Why We Build the Way We Do

I like to think I’m above average in the amateur enthusiast level of woodworker (don’t we all.) Still, even at my level of expertise I recognize a bit of snobbery in myself.

Last weekend I tried a new market to sell my work. It was a bust but gave me ample opportunity to walk around and socialize. Other vendors like to talk about various things they’ve made for their booths with me. One vendor who sold mason jar stuff (pickled eggs, canned vegetables, salsa, honey…) was especially proud of the new shelves he’d finished. A simple design where a sheet of plywood is cut up into shelves and sides, screwed together through the sides and squared and strengthened via a back panel screwed to everything. His was painted purple.

Now this is a perfectly acceptable design for its purpose. It held the weight, was environment appropriate, inexpensive and durable enough to be moved around a lot. It’s a design you see in lots of DIY shops and there’s even a business here in Austin by the university that sells bookcases to college students and grunge stores made in a similar manner (he does add side dados for the shelves.)

I even contemplated that I could take a week off here and there working the markets and instead load up the bed of my truck with plywood, circular saw and generator to batch out this style of shelving for vendors on the spot, dirt cheap and still make a little money.

But I can’t. It’d be uncomfortable, even emotionally painful to hand someone a piece of work I’d built at that level. I know how and can do better. Yet “better” would still serve the same purpose as the quickly assembled. Hold up masonry jars for a few years until the abuse of constant moving dictated a new build.

For about a decade I sold motorcycles to help pay my way through college. I got to meet and ride with some top level racers. Most true pros I know drive like grandma’s on the street. Yes they’re capable of a little hooliganism but on the street, their attitude is “why”.

Yet while going no faster or getting to their destination any quicker they show a level of knowledge and skill that takes the journey up a notch and makes the experience so much more enjoyable. And like fine woodworking most time its things you don’t notice unless you are look for them.

Turning a car is simple. Brake, turn the wheel and accelerate. Racers at normal road speeds those transitions are invisible. And there’s no course correction in the middle. The suspension is always settled. You can hold an open cup of coffee and not spill it because the driver did all the geometry and physics without thinking. They read the terrain so the turning arc (never constant) hit any bumps in a manner to not unsettle the car side to side. They know the vehicle enough that the braking force equaled the gyro scoping effect of the turn so that the suspension compressed once for both operations and matches what is needed for the line chosen. All so the action on the vehicle and passengers doesn’t vary in that one turn.

Take away two wheels, 90% of the weight and add in a moveable seat, center of gravity, and weight distribution fore/aft/left/right and you have the added variables presented to a motorcyclist. I’ve never been in awe of the skill of factory racers than riding behind them going to lunch at a corporate event.

Knowledge lets you recognize the minutia in different things that serve the same function. It adds an appreciation level that acts as an added benefit. Things denied others until they learn.

I made it to lunch as fast and safe as those factory riders. That vendor made a shelf just as effective as what I’d make. But….

It’s harsh recognizing you’re a snob.

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