All Replies on Precision: How close is close enough?

  • Advertise with us
View RogerBean's profile

Precision: How close is close enough?

by RogerBean
posted 01-31-2011 08:33 PM

18 replies so far

View dbray45's profile


3320 posts in 2805 days

#1 posted 01-31-2011 08:38 PM

Well, if you make a dovetail more than about 0.01 too big or you don’t cut the pins or tails straight, you can split the wood—makes a nice wedge—isn’t this fun???

-- David in Damascus, MD

View roninkokomo's profile


14 posts in 2700 days

#2 posted 01-31-2011 08:41 PM

One rule that I have operated by for the last 35 years. “If you have to ask yourself, is this good enough? . It isn’t”
I think more than anything precision is a habit. Having said that we need to remember that the medium actually moves and working in thousandths of an inch in a lot of situations is wasted effort. But the human eye can be trained to detect very small discrepancies that should not be accepted.

I think accurate work is a habit that one learns, but must be governed by a small dose of common sense.


-- roninkokomo

View dbray45's profile


3320 posts in 2805 days

#3 posted 01-31-2011 08:46 PM

Isn’t that the truth— Ever put something together that barely held and when you get it out of the shop the thing requires a crowbar to get it apart? Remember that set of drawers you did for somebody and a couple of months later you are planing the edges and the next winter the drawers are so loose???

This is what makes this interesting.

-- David in Damascus, MD

View CharlieM1958's profile


16275 posts in 4246 days

#4 posted 01-31-2011 08:48 PM

Certainly food for thought, Roger. I agree that my standard for “close enough” has gotten stricter over time, but I doubt I’ll ever get down to sweating thousandths here or there. I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter…. It’s just that I’ll never have enough practice to get that good.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View CiscoKid's profile


343 posts in 2902 days

#5 posted 01-31-2011 09:07 PM

There are always dial calipers, micrometers, and dial indicators handy in my wood shop. A habit brought about by 14 years designing scientific test apparatuses. With that said, it is indeed very frustrating when the piece changes dimensions at the onset of winter.

-- Al, Culpeper VA

View Viktor's profile


466 posts in 3447 days

#6 posted 01-31-2011 09:37 PM

0.2 mm is about my standard also. Certainly for dovetails, meters etc. It does not always work out this way on practice though. Yes, wood is unstable, but it won’t change much in the time you are making a joint or a project. For large pieces, such as bed rail I’ll cut at least within 0.5 mm. Nobody will ever notice, but it just feels good.

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 3064 days

#7 posted 01-31-2011 10:21 PM

I usually like to work to 0.1 mm or 4 thou(sandths of an inch). Thing is when you consider how wood moves, expands and contracts am I fooling myself?

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

View dbray45's profile


3320 posts in 2805 days

#8 posted 01-31-2011 10:25 PM

In my oppinion, what ever works for you – works for you. Its all good! Each board is different and as such, each of us are different in what we see and how we do things. If it works – be safe – and keep doing it.

-- David in Damascus, MD

View Pop's profile


427 posts in 3974 days

#9 posted 01-31-2011 10:28 PM

Folks, wood moves. It moves a lot. A human hair is 3 thousands in diameter. I don’t think thousands is a word for wood. That’s a metal word. I remember back in drafting class ” + – .0005” that’s a very highly finished hunk of metal. Wood is more in the range of 100s. 0.0156 inch or 0.397 MM is 1/64 of an inch. If you use that measurement as a clearance for a drawer is ‘ante gona open very well.


-- One who works with his hands is a laborer, his hands & head A craftsman, his hands, head & heart a artist

View PurpLev's profile


8536 posts in 3676 days

#10 posted 01-31-2011 10:45 PM

I think for woodworking 1/64 or 0.016” is as close as you want to get without having to worry about parts getting wedged within.

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View Seeharlez's profile


83 posts in 3021 days

#11 posted 01-31-2011 10:49 PM

It’s all relative! At my job I design parts that are steel fabrications, machined parts, welded assemblies and so forth. There can’t be one standard tolerance for everything. Within a single joint you may need very tight tolernaces in the range of thousandths of an inch, but that’s why you usually need to trim to fit. Where as you wouldn’t expect the overall dimension of a cabinet or table to be that tight. In that case you may be dealing with 32nds or even 16ths or 8ths.

What’s really important is where you dimension from. Dimensions should be relative to the surfaces that matter to that particular feature. In engineering this is part of what is called geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (a.k.a. GD&T). it can be quite complicated but the basic principals are very relavent to woodworking, be it for the professional or for the amateur hobbyist. The myth is that GD&T makes things more dificult to make but the reality is the it often reveals that some dimensions can be toleranced much looser and it hightlights the dimensions that really do need to be made precisely. Anyways, thers is lots of info available online on the subject. Wkipedia for example.

