Experience Library


Failure Is The Only Option

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.
— W.C. Fields

The year was 2002:  MTV showed us that in real life Ozzy Osbourne is actually more like your 95-year-old grandmother than the Prince of Darkness, people who couldn’t be bothered to read the books finally found out what was hiding in the Chamber of Secrets, and Whitney Houston reminded us all that crack is, indeed, whack.  In the midst of this pop culture hurricane, I attempted to build my first furniture project and failed miserably.

I wanted to build a blanket chest that would be used initially as a toy box.  I found a picture of one that I liked, and it seemed simple enough, so I headed down to my local big box store and bought some S4S hard maple.  I owned no woodworking tools beyond a few light duty f-style clamps and a circular saw at this point, so while I was at the store I also purchased a new tool:  a biscuit joiner.  My first (and last, as it turned out) step on this project was to glue up the panels for the sides and top.  I laid out my boards and used the biscuit joiner to cut slots in all the edges.  At the time, I wasn’t totally clear on why I needed to do this, but that’s what Norm did, so I figured it must be the right course of action.  I slathered on some glue, clamped up my panels, and let them cook overnight.

As you can probably imagine, when I removed the clamps the following day, I was disappointed in the results.  Maybe disappointed isn’t the right word.  Distraught is probably more accurate.  My panels were noticeably wavy instead of flat, there were gaps in my joints, there was too much glue squeeze out to clean off without damaging the wood, and, despite using dozens of freaking biscuits, the joints were misaligned.  I was beset by issues that I had neither the knowledge, skillset, nor tooling to correct.

So I quit woodworking and never looked back, right?  Wrong!  I tried again with a less ambitious project and succeeded due to all the lessons I learned in my first aborted attempt.  What could I have possibly learned from this disaster?  I learned that all the boards in a glue-up must be flat for the panel to be flat, you can’t assume lumber marked as S4S will be true, you need to joint edges to get a seamless glue line, you have to remove the glue squeeze out before it fully hardens, and that biscuits aren’t really needed for alignment except in special circumstances.  Gluing up a panel is perhaps one of the most fundamental skills that a woodworker needs to learn, and the lessons I took away from my first attempt served me well on subsequent projects.

Failing isn’t a bad thing; failure is what makes you better.  Practicing a skill is exactly the same as exercising:  when you lift weights, you cause small amounts of damage to the muscle causing your body to build additional muscle tissue for repairs, which makes you get stronger.   Likewise, when you make mistakes in your woodworking, you naturally adapt your techniques, which leads to success in future attempts.  I like to think that I have a library of previous mistakes and failures to draw upon whenever I take on a new project.  If you want to become a better woodworker, just remember that the only practical difference between a master and his apprentice are the number of mistakes each person has accumulated in their experience library.  Now go make something and start building a library of your own.