Myths about Accuracy

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Blog entry by JoeMB posted 01-27-2017 08:05 PM 1071 reads 2 times favorited 10 comments Add to Favorites Watch

There are some myths that are confusing to me as I start out in woodworking, and I want to address them here. First the myths:

Myth: I can do “dead on” accurate work.
Myth: I can produce a perfect woodworking project.
Myth: I will love my own work because it is of such high quality.

Let’s take each one:

Myth: I can do “dead on” accurate work.

The intention of the statement when I have heard it is clear, and it is spoken in good faith, of course. What is meant is that I should use the technique being demonstrated to measure or mark or saw or plane something to the level of accuracy that I need for success. And if I do, it both feels really satisfying, and my project will move toward successful completion.

But the real story about accuracy is more subtle: It is impossible to make errors in measurement and execution entirely disappear. And I don’t know about you, but I find that I am much happier when I accept this view of reality.

Fact 1: I cannot work wood with perfect accuracy.
Instead, I work to keep my errors small enough not to matter. My job is to be sure my errors are consistently small enough to not matter for my desired outcome. So:

Fact 2: I strive for my woodworking errors and inaccuracies to be so small that they don’t matter.
In addition, I have noticed something else. It is possible to have a set of measurements, each which appear to be accurate, but which then add up to a noticeable inaccuracy. Try scribing a knife line around an apparently square board and you will know what I mean. This also shows up in mitered picture frames and boxes—three joints may fit well, but the fourth may seem out. Well, the fourth is always subject to the sum of the inaccuracy of the other three joints. (There are solutions to both techniques, but this is not the place for that discussion.)

Fact 3: Inaccuracies do add together.

This means that it is my job is to work with the consequences of the total inaccuracy of my work. It helps to keep the frustration down when I admit that inaccuracies add up.

Myth: I can produce a perfect woodworking project.

Somehow, I have always had an ideal target in mind for most of what I do. And in woodworking especially, it is important to notice that no project or outcome is going to be perfect. It needs to be good enough, perhaps, but it will always have noticeable flaws and shortcomings.

Fact 4: All woodworking I do will contain flaws.

And as the picky guy who did the woodworking project, I will often know where all the flaws are, especially those which I had to try to hide in some way.

Myth: I will love my own work because it is of such high quality.

So when I finish a project, I will always see a lot of flaws. I should see them of course, because I just spent hours and hours trying to avoid them! So I am finding that when I finish a project, I must go through a reprogramming of my brain. What do I mean? Now is the time to spend some time celebrating my successes. The nice planing job on that side. The nice rebate there. The nice miter joint on that corner. The overall balance of lines, the nice wood grain. There are many successes usually, if I look for them. But I must consciously go through this celebration to stop obsessing about accuracy and reward myself for a job that is now done, for better or for worse.

Fact 5: I will usually see the flaws more than anyone else will.

Fact 6: I need to find my satisfaction in the process of working the wood, in the beauty of the wood and in my successes in working it, not obsessing on the failures, flaws and inaccuracies that I can find at the end.

-- JoeMB "Using Sharp Things to Damage Wood ..."

10 comments so far

View Ocelot's profile


2374 posts in 3240 days

#1 posted 01-27-2017 08:39 PM

This is a very nice post!

Enjoying the journey really is most of the value of hobby woodworking.


View Dan P's profile

Dan P

738 posts in 2494 days

#2 posted 01-27-2017 08:57 PM


Maybe your frustration lies in your definition of error.

Fact 1: I cannot work wood with perfect accuracy.
Instead, I work to keep my errors small enough not to matter. My job is to be sure my errors are consistently small enough to not matter for my desired outcome.

-- Daniel P

View Redoak49's profile


4341 posts in 2590 days

#3 posted 01-27-2017 09:59 PM

I find satisfaction in learning to be a little bit better with each project and not being afraid to fail.

View Texcaster's profile


1286 posts in 2276 days

#4 posted 01-27-2017 10:17 PM

The biggest temptation to overcome is pointing out your inaccuracies to others.

-- Mama calls me Texcaster but my real name is Mr. Earl.

View Mean_Dean's profile


7016 posts in 3749 days

#5 posted 01-27-2017 11:44 PM

Wood is an organic product of nature, and moves around and does other things. And with the woodworking tools available to a homeowner, you can get very good accuracy—but not perfect accuracy. So be content with doing your best, learning from every mistake, and knowing that in the end, it doesn’t really matter because the owner of the project will love it just the same.

Now if you want perfect accuracy, you’ll have to go to a precision machine shop, work in metal, and use high-end CNC machines to do the milling.

Personally, I’d rather work with wood…........!

-- Dean -- "Don't give up the ship -- fight her 'till she sinks!" Capt James Lawrence USN

View BurlyBob's profile


6889 posts in 2867 days

#6 posted 01-28-2017 01:47 AM

I love this post and agree with so much in it and the comments.

View canadianchips's profile


2632 posts in 3599 days

#7 posted 01-28-2017 03:34 AM

As a finishing carpenter for many years, WE used to say ” I will make the Carpenters work look good ”
One of the first houses I was hired to finish was :
Foundation was crooked.
Split level, lower level wall thickness (concrete) was 1 1/2 difference between top and bottom of a 32” window ! REALLY….....the guy that did foundation was fired.
Then when I built and installed kitchen cabinets (back in 80’ valence was common) my very last piece was also 1 1/2 out. Who ever framed wall from exterior into house forgot 1 2×4. The drywaller attached drywall to this crooked ceiling. My valence HAD to cover it !!!!!!!
When remodelling CROOKED houses are the NORM !
My mentors (masters in their trade from germany) used to say…...A good craftsman can cover the mistakes !

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View EEngineer's profile


1120 posts in 4215 days

#8 posted 01-28-2017 05:40 PM

My grandpa did woodworking all his life. He used to say “Everybody makes mistakes. You can tell a good woodworker by how he recovers from his mistakes!”

As for houses – I live in a 90-year-old colonial. I DEFY you to find one straight wall or square corner in it! I just spent the last year remodeling the kitchen and most of the time was spent correcting or adjusting for that.

-- "Find out what you cannot do and then go do it!"

View Kelster58's profile


759 posts in 1142 days

#9 posted 01-29-2017 12:45 PM

I teach wood shop to young people. I am constantly amazed by the “mistakes” students happily make because they are still developing their skills, they don’t know any better, or hurry, or at times don’t care. “Mistakes” very rarely affect function and appearance and if they do we try our best to fix them. Overcome and move on. In the end when parents and other teachers come into the shop to see the projects they walk around in amazement and say how beautiful everything is, as I think to myself how happy I am that the talented craftsmen and women from Lumberjocks aren’t here looking at these projects. I see the mistakes, this community would see the mistakes, most people don’t and that is the beauty of woodworking.

This is an excellent post. Words I live with every day.

-- K. Stone “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin

View Tim Royal 's profile

Tim Royal

315 posts in 2088 days

#10 posted 01-29-2017 04:14 PM

I agree about the journey though I do enjoy the finished result, but I especially like the fact that I get fewer mistakes and or better at hiding them with every single project… This way I can enjoy the finished project AND the journey.

-- -Tim Royal -"Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real." -Thomas Merton

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