-- Greg - Vancouver, BC

View canadianchips's profile


2602 posts in 3025 days

#12 posted 01-31-2011 11:39 PM

Finally all above comments .
Striving for perfection is a great goal. Accepting a tolerance level when the job is finished is reality.
I have been laughing and grinning for the past couple of moinths at people “Setting their fences”, “Using micrometers” calibrating special CNC tools, “thinking they are getting the high end jobs because their reveals are within 1/1000”, if you can look at my house and 1 of the 30 cabinets doors reveal is 1/1000 of an inch smaller than the rest———you should be doing brain surgery with out the magnified monacle, or building swiss watches. (I sleep well knowing it is that crooked) l
Seriously though, when we built 100 ft x 500 ft barns and the diagonal was outta square by an inch oor two, THAT WAS accepted, when we did finish work and the cabinets were outta square by 1/16 of an inch, THAT was accepted, I guess if I am building intricate small boxes or marquery work an even smaller tolerance would be accepted.
It really boils down to what we are comfortable with at the end of the day. I know Iam not going to look at another persons work and say to them, YIKES it’s out by a hair !

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View itsmic's profile


1419 posts in 3146 days

#13 posted 02-01-2011 01:03 AM

Very interesting subject, all have good points, and each project presents it’s own specification criteria. I work out in the cold, my supplies of wood stay outside also, under cover of the barn, but susceptible to the ambient humidity and temps. It’s a real hassle when I bring the stuff in for finishing and it starts to change. The up side to this, is I account for movement in the construction, making things extra tight, joint wise, and leaving extra space for things to shrink and expand, floor wise, they usually shrink when I bring them into warmer, dryer conditions. I always use a caliber, just to see how close I am getting to exact, it really helps to consider all the aspects discussed above, there is no one rule to follow, as stated. Hey, if any of my boxes ever end up in a storage area for a few winters, they will survive, they have already stood the test of extreme humidity and temperature changes, making something that will last a long time means it has to withstand some abuse. ie. there’s a lot of antiques out there with some sort of damage. Of course some of the beautiful and priceless things I have seen here on lj’s will probably never have to be tested in those ways, thankfully. thanks for bring it up

-- It's Mic Keep working and sharing

View shipwright's profile (online now)


7993 posts in 2826 days

#14 posted 02-01-2011 03:50 AM

I guess it comes from all the fitting to strange angles and curves in boats but I never use measuring instruments other than a steel tape no matter what tolerance I’m working to in terms of fit. I fit the pieces until they’re right. To me it’s not often important, within 1/16” anyway, how big something is as long as all the parts fit each other well enough. By well enough I mean that to the human eye it looks appropriate. I applaud those of you who venture into the thousandths of an inch, I guess I just don’t understand why.

-- Paul M ..............If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fibreglass trees.

View bigike's profile


4052 posts in 3316 days

#15 posted 02-01-2011 04:20 AM

wow, The only time i think about precision like that is when I’m setting up my saw as far as my work goes I’m still in the 1/16-1/32 range. I wouldn’t mind doing more polish work with a caliper gauge and or mm’s just to learn it. My math is garbage though so I don’t think I’ll ever leave the 16th-32nd range I’m trapped. I actually like this topic though.

-- Ike, Big Daddies Woodshop,

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 2981 days

#16 posted 02-01-2011 03:23 PM

Great comments all. Perhaps shipwright has his finger on the best way to say it. It’s the appropriate look and fit that makes the precision “right”. We speak in “tolerances” but actually, when it fits, the tolerance is zero. That’s true in boxes, certainly. Certainly on small items no gaps are acceptable. My flyrod example may be an exception, as the precise dimensions of the taper directly determine the “action” of the rod, though no “gaps” are acceptable here either. I can’t think of too many like this, however, possibly wood bows.

Wood movement is a factor, as noted above. A major factor in using stable substrates with veneered boxes and items, but with rather small boxes, it’s not a huge factor. Things still must fit correctly, as shipwright notes. Precise fit, however, even when working in thousands of an inch, is probably more a matter of proper fixtures and processes than any particular “magic” on the part of the craftsman. As they say, “It’s easier when you know how.” Working on a “small scale” is certainly different than making full sized furniture or larger. Not harder necessarily, but certainly different.

So, perhaps I asked the wrong question. Maybe it’s not the precision, but the fit. Thanks all for your comments.

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View Nomad62's profile


726 posts in 2986 days

#17 posted 02-01-2011 06:56 PM

A truly great woodworker (he makes repairs on historically significant buildings) once told me that the precision he shoots for is pretty much dependant on the size of the project. His statement was that if you hold a wood box in your hand, you could easily see all of the boo boos as they were relatively huge; and that if you were to look at a 10’ tall piece you would not even notice the same boo boo. Makes sense to me.

-- Power tools put us ahead of the monkeys

View BritBoxmaker's profile


4611 posts in 3064 days

#18 posted 02-01-2011 09:47 PM

You could say ‘Close enough for rock ‘n’ roll’ does most of the time.

-- Martyn -- Boxologist, Pattern Juggler and Candyman of the visually challenging.

Have your say...

You must be signed in to reply.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics