Work Slow to Work Fast

MEK Woodworks - Cabinet

By Matt Kenney

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Deliberate, thoughtful work is always quickest

I spent 3 weeks in Melbourne, Australia in October, teaching 3 classes while I was there. There was a 1 day kumiko course, a 2 day box class, and an 8 day class during which me made the tea cabinet in the photo above. The students in the classes covered a broad range of experience and ability, and that requires the instructor to tailor what’s taught to each person or a small group so that everyone gets as much as they can from the class. However, there was one woodworking truth that cropped up for everyone (even me) at least a few times: If you work in a hurry and without focus, you will make mistakes, and mistakes slow you down. In fact, I ended up developing a little mantra during those classes: Go slow to go fast.

Making a piece of furniture, or even a small box, is a complicated process, and you must be in command of the process in order to see it through successfully. And the only way I know to be in command of what I am doing is to have my wits about me, to know what I need to do, to understand thoroughly what’s required of me to do it, and to have a clear, focused mind while I am doing it. This comprehensive knowledge and clarity of mind is, I believe, the most challenging part of furniture making. I’ve said before that making furniture is like conducting a symphony in which you also play all of the instruments (and perhaps even wrote). It’s the overarching knowledge and focus on the whole that allows you to work quickly without making catastrophic mistakes.

I’ve thought quite a bit about the state of knowledge and mind necessary to make furniture successfully. More thought is certainly needed, but I’ve distilled a few critical points so far.

  1. Before going into the shop to start a piece, make sure you thoroughly understand how it will be made. You should know all the steps you must take and the order in which you must take them: rough out parts, mill parts for case, cut those parts to final dimensions, cut joinery, etc. Drill down into those high-level steps. What must you do in order to cut a dovetail, for example. And then breakdown the steps needed to cut a dovetail. What, for example, must you do in order to lay out the tails? I often write an outline detailing the steps I’ll take and the techniques I’ll use. It’s a time-saving reference in the shop that helps me keep focus and stay on the right path.

  2. Hidden in the advice above is an important truth. In order to make furniture, you must know how to weave together the various steps and techniques. If you are making a wall cabinet that has shelves, when do you cut the dadoes for the shelves? Before cutting the case joinery? After? Before gluing the case together? Should you use a liner and cut the dadoes in the liner? Use a router? A dado set? Cut them by hand? These are all questions you should answer before you begin, and you should understand why your answer is the best one for the current piece. Knowing how to organize the entire process and why it should be done that way minimizes the chance you’ll get lost along the way.

  3. After you are in the shop, think about what you are about to do before you do it. Take a moment to look over the rough boards before you joint them. Notice the grain direction and think about the implications of jointing one face/edge rather than the other. For example, you can choose to joint a face that allows you to immediately joint an edge without cutting against the grain. However, perhaps you’d rather get rid of that edge because it has too much sapwood. In that case, you’re better off jointing the other edge first, and that means you should joint the other face first. Can you do that? Would it be safe? If not, joint the safe face first, go to the planer, and then back to the jointer. It doesn’t take long to determine the best way forward before you start a specific step.

  4. Stay focused. If you find your mind wandering, stop working. Go clear your mind and then get back to work. The time spent outside the shop refocusing your mind is trivial compared to the time spent correcting a mistake made due to an unfocused mind (not to mention the frustration of making the mistake in the first place).

Looking at these 4 points now, I notice that what ties them together is the patience to think deeply and clearly about what you’ll do before you do it and the willingness to take time to save time. The better you understand what you’ll be doing, the more quickly you’ll be able to do it. And I do think it’s critical that you do it before you start working. After you start, there are far too many other things to think about and focus on. You should write the symphony and understand which instruments come into play and when before you actually start playing it, I suppose.

Thanks for reading and supporting my work. Let me know if you have questions or thoughts.

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