Marks of the Master –


This is from a rather standard talk that I usually give to beginning woodworkers. While it is specifically geared toward craftsmen it has ramifications for everyday human endeavors.

In the world of craftsmanship there are 4 paramount principles that seem to be terribly difficult for people to grasp. This is interesting in that they are so simple as to be somewhat self-evident. I list them in ascending order of importance.

  1. The Master makes the task look easy.
  2. The Master knows how to correct errors and goofs.
  3. The Master knows when to stop improving things.
  4. The Master does not tell you where the imperfections are.

The master makes the task look easy. He has had years of training, practice and experience at the task. When I was teaching ballroom dancing many, many years ago we called this muscle memory. A task is learned and repeated so many times that the conscious mind is no longer concentrating on the individual moves but rather on the desired goal. The individual hand/body movements necessary are not consciously considered. Therefore the conscious mind can see the results rather than the technique used to achieve the result.

The master knows how to correct errors and goofs. The master had done the task so many times that he has committed just about all the goofs possible and has had to work around them many times. Since he had done all this so many time error correction is just about unconsciously automatic.

The master knows when to stop improving things. How many times in the accomplishment of a given craft task have we totally ruined all the previous work? Too many to count. The master has also been there many times and has learned when the task is about as good as can be reasonably expected and any further efforts will reduce quality.

The master does not tell you where the imperfections are. This may be the hardest thing of all to learn. The true master does not need words to tell you about his work. He lets the work speak for itself. As craftsmen we are so close to the work that we get a magnified view of the created article. We know intimately every slight blemish. We tend to be apologetic when showing our work to others. Try this the next time you are making something: When it is about as good as you can get it put it away for several days/weeks/months as necessary. Come back and look at the thing as though you were seeing it for the first time. You may be surprised at just how good your work is. The ancient Japanese had the philosophy that there is no perfection in life. They believed that perfection was an unobtainable but desirable goal that was more a journey than a destination. Most of the ancient craft objects have perished with the centuries, however, some of the pottery has survived. You can see breathtakingly beautiful objects in museums. Some of the best are terribly close to perfection. Since the artisans believed that there was no perfection in this life they would frequently make a deliberate imperfection in their work. Some examples are bowls that have deliberate indentations on the rim so that the rim is not perfectly concentric. We might do better to adopt some of their attitude and not get so terribly worked up when our own work is not perfect. Again I say, strive for perfection but do not expect to get there this side of the grave. And don’t tell people where the minor flaws are. You don’t need to apologize for your work. That which is made by man will always have some flaws. It may be quite useful. It may also have great beauty. If it is that bad, chalk it up to learning and get on to the next one.

Think about it. These principles can be applied to many things in life. When you are cooking for company don’t tell people how bad something is or how it wasn’t what you wanted. If is inedible, toss it. If it is edible, serve it without comment. Sit back and enjoy the company of your guests. It may surprise you how much some of them will like something that you consider less than perfect. The best cooking ingredient of all is love. Try it.


2 Responses to “Marks of the Master –”

  1. turtlemom3 Says:

    Herself sez: Himself left off one point he usually makes: In crafting, “if you can’t hide it or fix it, celebrate it.” This is not original to him – it has come down from craftsman to craftsman. Ever wonder why chefs started dribbling chocolate all over the plates? Hmmm. Didn’t want to have to replate, so one dribbled more or less artistically to “celebrate” an accident and they all took it up! Yeah! You Get the idea. Now transfer to other crafts for yourself.

  2. Vanessa Says:

    Funny. This post seemed to transcend literal interpretation and speak to my spirit. Thank you for posting this.

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