Proof of the Workmanship of Risk


Brought into the light.

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day and it put me in the mood to do a little early Spring cleaning in the shop.  Scattered around were these reminders of the “workmanship of risk.”  That was, of course, the phrase coined by David Pye to describe how a guy like me can ruin the job at any moment.  Look upon this pile; here lies the grisly proof of the workmanship of risk.

Errors in judgement, lack of patience, failure to assess the wood, or simply a bad swing have led these pieces to be tucked away in dark corners of the shop like repressed memories.  They only survive, I guess, because I shoved them away hastily to get them out of my sight.  Perhaps I should take a cue from Eric Goodson’s great post today (perfect timing, Eric) and creatively rescue one or two.  Regardless, it’s alright.  There is more wood and the workmanship of risk has its rewards.

I have gotten better at taking these things in stride, and my theatrics at the moment of dread are slightly less animated.  I have learned a little from experience.  I remember how disheartened I’d get when I struck out in Little League.  Then I’d be up to bat hoping not to strike out instead of focusing on getting a hit.  And that’s no way to bat.

Embrace the workmanship of risk.  In all of the history of Major League Baseball, the man who went up to the plate and struck out more times than any other….was Reggie Jackson.  Whether it’s a bat or an adze — keep swinging.




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20 Responses to Proof of the Workmanship of Risk

  1. Barry Gordon says:

    An advantage we woodworkers have over, for instance, potters is that we can use our mistakes to keep us warm!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. momist says:

    I was always told “get rid of your mistakes, so as not to dwell on them”.


  3. John Freeman says:

    I am 70 now, but I remember working with my Dad when I was 12. Neither he nor I had ever heard of David Pye, but I have always remembered some advice my Dad gave me. ” Son, no matter how close you are to finishing a price of work, there’s always one more way to mess the whole thing up”. My dad probably used a verb more earthy than”mess” but when I read Pye’s book, Dads words popped into my mind. Not only does his advice assume the workmanship of risk, but also it emphasizes the need for diligence to persist even to the end. As errors and “design opportunities” accumulate during a project, that diligence becomes even harder to maintain.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Amy says:

    “…my theatrics at the moment of dread are slightly less animated.” Tee hee! Love it. The Greg Johnsons are (oftentimes) excellent receivers of your castaways. Just sayin’.


  5. Eric Goodson says:

    Great post, Dave. I know nothing of baseball–sacrilege given where I come from. But even I have heard of Reggie Jackson. The sooner we make those mistakes, the faster we develop. Revel in them.


    • Barry Gordon says:

      I have a tendency to continue working on pieces I know won’t really be satisfactory if completed. I’m loathe to abandon those pieces even when I know I should, BUT, once a piece is thrown into the stove, the decision is irrevocable, forcing me to move onto the next one. David Pye’s concept of The Workmanship of Risk is so valuable whenever the question of whether something is “handmade” is raised.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave Fisher says:

        Wise words, well expressed, Barry! Thanks. I remember when I first read Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship,” how struck I was by his thoughtful approach and clear logic. It really made me reconsider notions. One point that still stands out years later is when he explains that the workmanship of risk is not exclusive to hand tools. He uses the example of a modern dental drill guided by the skill and dexterity of the dentist — with much that could go wrong! A plane in a shooting board, on the other hand has a relatively certain outcome.


      • Barry Gordon says:

        Thanks Dave. For the past seven years I’ve been part of a three (now four)-person team creating a biography and archive for American woodworker Emil Milan. As early as the 1950’s Emil was advocating the use of both hand and power tools and machines. He had studied sculpture at The Art Students League of New York and was adept in the use of edge tools, including carving gouges. He chose, however, to use a bandsaw as a carving tool and then did most of the intermediate and final shaping of his sculptural dishes and bowls with abrasives. Purists may very well have scorned this heretical approach, but Emil’s great skill depended solely on the workmanship of risk, not only as it applied to the object he was making but to his own body as well! See:


    • Dave Fisher says:

      Eric, I was going to use my childhood hero, Willie Stargell, as the example — but he’s only number eight on the most-struck-out list… and in the Hall of Fame, as you probably know.


  6. pfollansbee says:

    “nothing’s for certain, it can always go wrong” Robert Hunter, writing for the Grateful Dead. I remember learning that Wille Sundqvist puts a maltese cross next to his signature when he feels that a spoon is a “good one.” Then it dawned on me that some of his are less-than-good, in his eyes. Made me feel a whole lot better. As does this pile of wreckage. Thanks Dave.


