How many times have I gathered my material, collected my tools, stepped to the bench and completed a project without making a single mistake? Let me see...

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Showing Tom with with sad face and holding two broken wood pieces.
By Tom Iovino

I can remember my first day of Catholic high school like it was yesterday, even though it happened back in 19–mumblemumble. Our principal, Sister Patricia, minced no words when she greeted the new freshman class. "While you are here, you will make mistakes, and you will be called to account for them. But," she continued, "you should consider these golden opportunities from which to learn."

My right eye still twitches when I think about that lecture, but how many times since she uttered those words has she been right? No one goes through life without making at least a few mistakes, but as long as we are open to learning from them, we get better.

Nowhere else has this been more evident than in my time as a woodworker. How many times have I gathered my material, collected my tools, stepped to the bench and completed a project without making a single mistake? Let me see...carry the one...

Zero. It's never happened. There's always been the test cut gone awry, the joint that gaps just a little, the miscalculated measurement, the grain selection that leaves something to be desired, the rabbet cut on the wrong face (below)...you get the point.

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What a lock rabbet should look like. The corner joint for a blanket chest I built should have looked like this.
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But, it's what we do with that golden opportunity that makes us better woodworkers. The times I have cut a joint too loose, I have gone back to figure out how I made the mistake—and hopefully fix it (below). Maybe it was the way I held the marking gauge, or that I leaned my pencil the wrong way. The times the joint was too tight? Well, I learned that it's easier to remove wood from a joint to get a better fit than to add wood back to the project.

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Some interesting design ideas have presented themselves to me as well. For instance, on this small keepsake box (below) I built for some friends who were getting married, I tried to hand-rout the edge detail on the lid. It was going well, until the router wobbled going around the corner.

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What tear-out? Though unintentional, the rounded lid corners draw your eye to the dovetails, enhancing them.

In this instance, I learned that cuts like this one should be done on a router table. I also discovered that a rasp and some sandpaper can help make a pretty cool design detail that caused lots of people to ask, "How did you do that?"

What's the takeaway from this? It's okay to make mistakes when it comes to woodworking. While you might grit your teeth and mutter under your breath about reworking a piece, as long as you remain open to the lessons the mistake has to teach you, it will make you a much better woodworker.