Play Your Own Game

By Rex Krueger

Rex’s YouTube Channel

Woodworkers are a judgy bunch. The judgments come as questions, but the edge of criticism is right under the surface.

“That joint didn’t quite come together, did it?”

“Got a bit of fish-eye in that lacquer, huh?”

I hear craftspeople say these things to each other all the time. The opinions are rarely asked for and probably unwelcome. I don’t think any of us likes hearing that someone found a gap in our dovetail or a spot of tear-out in our tabletop. We don’t enjoy receiving these subtle jabs, but we dish them out fast enough. Why do we do it?

Maybe lack of confidence. Petty judgments are the refuge of the insecure, and we judge each other lest we be judged. I’m sure that’s part of it, but there’s another reason. I think we misunderstand what people are doing. We don’t know why they create. We take our own set of standards and apply them to everyone as if they were universal. We need to realize that everyone in this craft is playing a different game.

Game? Game?!

Yup, it’s a game. But no, I hear you say, a game has rules. A game is played for points. Well, the rules in this game might be subtle, but they certainly exist. One rule is, “Visual perfection is the mark of skill.” Another is, “Do not paint over beautiful wood grain.” And no, we don’t play for points, but we put money and time into the hobby in the hope of extracting emotional enjoyment. That’s a game. The cyclist pours money into a carbon-fiber bike in the hope of shaving a few seconds off their time. The woodworker buys a helical surface planer to get faster at stock preparation. Money and resources go in one end, and we hope that fulfillment and satisfaction come out the other end.

Unless you’re a professional woodworker. In that case, you’re still playing a game, and your points are called “dollars.”

I’ve written before about how there is no such thing as woodworking, how the craft is actually dozens of loosely related crafts that merely take wood as their material. But it’s also true that even within one craft (like furniture making), people can play under very different rules.

Consider the “modern” machine woodworker. This person takes pleasure in precision. They set up their machines with a dial-indicator. They strive for glass-smooth surfaces and piston-fit drawers. Everything is meant to be straight, crisp, and geometrically perfect. Right angles shall be 90°, never 91.

Rex Krueger Joinery

Swing around to the opposite end of the spectrum, and you’ll find the green wood chair-maker. This person takes joy from a close relationship with the material. They might fell their own trees, split out their own stock, bend parts in a steam-box and assemble joints without glue. Everything is about tradition and a long line of rural craftspeople dragging chairs from the forest by wit and muscle alone.

Each of these people might build a chair. The two chairs will certainly be very different, but–and here’s the key point–both chairs can still be good. The two pieces might differ in design, process, and surface, but both can hold a person comfortably. Both chairs can be dramatic, stylish, or comfortingly traditional.

It’s not simply that the two craftspeople are using different techniques; they’re working with a different set of values. While the machine woodworker values straightness and smoothness, the green woodworker values the strength of unbroken grain and the subtle tension that holds a chair together. Whose values are better? Well, neither. Obviously.

As a craftsperson, you are completely free to decide on your own values and pursue them to the best of your ability. You might choose mechanical precision or delight in making wood do seemingly impossible things. You might choose traditional and proven methods for making useful objects. All of these are good values, even better because no one can pursue everything. We must choose, and in choosing, we define not just what our pieces will look like but also why we set tools to wood in the first place.

After years in the craft, most of us do pick a set of values and find a way to pursue them predictably and efficiently. The more we succeed, the more convinced we become that our values are the correct ones and that we should tell other people all we’ve learned about doing things the “right” way. And we should tell people, but only if they ask. Unsolicited criticism is generally unwanted. When I show my own work, I hope for a discussion, but I’m not asking for a critique. I don’t enter my work in shows or competitions, and I’m not asking to be judged.

I try to apply this to the people I meet. If I’m looking at someone’s work, I try to understand why they made it and what they were hoping to achieve. Often, I just have to ask the craftsperson these questions, but the work itself tells me a lot. If there’s a bit of splintered wood around a joint or a tiny ripple in the finish, I assume that the maker is perfectly aware of these “flaws” but isn’t concerned about them because they value something else, something like proportion, unity, or process. I try to remember that I can help someone else play their game, but I shouldn’t expect them to play mine.

I shouldn’t judge someone else by my values. They have their own values, and theirs are just as good as mine.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *