The Workmanship of Risk - Working On The Cusp Of Failure

(posted this originally to alt.crafts.woodturning since it used turning as an example. But the idea is applicable to any type of woodworking)
The Workmanship of Risk - Working On The Cusp Of Failure
In the February 2007 issue of Woodwork - A Magazine For All Woodworkers, the editor, James Lavine did a commentary - Working on the Cusp of Failure. Trying to put his finger on what makes some pieces special, he indicates that it may be what David Pye termed “workmanship of risk”. The commentary mentions Windsor chairmaker Curtis Buchannan, who starts with a log, a froe and a mallet, splitting out wood which he then shapes with a drawknife and spoke shaves. I’ve never used a froe and mallet to split wood, but I have used a drawknife and spokeshave, so I understand what Buchannan means when he talks about working on the cusp of failure - one slip of the tool, one lapse in control, one hidden grain reversal and all bets are off - there is no Eraser in woodworking, stitches maybe, but no eraser. Once done, there’s no going back. Skin is self repairing - wood is not. But, SOMETIMES, where you go from there can lead to things you would probably not have thought of had it not been for a “failure”, or at least a little risk taking. The “fix” for the “failure” is often the most challenging / interesting part of woodworking. A F*ck Up MAY lead to a FEATURE - or a whole new design area, or technique.
Thinking about “the workmanship of risk”, it seems paradoxical that turning, while in one way is a very low risk type of woodworking - not much material, the material is readily available, often for free, not much time invested in trying something, is also a high risk propostion.
Consider this.
You’ve got a chunk of wood spinning at 300 to 3000 rpms, a bevel edged chunk of steel whose cutting edge is seldom flat and straight, with a long wooden handle attached to it, resting on a piece of iron or steel - and you remove wood by applying that cutting edge to moving wood, while you move the tool on multiple axis - while you rotate it around one or more axis? And this is often done with chips of wood flying at you - and sometimes obscuring where the edge meets the wood. Turning may be the riskiest of all the types of woodworking.
And it may be that because it is so risky, yet the consequences for taking risks is relatively small - even a total failure puts you out a small amount of wood, relatively speaking, and a waste of an hour or two - that turned pieces have gone in so many design directions. And freed from the constraint of the need for functionality which other types of woodworking require, a piece being turned can go almost anywhere - and for me at least - it does.
When I chuck up a piece of wood, I may start out with only a basic goal, a finial, a weed pot, a box, a plate or a bowl. What it will look like will be discovered during the turning, sometimes the result of the interaction of the rpms, the tool, the sharpness of the cutting edge, the wood, my ability or inability to get the tool to remove some wood where and how I think I want it removed - and what’s been revealed / done so far.
Now I can, and have, designed pulls, pegs, finials and the like, marked the control points on a blank and turned nearly identical multiples - four, eight or ten - doesn’t matter. Use the same tools the same way at the same places and you get the same results over and over again - most of the time. But after the second copy it gets pretty boring. Even adding a bead, a cove or a line, while different enough to keep it interesting for a short while, isn’t enough to keep me making more of basically the same thing.
Even starting out to do multiples may involve risk. A lapse of attention may “create” a spiral cut which needs to be turned away. And with that “mistake” gone, what’s left may present the first step of a completely different path than the one I started down. “Hmmm - if I . . .” may lead to something I would probably not thought of otherwise.
So where in this process do you go?
+ ----------> Risk <----------------------+ | | | | +----------+ | | Crisis Challenge | | | | | | Ah SH*T! Opportunity | | | | | +--- Trash It Fix It | ^ | | | +------------+-----------+ | +- Ah SH*T! Ho Hum. AH! --+ | Go have a cup of coffee
charlie b

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