Do You Really Want to Learn? Then Set Yourself Up for Failure

I think that we try too hard to succeed. Because of that, our learning is impeded.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say that I want to build a simple stool for my workshop – a utilitarian piece and one where I am free to experiment because I am the only user of the piece.

I could use the best chairmaking practices and use straight-grained, clear maple for the legs which is very strong. 1-1/4″ square legs look about right. And, for the seat, maybe I want to scoop out the seat by hand, so I might choose an easy-to work wood like butternut. It’s a hardwood that’s a little softer than black walnut. To go with the legs, the seat should be, perhaps 1-1/8″ thick. And I could use a strong joint between the legs and the seat – maybe a dado and rabbet “Maloof” joint which isn’t too difficult to execute, yet lots of strength thanks to lots of glue surface and mechanical interlock.

Here’s the stool. I built it back in 2014 as part of the Shop Stool Build-Off.

It’s a great stool. It continues to serve me well to this day. In fact, it has been adopted by the house and serves my family and guests on a regular basis.

But aside from the experience of making it, I didn’t learn anything. The stool was overbuilt. It has not failed. I did not learn how strong maple or butternut is – I never see or feel the legs or seat flex. I did not learn about the strength of the joinery – I have not witnessed any movement in the joint area, and have not seen any gaps appear.

Now, let’s look at a different example.

Let’s set some parameters to make this difficult. I want to build a chair. It must be a completely original design. The primary material is to be wood. The seat must be comfortable and dynamic (it must move with the user). No upholstery. The chair must be as lightweight as possible. It must support me comfortably. And it must be done in three weeks.

Whoa. Now, this could be a challenge. This will push my abilities. To build a chair meeting these criteria will require a lot of thought and experimentation.

Here’s one the prototypes I built in 2013.

The chair is no longer around. It’s broken. It was a chair. It was an original design. It was primarily wood. The seat was dynamic. It was lightweight. It was comfortable. And it was lightweight.

By the time it was completed, I already had ideas to make it better. So I built another version. And I used and abused that chair. I broke a seat slat by intentionally sitting on it goofy. I replaced the slat and came up with more modifications to improve the design.

I learned about bending wood without heat or glue. I learned about the strength of ash. I learned how much weight a slat bolted onto a frame at one end can endure. I learned how much weight a slat glued onto a frame at one end can endure. I learned about when a good mortise and tenon joint can fail under load. I learned how cutting out the centre of a slat weakens the part, can cause it to twist and become surprisingly more flexible. I had to figure out how to cut out the centre of that slat.

I learned a lot because I set myself up to build a failed chair.

3 thoughts on “Do You Really Want to Learn? Then Set Yourself Up for Failure

  1. I often feel like, in attempting to adequately build something for commission (where I do NOT want it to fail in any way, shape, or form; also, I get very nervous when things go wrong during the build process), that I have more than enough learning experiences that serve two multiple purposes. One is that I learn about the deficiencies of my woodworking skills. A second is that I learn about the limitations of the wood I’m using or a tool I’m using. A third is that I learn about how to repair mistakes to a level where it does not appear (or it does not appear as a mistake).

    As soon as I can consistently make projects without making mistakes, I’ll start interjecting mistakes back into my work. (what?)

    1. I feel that with one-off furniture making, it should be expected that there will be mistakes. Fixes, adjustments, and modifications are all part of the building process.

      In a production run where all the processes are jigged mistakes can be greatly reduced. With the right jigs and enough care in stock selection, perhaps a piece can be made without any mistakes.

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