#410: Catnip for Perfectionists

Holding between fingers a maple leaf, green center radiating to red, still connected to branch.
Wilderness State Park, Michigan (Oct 2023)

I’ve had a temporary workshop in my basement for the last year or so, which amounts to little more than a portable table saw, a workmate plucked from my parents’ house, and a pair of sawhorses with a sheet of plywood laid across. For the last couple of weeks, with an eye toward winter, I’ve set about making the shop more permanent.

I drew a floor plan but didn’t make a model; it was quicker in its current state just to move things around. An hour here, another there, an afternoon trip to pick up a cabinet or table from Marketplace. It’s been a couple of years since our basement flooded – enough years and storms for me to be confident that the solution we’ve put in (which turned out to be a $10 plug for the floor drain) will keep it from flooding again. As I reorganize the shop, I keep encountering moments when I know I need something there, in a particular spot, but I don’t yet know what that something is.


The whole basement, pre-reconfiguration.

I take this to mean that I’m not practiced enough to know the answer yet. Storage is begotten by remains of past projects. You get a set of anchors to hang one picture frame and have extras for future hanging, or you get the full set of drill bits because it costs nominally more than the single. You build a bench or deck and have offcuts of cedar, poplar, plywood. Tools and machines aren’t so different either. You start with a palm sander and end up with a two-stage dust collection system five times the cost and fifty times the size of the sander. The other day I lost hours comparing automatic switches that, when you turn on your power tool, will automatically turn on your vacuum with it.

I have this idealized version of woodworking: you start out with only hand tools, get good with those, then pick up various electric tools and machines to automate the repetitive stuff, the things not pleasurable for you to do by hand. But even hand tools need sharpening and honing, with the requisite stones and guides and strops. As Paul Ford says, “the supply chain is fractal: Zoom in on your stuff and there’s more stuff, ad infinitum.”

Plus, this mode of paleo-carpentry (or medieval-carpentry?) is catnip for perfectionists; it can stifle projects and progress, keep you from doing, learning – making the mistakes required to learn. In practice, I’ve accrued a small collection of power tools because they were quickest way into projects without having to develop the sawfeel to make a square crosscut. Or because I’ve inherited them from friends and family and it’s hard to turn down free stuff. Or because that’s what the person in the YouTube video was using. I’ve added hand tools to my library, too, after the fact because the machines were overwhelmingly noisy, messy, and not-portable.

Library, yes, that’s the word. A workshop is personal library, prone to expansion and contraction. It compends ambition, with all its unbuilt birdhouses. From time to time it needs culling, ordering, to inspire anew. It’s never complete, but always perfect in its own way, for at any instant it reflects wholly all your past, present, and future selves.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some fasteners to sort.