Thursday, February 25, 2010

Jack of All Trades...

... master of none.

That's how the old saying goes. I think about this expression a lot, as it relates to both people and process.

In the picture above, is my No.62 Low Angle Jack Plane (yup, it's a jack of all trades). This plane is fantastic! It's one of the first plane's got when I started down the dark path of woodworking with hand tools. What makes it so great? Well to start off, it's got a bevel up blade, bedded at a very low angle (12 degrees). Considered a large format block plane, it's a crack shot at tackling end-grain and shooting the ends of boards. The sole is 14" long which also means it's totally proficient at jointing and flattening boards (as long as they are not too big). Also, it's got an adjustable mouth to shift between wide open (for material removal) and super tight (for fine smoothing). Finally, because the blade is bevel up, by buying multiple blades you can optimize the effective cutting angles and blade profiles for just about every planing scenario. Sounds great right?

Well, what are all those other planes doing in the background?

Well, those planes are just a handful of tools that individually do most of the aforementioned tasks faster and better ( my opinion). Yeah, the No.62 could be one of two or three planes you would ever have to use, but having those specialized planes at hand, tuned and ready to go, makes life (work) so much more pleasant and saves valuable time.

I get asked how to make things all kinds of things all the time. I usually follow up with a bevy of questions relating to the specific task and the tools that are available. If your only options are items coming off the shelf from home depot, my answer is going to be a lot different from someone standing in a fully outfitted shop. Take for instance the example of the dado or rabbet in woodworking. All they just slots in the middle/edge of a board. I can tell you at least dozen ways of making that little slot, and within those there are two dozen variations of each. Which is the most simple? Well, If I had a sharp chisel, mallet, and all the time in the world, that would be perhaps the most direct. What about a Japanese saw and a router plane? What about a plough plane? What about a router table with a straight bit? What about a table saw and a stacked dado blade? What about a CNC milling machine? and on and on and on.......

The endless stream of options can be especially daunting, even more so when making decisions buying tools.

My advise here is start at the beginning and ask yourself: What are you trying to do?
Then, I'd consider: Can I do this with the tools I already have or do I need something specific? Next, I'd do research. Google your ass off and see what people are using and why. Finally, I'd ask what can I afford?
I am a big big big advocate of "buy the best tool you can afford". The subtext being: Don't buy junk! You will just get frustrated and be wasting your cash on something that wont last or wont work. A while back, I got flamed on an internet glass forum when someone was asking advise about how to improve a lousy glass lathe. My response was: Sell it and get a tool that actually was designed to work glass. Quit fiddling around and sinking more money into a tool which was designed only to look like it should work. It's not tool snobbery, it's total practicality. It's hard enough not to be discouraged learning something new when you aren't fighting your machinery! Beware of the Dremel-Syndrome. These are toys that claim to do everything, but only excel at sucking and breaking. If I can't get the whole kitten-kaboodle, I go for the individual tool that will offer me the most value (quality, versatility, practicality, fun)- like the No. 62. That way, I am building from a solid foundation and giving myself the room to grow, as my skills and demand expand . Maximize your joy and you'll make better work.

Here it comes- My "people are like tools" metaphor...

What does it mean to call a person a "jack of all trades"? As it applies to people, this expression speaks to perhaps lateral thinking, interdisciplinary experience, an ability to multi-task or manage. These can very valuable traits. Going further, it could mean an ability to think outside the box, balancing different perspectives and challenging "conventional" assertions.

However, depending on how much perspective one has, you might not be thinking outside the box, you might just be stuck in a different box. Master of none? I feel like I have an inherent suspicion of people who claim to be expert in too many fields. It's seems like juggling to me. On the surface things, it looks impressive, but throw in a club and all the balls come tumbling down. It pays to play on your strengths and pick your battles.

I have to constantly remind myself that you CAN'T DO EVERYTHING (....yet! moowahaha!) Trying to have hand in everything may help gain insight in a holistic sense, but can have you running down the rabbit holes. You can end up feeding your academic desires and loose sight of the ultimate goal- getting real work done. A lot of the time, it is much more effective to seek out the aid of a real expert rather than playing the tourist.
Watching how an expert does a thing, you can learn skills and implement ideas a lot quicker, and with far less chance of failing right out of the gate. There is a lot merit to "conventional wisdoms" and practical aphorisms that an expert brings to the table. While I don't think they should be followed blindly nor dismissed out of hand, these paradigms are generally borne out of a deep collective experience and countless failures and successes. Build a foundation! Learning the "rules", and sticking to them you can save yourself a lot of trouble and frustration. Of course, life (work) would be boring if you only followed the rules. Eventually, if you want to continue growing creatively, learning how to throw out that rule book is another tool you'll have to add to your toolbox.

1 comment:

Fritz said...

Well, nothing really beats being a jack of all trades - especially when a lot of things can be done from a limited number of tools. I'm an electronics hobbyist, and so far I've made my first radion and walkie-talkie. I find joy in constructing a new whole stuff from the things which are commonly found in the toolbox, from screws, gears, steel bars, and compression spring. Manufacturers, I think, should also adhere to being very resourceful. I've also recently read about lean manufacturing.