  7. I used to be an avid bowl turner, about a decade ago. Turned ’em by the dozens. Hundreds really. Now I rarely fool them. Over Christmas break, I cleaned out a small log cabin that I built on my dad’s place to hold my turning stock. I probably threw away 100 cracked or poorly shaped bowl blanks, keeping only a couple dozen of the best ones. It was cathartic, and they’re great for starting fires. I feel like knowing when to throw something away and start fresh is an important step for any craftsman.


  8. Scott Kinsey says:

    In order to play the fiddle as poorly as possible, concentrate on making no mistakes. Every bit of life will be sucked out of the music.
    What a great post you put up. Thanks, Dave


  9. Dave Fisher says:

    I appreciate all of the thoughtful and wise comments that you all have taken the time to share. Great stuff. Anybody want to roast marshmallows?

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Barry Gordon says:

    If I may re-visit this topic, last week I intentionally destroyed (via bandsaw and woodstove) a piece for which I had very high hopes. It would have been one of my elongated dishes. The hard maple from the stump of a local, very old, sugar maple was gently curved, beautifully figured and devoid of any staining. The form would have been a venture into something new for me. I had started it many months ago, immediately ran into difficulties because of the configuration that made part of the piece inaccessible. I tried virtually any hand and powered tool I own to reach that place and even invested in some new bits and extension shafts. I purchased an extra-long drill bit to remove wood along an interior longitudinal surface. I don’t usually do much drilling but, working at an angle to the axis of the piece, I removed too much and slightly punctured the bottom of the piece.

    I was disappointed, set the piece aside but eventually convinced myself that I could turn this puncture to advantage, something I’d done once before when I hollowed a spoon bowl too deeply. The problem of reaching into the interior still remained but I persisted in trying more new tools and even slightly modified the overall shape in an attempt to make the inaccessible surfaces more accessible. I knew that I was facing two problems: the hole in the bottom and the inaccessibility and, even if a solution was found for one of these problems the other was still present. But the wood was so beautiful and the form was so innovative!

    After much gut wrenching contemplation I finally persuaded myself that the situation was hopeless and destroyed the piece so it could demand no more of my energy. Because I work on my pieces sporadically, taking significant breaks to allow for further drying and continued designing, I don’t keep records of time spent but I’m pretty sure that, between last year and this I’d spent the at least equivalent of three eight-hour days on this piece, not to mention time and money spent seeking new tools.

    I’m seventy-four years old, no longer work anything approaching a full work week, and can’t afford this sort of hapless adventure. I’ve taught a lot of spoonmaking in my thirty-eight year career and should have attained the wisdom to recognize a truly hopeless situation. There is, therefore, a lesson still to be learned, or, more precisely, stressed: Force yourself to recognize when a situation becomes hopeless and cut your losses as soon as you suspect this to be true. The very occasional piece that might somehow have been rescued is not worth the time lost trying to resurrect something with no future. The wood was beautiful but I have more of it, as well as lots of other beautiful wood, stored in my garage. I’ve been very diligent about accumulating great wood and have a lot of it (for a spoonmaker). The wood is no longer scarce but my time is!


    • Dave Fisher says:

      Barry, I appreciate you sharing that experience so deeply and passing along some more wisdom. Even though it didn’t work out in the end — I still value that you took the risk to experiment with a new design. That is also a risk worth taking. Thanks.


  11. Pingback: An Encounter with a Woodworker | David Fisher, Carving Explorations

  12. Bob Easton says:

    I tell myself: “just a little more work can fix it.” Then, later, “just a little more work can fix it.” Yet later still, “just a little more work can fix it.” Finally, it is beyond all hope.

    Not bowl carving, but other woodworking. The beautiful door for a regulator clock has started from scratch again.


  13. Tone says:

    Your standards are so high and we bowlmakers largely learn by doing, which often means from our mistakes, so we shouldn’t be surprised, but I was 🙂

    I pass one of my favourite bowls several times a day – a constant reminder of imperfection! Aesthetically it achieved and exceeded what I set out to make – except that I completely screwed it up right at the beginning by not properly flattening and leveling the top. I was able to “share out” the worst differences while flattening the base at the end but the top will always be “skew whiff”. I put a lot of work into that bowl and learnt a lot from it. I had somebody interested in buying it but I had to point out the problem, which would have soon become obvious to them. But, like I said, it’s one of my favourite bowls and I really never had any intention of parting with it. One day I will try to recreate it without the obvious skew but I fear that I may not succeed, either I will make some other error (it’s quite rectangular in form, which means things need to be very even and correctly aligned – unlike most greenwood that I deal with!) or I will achieve it but the result will be “flat” and uninteresting. I comfort myself with the thought that the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi does not require perfection. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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