Saturday, November 22, 2014

Talent, Ability, Skill, Determination or Luck?

What happens tomorrow morning before dawn will determine the world champion in two of my favorite sports: chess and F1 racing.

I cannot imagine two sports more different than playing chess and racing the most complex automobiles on the planet.  In chess two men sit a few feet apart in absolute silence, sometimes for minutes and sometimes for a half hour, without moving a muscle.  Thinking.  Pure thought.  Anticipating future moves and working out in your head all the options for victory.  The two who are playing what will be probably their last match tomorrow are two of the most talented individuals in their sport the world has ever seen.

At the same time that they are playing chess, two other men will be racing the last race of the season in F1.  They are nearly equal in points after 18 races, and whoever crosses the line first will be champion.  Their sport involves split second decisions, the highest degree of technology, a large team of skilled helpers and tons of money.  They sit in the cockpit of a machine which is moving at 200 miles an hour, sweating in 140 degree heat, with an engine a few inches behind their head screaming at many thousands of revolutions per minute.  For two hours they must focus on the race, where a second gained or lost will determine if they finish first, or perhaps last.

I will be watching the chess match on my computer and the race on the television.  I can tell you that it will take more than a little bit of concentration on my part to keep up.

I have been thinking lately about what makes a "master" of any craft, whether it's playing chess, racing a car, or just restoring a valuable object from centuries ago.  Of course, while I do play chess often, and like to drive my car fast, I am not a "master" of either of these skills.  That doesn't mean I can not appreciate the subtleties of those professions.  In the same way, I regard the methods I use in my profession with my full attention and experience to guarantee a professional result.

I enjoy working on early furniture since all the experience you need to do the job properly is right in front of you.  All you need is a keen sense of observation.  Basically it is a question of simple forensics.  Look for the clues and you will understand what you need to do.  Traditional construction methods, hand tool marks, layout lines, hardware decisions and everything else is important and must be analyzed.   In the same way traditional upholstery is predictable and you can learn this skill by carefully taking apart the work and putting it back together using the same process.

I recently completed a large amount of traditional upholstery projects and was thinking about what makes a good upholsterer.  One word came to mind: tension.  When stretching the webbing, or tying the springs, or stitching the horsehair or tacking the silk cover, the single constant was understand the proper tension.  This is why it helps to have large "meathook" hands, like I have.  (They also are "handy" for sanding!)

In applying a "period" finish or making repairs, there is another rule I follow: natural wood is not one color.  Many refinishers make the mistake of using only one color for wood.  The only way I have found to fool the eye into thinking that the finish was original is to use several colors, carefully layered or in different areas on the object.  Natural sunlight fades wood, and the surfaces fade differently.  Nothing makes a piece look "new" more than having a uniform finish on all surfaces.  I know this sounds counter intuitive, but trust me, it really makes a difference.

The same concept works with making hand made furniture.  I do not think that there is anything sacred about 90 degrees or straight lines.  If the door opens and closes, or the drawer slides in and out, fine.  I am not saying I am careless.  I am saying that there is a priority to decision making when putting a piece of furniture together.  It needs to function and be sturdy and attractive.  It does not need to be perfect.  A drawer is not a piston in a cylinder.  It does not need to hold compression during an explosion.  It just needs to open and close.

Look at the Parthenon in Greece.  The columns are not exactly vertical.  If they were, they would be predictable and boring.  Would we be as interested in the tower in Pisa if it wasn't leaning?  (Perhaps not the best example, but I couldn't resist.)

I guess what I am trying to get at is that you spend your life observing phenomena, and if you are intelligent, constantly learning from that experience, gaining a proficiency in some form of activity.  By learning what is important and what is not critical, you can do a job quickly and effectively and with a high degree of satisfaction.  In fact, others will pay you to do that job, once you have proven your talents in that field.  Satisfied customers are the best publicity.

I have been fortunate to have had people pay me to restore furniture for over 45 years.  Now if I could only get Mercedes to sponsor me.......


Joshua Klein said...


This is exactly the reason I love working on handmade furniture. I started my training learning luthiery. I felt like we had our digital calipers out for every single component. That kind of engineered work almost requires machines to work efficiently. I have moved on and love building and restoring period pieces with hand tools. I love the visual variation of handmade objects that Pye discusses: "But for our generation unrelieved regulation is bad, and may even be dangerous. Some contrast and tension between regulation and freedom, uniformity and diversity, is essential, and it is the play made with it which most sharply characterizes human as distinct from natural workmanship."

Chuck said...

I can see you and your chevalet in a four wheel drift while trying to pawn your castle to a bishop. King for a day and a queen to present the trophy. What a knight!

Sorry, the temptation was too great.


W. Patrick Edwards said...

Well both results were expected, but in F1 some amount of (bad) luck played a part. I was not ready for the chess game to be more suspenseful then the race, but move B5 was bold and decisive. Unfortunately for Anand, B5 did not play well.

Congratulations to the 2014 World Champions.

On another note, I sincerely appreciate the thoughtful and intelligent comments I receive to these blog posts. It makes me feel like I am contributing to moving the conversation forward.

Those of you who do not understand the reference to Pye, do a google search. He was an English woodturner and serious philosopher working and writing back in the 60's when I was starting out.

I consider my blog, in some small way, a continuation of his observations on the value of hand work and the problems of the Industrial Revolution.

shipwright said...

Different worlds Patrick but you have captured much of what I feel about building boats. Perfection is for machines and robots. Wooden boats like hand made clocks are living things and are never "perfect" although always "right". I'm aureus you know what I mean.

Thanks for the thoughts.