’re going to have to agree to disagree completely on this one, Michael.

But I’ll be sure to never comment on any projects you post. Thanks for the heads up.

If anyone wishes to continue the Constructive Criticism discussion, I suggest you create an appropriately-titled Forum entry, where such a discussion can be more easily viewed by all.


-- Ethan,

View oscorner's profile


4563 posts in 4312 days

#14 posted 12-28-2006 04:13 PM

I personally will not critisize others work, because in all truthfullness mine doesn’t even come close to what I see you guys build. Therefore, I’m not qualified to judge or critisize your work. That being said, this doesn’t mean that if you ask for help that I will not try to help or suggest something. If I do, please take it with my best intentions. As far as my work, feel free to help me reach the penticle of woodworking that you all have reached.

-- Jesus is Lord!

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4406 days

#15 posted 01-22-2007 06:39 PM

I don’t know how I missed this before. Thanks for posing the question. When lumberjocks first started we rated each other’s projects anonymously on a scale from 1-10. We would each get a summary showing the new average of the ratings.

It was hard, to say the least, to judge each other’s projects with a number. First off, we were looking at three small photos, many of which were poorly lighted, heavily shadowed, and taken with small lense digital cameras. But, the hardest part of the ratings didn’t come into play until there was a “contest” with the winners being selected from the highest average rating with a minimum of a few ratings to be qualified as an entry.

At that time, a person could rate the competitors at a “1” lowering their average, and get friends and family to join and rate their project at a “10” and it skewed the judging. Not that any of it really mattered anyway, but it did cause some soreness and worry on the part of several jocks, causing at least one to pull his fabulous project out of the competition.

I like it better without the stress of trying to figure out how to rate everyone’s project.

Now, to your real concern, and that is improving your work and getting help from other lumberjocks. I will give that some thought time over the next few days. This can be done however, without someone actually telliing me that my finish looks like crap, or my joinery stinks. For instance, I learned over the weekend that a yellow dye is a good first step in producing a great Mission color finish. I had not seen that gem before, and will experiment with it to see how I like it in person. If I like it, it will definitely improve my work, and noone said anything to me about how my finishes and stains look.

I joined a much bigger woodworking forum last summer and within a couple of weeks decided to never go back. I had been insulted for something I said from experience, and the insulters were both computer programmers by day, and hobbyists by night. I felt that they had their opinions, but it wasn’t based so much on their experience. I didn’t get mad, just found another group of people that I liked better, and stuck with lumberjocks.

If lumberjocks got to the “insult” point, then I would probably be less excited and interested in it also. Why? Is it my ego that gets stepped on? I have to be honest, and say that is has to play into the equation. On the other hand, we have to take everything someone says with a thorough understanding of how they speak, and what they are really trying to say. A humble person is seldom insulted, because they don’t view what people say as insults.

Several years ago, a guy that was discipling me in my personality showed me some things I found interesting and challenging. He didn’t tell me anything about my woodworking, but helped me understand the “heart” of someone who is “teachable”. I had spent most of my life as unteachable, and I wanted to change that with his help.

Here are some highlights of the proverbs he showed me.
  • Proverbs 9:8 Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.
  • Proverbs 13:1 A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, but a mocker does not listen to rebuke.
  • Proverbs 15:31: He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise.
  • Proverbs 25:12: Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear.
  • Ecclesiastes 7:5 It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke than to listen to the song of fools.

The consistent theme of these verses, and hundreds of others, is that a person is wise if they listen to criticism, and they can grow from the experience. I see you in the same light, and appreciate your desire to hear honest and real feedback.

How do you get that from this website, or any website? I don’t know. I know I won’t personally criticize your work on a website that gets as much website press as this site gets. Don’t believe me, just look at the number of “reads” my silliy little blog has gotten on the Compucarver. It is scary to think how many people are reading my thoughts on the subject that don’t know me, nor are they members of the lumberjocks site. Makes me consider carefully what I say, and how accurate I am.

I have gotten many emails from other lumberjocks asking specific questions about things that neither of us would want to see displayed in the comments of a project for the public to view. The new private email system is great, and it might provide the private comments that you are seeking. I would be much more apt to comment privately about something I have seen in a project photo if I knew the person wanted custructive criticizm, AND, others wouldn’t be able to read it.

I have seen work at shows that was beautifully crafted, but ugly in proportion. A woodworker can’t hide proportion in a photo either. But, how do I tell that person that? I have also seen work that was beautiful in proportion, well crafted, and had a rough finish like sandpaper.

How do I say anything to them? I don’t.

One nice thing about shows is that “shoppers” and “judges” will tell you what you need to hear, and that is the main reason I want to attend shows, and the higher caliber the better.

The more buying public feedback you can get the better. I try to listen to all of it, and often times it is not pretty. People say some things that don’t seem so rude on the surface, but after you think about it awhile, it just makes me mad. I have learned to be prepared for it, and listen to the “truth” in it, even when it is something that could make me mad.

For instance, I entered my best cookie receipe in the County Fair this past August. I was pretty convinced that my cookies were the best, and I wanted to see if it was true. I got only one comment from the judge “very dry” and didn’t place in the competition. Now, at first, I couldn’t get over it. What did they mean “very dry” it is a whole wheat and oatmeal cookie. Of course it is “dry”. But, I went back home and started playing with my receipe again, I found some ways to make it less dry, and my cookie is better now, and I was “wise” to listen to the feedback and not get mad, or pass it off.

The same is true in woodworking. My dad never comments on any of my projects. I don’t know why, but he never says anything, not even a hint. I will spend several minutes explaining how I did this, or that, and expect a comment. It never comes. I feel it is not his fault, but it is MY FAULT. He spent a large part of his life trying to teach an unteachable kid, why would he think I was ready to be taught now? I have learned that it is all in the spirit of my own heart whether he, or others will try to help me.

Just because you are asking the question, I feel you have the right heart for improving, and would offer any help I can personally give you in that regard. But, my desire for you to be a “friend” is greater than my desire for you to hear my comments. So, in a lot of ways it is up to both of us.

I’ll keep a better eye on this thread to see what others are thinking.
thanks for blogging,

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

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