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.

IMG_2234Like 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 thaIMGP5336t 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.

Greg Merritt

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15 Responses to Wabi-Sabi-ish

  1. Stefan says:

    Hi Greg,
    interesting point of view. I share your opinion about uniformity. It’s time to bring up a bit more individuality. Although that will mean something different for everyone.
    Anyway, that’s an impressing gallery of individual pieces. Your decoration work looks great and individual.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Stefan…I agree that individuality is, well, an individual journey. My point was that everyone should embrace it and find their own path to expressing it in their own work. Judging by the limited response, that may not be a popular idea. LOL

  2. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    Great exhibition (Greg’s Gallery on the 5th avenue, NY open 12am to 08pm) 🙂
    In my opinion… I agree with this point of view, other wise we all go to Ik?a and buy the same un-character furniture, right?
    -Now something different:
    That name (Wabi-Sabi) is a great addition for some of my own pieces. It’s not a gap in the joint… it’s ‘wabi-sabi’ thing… LOL

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks Antonio. LOL…I doubt there is any chance of a Greg’s Galley. It’s a struggle to be able to display some of my stuff in my own house. 😉
      Hopefully I have given you something to think about.

  3. John Roberts says:

    Hi Greg. Once again I find similar views to my own. Thank you for bringing Wabi Sabi to my attention. I have had this view for years and did not know that it had a name. My career as a machinist for over 30 years, following prints to make things has given me an appreciation of individual imperfections. Found your blog a few month ago and have enjoyed all the post. Recently I’ve retired and woodworking hobby has become very important. I’ve built 6 of your design Japanese Toolboxes so far, plus a few of the smaller pencil boxes. Keep up the excellent work. Indeed, wisdom is in the hands.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Wow…thank you John! It is good to hear that you are enjoying some of drivel.
      Wabi-sabi is something that just about everyone who makes things can identify with. It’s worth doing a little reading on the subject. It can change how you view handmade items as well as deepen your appreciation of them.

  4. There is wisdom in your words & a question mark from a sellers point of view. Could there be a market for such a thing the answer in my mind ye as there is a market for anything handmade but, could you leave your job to pursue a career in it I don’t I don’t believe one could. Marketers have done a remarkable job since the introduction of machinery that machine made is better than the inaccuracy of handmade. Therefore with this constant repetition of hog wash people have now been accustomed to uniformity & anything out of that norm even if priced even within their price range isn’t justified. We all aim for perfection as you’ve said but is seldom achieved but that is the beauty and uniqueness of hand work that has been erased from people’s minds and sets apart from machine work. From terms of quality it’s not that machines cannot make objects last for centuries but it’s the quality of materials and the methods used that render these objects useless

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Salko, the short answer is the marketability for unique handcrafted works is limited at best. Price is the number one hurdle. Convincing someone to spend 3-5 times as much on a quality piece as opposed to a mass produced piece. Another issue is what is perceived as quality. Generally speaking, the masses view smooth and shiny as quality. Regardless of the construction or materials.
      Again, I have the luxury of not needing so sell my stuff in order to eat. I’m amazed that you or anyone can make a go of it these days.

      • You have worded this so much better and more true to the heart than I have done. You have spoken the truth and see it as it really is. I and most of my friends and colleagues both here in Australia and in the US prominent figures who have written books are struggling or given up. Those that are of age make small items and pass there time at the flea markets never expecting much of a return, others work second jobs just to pay the bills. Very few people have succeeded in this trade, very few indeed. This is something I’ll never understand.

  5. bpholcombe says:

    It’s taken me some time to form thoughts on this that I can actually present in words (if that makes any sense). I’ve passively studied the term for some years but It’s such a broad term applied to much of Japanese craft and lifestyle that it’s hard to truly define. Sometimes as simply defined as rough sawn wood, other times it seems to have a more complicated nature.

    It’s my understanding of wabi-sabi as it applies to craft it is completely unintentional, in fact, with regard to what is handmade the opposite is intended but simply impossible to achieve. The maker who seeks perfection achieves what can be viewed as wabi-sabi because there will be imperfection in his result. He will always fail to achieve perfection but he fights the good fight.

    This is what drives my interest in Japanese craft. It walks the line between refinement and roughness very well, never loosing connection between the maker and that which is made. When I see Japanese craft I often think of the maker, I pick up a chisel and think of the blacksmith. It evokes melancholy but also seems to form a tight bond between myself and what I do and those who have made for me and what they do without ever having spoken to them.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thanks for the reply…
      I agree that wabi-sabi is something that cannot be intentionally created. Hence the title of this post and my statement: “In its purest form wabi-sabi is unintentional. It simply happens of its own accord without any planning or forethought.”

      I don’t set out to produce a “wabi-sabi” effect. My goal is to perform as well as I possibly can. I also know that true perfection is unattainable. So I soldier on come what may, but I soldier on nonetheless.

      The goal of this post was two-fold. One goal was to introduce the term and idea to those who may have never come across it before. Possibly stirring enough interest that they would explore wabi-sabi further on their own. The second goal was to maybe give others a different perspective on perfection.

      When working with an organic material, such as wood, perfect execution does not always produce the best end product. Assuming a router jig is set up correctly, a perfectly executed dovetail joint can be produced. Each pin and tail are identical. both in size and angle. Yet when shown examples of the machine cut joint and a hand cut joint side by side, most people will prefer the aesthetic of the hand cut version. Its the lack of perfection in the hand cut joint that makes it visually pleasing. Wabi-sabi….

      The strict idea of perfection often times prevents most people from ever attempting a project. The fear of failure overrides the desire to try. My hope with this post was to help those folks tip the balance over and get on with the making of things.

  6. BrianJ says:

    Mr Holcombe, seems to have followed a similar path as me on this, I have had several replies written this week, only to delete them due to vagueness and lack of clarity. I agree with what he has expressed in paragraph one and two above (with the exception of studying the term for some years – which I haven’t, and likely would have never heard of it if you had not have chosen to include it.)
    l very much appreciate the natural variations of a live edge, or colour variations, etc. I struggle with the concept of how one determines what I will call ‘fabrication’ wabi-sabi vs. well, poor execution / craftsmanship (My mild OCD does not allow it to compute…..). I still ‘fight the good fight’ attempting to be blemish free in workmanship, and will admit sometimes it holds me back from attempting projects.
    With artistic / design additions however, that is very individual thing and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
    Greg thanks for adding to the richness of my vocabulary, now when my wife burns chicken I mean cooks cajun-style we have a new name for it… wabi-sabi chicken…mmmmm-mmmmm. (please don’t show this to your management… I won’t show it to mine….lol)

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Hi Brian…the fact that you have given it this much thought makes me glad that I wrote the post. First I ask that you take the time to read my reply to Mr. Holcombe’s comment.

      As to the fabrication of wabi-sabi, you can’t. Think of it more as a happy accident. For instance…when I stamp a texture on a project I set out to make it perfectly symmetrical with a consistent depth. A combination of the nature of wood, tools and my technique produce variations in the end product that IMHO enhance, rather than deter from the beauty.

      My hope with this post post was to get people past the fear of not being perfect and get to the making. Absolute perfection is an unattainable goal and may not be what you thought is was anyway.

      p.s. my management is pretty good at “wabi-sabi-ish” cooking too…damn I hope she doesn’t read this.

  7. BrianJ says:

    Hi Greg, by fabricated i guess i mean by process of making, not on purpose necessarily. Ohhh i can smell Dinners is just about done….gotta go shut off timer i mean smoke alarm…..

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