I’ll probably get myself in trouble with this one. I’ve not formally studied design nor Japanese philosophy, but here goes anyway.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese design element/philosophy that essentially finds beauty in the imperfections of an object. Those imperfections can be a result of use or result from the making of the object. At first blush, this sounds like a great excuse to be sloppy in your work. It’s not quite that simple though.
Most woodworkers, especially hand tool woodworkers, are familiar with the concept, but not aware of the term. Most of us like the textures and idiosyncrasies that result from using hand tools. In fact it is what typically defines the piece for most of us. Things like an undulated surface left by the hand plane and slight variations in the angles of hand-cut dovetails spring to mind as examples. Other examples include live edge slabs for table tops and the rough look of cut nails instead of the uniform look of mass-produced wire nails. These can all be considered examples of wabi-sabi.
In its purest form wabi-sabi is unintentional. It simply happens of its own accord without any planning or forethought. Checks and splits that develope in a panel might be considered as an example. How an individual works, their tools and workflow, can result in idiosyncrasies in the final product that can be considered examples of wabi-sabi as well.
Like I have with most things, I stumbled upon the concept of wabi-sabi by happenstance. Through my interest in Japanese woodworking I kept tripping of the term and finally chased it down to see what it was all about and found that it applies loosely to my work in a few ways. (This little book is worth a read) If you have visited my blog before, you know that I have an affinity for texture. Sometimes I stamp it in and other times I use the uzukuri to create a texture. Both methods result in a wabi-sabi-ish outcome. The stamps that I use are self-made and contain inconsistencies. Those inconsistencies, combined with the randomness of the application, create a uniquely flawed surface with its own “beauty”. The uzukuri method simply reveals the patterns of the wood grain. Each piece is therefore unique and there is no way to duplicate any given outcome. Even the kolrosing, particularly the free-form kolrosing, that I apply to some of my projects can be considered wabi-sabi-ish. Each cut with the knife is slightly different from the last and combine to create patterns that are, once again, imperfectly “beautiful”. I could go on, but I think you get my point.
So what and how does this apply to your woodworking? If wabi-sabi is not supposed to be intentional and you really can’t use it as an excuse for mistakes, what good is it? I see a lot of people write about how they want to emulate such and such or are striving for perfection. I see sawing guides for dovetails to obtain exact uniformity. I understand the why, but we live in a world filled uniformity and sameness. Why create more?
I say embrace the idea of wabi-sabi. Strive to create the best work that you possibly can, but embrace your individuality. Let your uniqueness shine through. Don’t try to force it, don’t even think about it, just enjoy the process of making and your wabi-sabi-ish beauty will magically be there in your finished project.