The Last 10% Principle for Woodworking

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last-10%-principleThere is a very small difference between a great woodworking project and an average woodworking project. I call this the “Last 10% Principle.” The only thing that keeps a project looking average is the willingness of the woodworker to do about 10% more. This final step is what creates an excellent project. Unfortunately, not all woodworkers know that a tiny bit more effort makes such a huge difference.

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Many times, woodworkers rush through things. They get to a point where they are close to being finished, and they call it good enough. This presents itself in many ways. The most common is not sanding well before finishing. Another way rushing ruins things is by settling for a certain look, even though it can be made better. Finally, applying a weak finish, or not applying enough of a finish degrades their work at the very last step.

Sanding can be a time consuming and boring part of a project. It takes time to carefully inspect a piece and remove all the scratches and tool marks. Most of the time, the reason this process takes so long is because it is not done correctly. I explain this phenomenon in more detail here. Sanding, and taking the time to completely smooth a piece is the last 10% effort that makes a piece truly beautiful.

When you apply a finish, all the sanding marks that you left behind will be put on display. A stain especially will magnify them. Even a clear coat, or an oil will bring them out. Marks will show as defects, and you will see them. Also, anyone else who sees your project will see the scratches and wonder how good of a woodworker you actually are.

In reality, you are most likely a good woodworker. At least good enough to make the project you intended to make. If you can make a project, you can sand the scratches out before finishing it. This is not a difficult part of the build. However, many times, we let a boring or frustrating part of the build get by us instead of giving it the time it needs.

last-10%-principleWoodworkers also settle. When you are making something, never settle. If you know you could glue something again, or select a better board, then do it. Don’t complete a project that you knew you could make better from the start. Instead, make the right decisions early. Do the work that is required, and make sure that you are getting the right look when you are done.

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I’ve fallen into this trap myself over the years. Something goes wrong on a build, and instead of trying again, I figure out a work-around, and leave it being less than I intended. This is not the way to make excellent projects.

If you have an idea that you want to execute, don’t let a mistake prevent that. Start over, or remove the portion of the build that is wrong. Then, make it the way you intended from the start.

The last 10% principle covers finishing the project as well as building. A strong finish makes an excellent project even better.

Lastly, applying a weak finish is where you can waste all of your efforts up to that point. If you are going to spend the time making something, finish it well. If you do not know much about finishing, fix that. There are thousands of resources including My Favorite Book On Finishing, and my 10 Step Guide to Wood Finishing that can make an excellent finisher out of anyone.

Spending time making a beautiful woodworking project and then applying a poor finish is a complete waste. The finish has such a marvelous power to engage and entice people that you should really never finish something poorly. Even an inexpensive piece, when finished well will look much better. A top notch finish is the final touch to an amazing woodworking project.

last-10%-principleIf you are still learning how to finish, that’s ok. The enigma about finishing is that it is easy to pick up, but can take a lifetime to master. Finishing at the basic level is very easy. Most hand applied finishes create a beautiful look. If you spend a little time learning a couple of these, you can be able to finish almost everything you make very well. In fact, you may never need to learn any other finishes.

On the other hand, if you do decide to travel deeper into finishing, there is a lifetime of learning that awaits you. There are people devoted to many aspects of finishing. Some like the finishes that the old masters created hundreds of years ago. There is romance and reverence for what the old instrument makers could do in an era without power tools and modern chemicals.

Others like to work on the cutting edge. They experiment with newer finishes, and reactive finishes to create looks that have never been seen before. This is the frontier of finishing, and can be a lifelong journey that is very enjoyable. The challenging part of the frontier is that it’s always changing. Every so often, something else new comes out, and you get to start the learning process all over again.

It’s such a small difference in effort to create an excellent project. Make that extra effort every time. All your projects will look better for it.

It only takes 10% more effort to have an amazing finish. Work on making your finishes stand out. Read guides and books on finishing, and practice what they teach. In a short time, you will be able to apply an excellent finish.

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The difference between a great project and an average project is the last 10% effort that makes the project perfect. Don’t spend a ton of time working on something, just to breeze through the end. If you do, you will have to look at that project all the time knowing that you could have done better. A few more minutes or an hour is much too small an amount of time to worry about. It will also result in far more compliments.

If you have any questions on my last 10% principle, please leave a comment and I will be glad to answer them. Happy building.

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  • More than 20 Years Woodworking Experience
  • 7 Woodworking Books Available on Amazon
  • Over 1 Million Words Published About Woodworking
  • Bachelor of Arts Degree from Arizona State University
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I receive Commissions for Purchases Made Through the Links in This Post. Join My Woodworking Facebook Group


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