(posted this originally to alt.crafts.woodturning since it used
turning as an example. But the idea is applicable to any type
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.
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