Sunday, December 21, 2014

parsimony and craftsmanship

How to drill from corner to corner?
A couple years back I was accused of being parsimonious, and was puzzled at being insulted before it was explained to me that parsimony was a good thing. My understanding of parsimony was as follows:

extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources.
"a great tradition of public design has been shattered by government parsimony"
synonyms:cheapness, miserliness, meanness, parsimoniousness, niggardliness, close-fistedness, closeness, penny-pinching;
informalstinginess, minginess, tightness, tightfistedness, cheeseparing;

But in academia, parsimony can refer to Occam's Razor... the principle of simplicity related to having started with the fewest assumptions. The more assumptions, the greater the likelihood of error. Or in craftsmanship, parsimony can be the reduction of method to the fewest steps. One of the things that comes through practice is that the body makes fewer unnecessary movements and both the  speed of the work and quality of the work can increase unexpectedly. When you reduce the number of steps, you reduce the introduction of error. So in accusing me of being parsimonious, I had been offered a compliment.

So I raise a toast to parsimony and craftsmanship. Yesterday, a blog reader asked me how to drill a hole in a wooden cube from one corner to the other for the making of Froebel's Gift number 2. In some models, holes were drilled and dowels inserted for rotation of the objects. I asked Scott Bultman, who has been associated with a Michigan toy maker his whole life. It is a family business and they used to make Froebel gifts before they arranged to have them made in China where gift number 2 can be made by a small manufacturer at a rate of 300 sets per week. When they made the sets in Michigan, the holes were not drilled, but he assured me that Froebel must have known how to do it.

That exchange with the reader and with Scott led me to examine the cube and sent me to the woodshop after dark to develop the process. As with all things, the first inclination is to dream up something complex. We make a natural assumption that if we don't know how to do it, some complex tooling or methodology must be used. But, WWFFD? (What would Friedrich Froebel do?) Without a full woodshop and complex apparatus the law of Parsimony would have been in effect.

With the observation of the cube, I began work. Applying the law of parsimony, all complex solutions were tossed out. With two false starts, I have simplified my approach. I will share what I discover, as success is close at hand.

Between teaching and writing, I have been negligent in the marketing of my work, and yesterday I sent a number of boxes, a piece of small furniture and two sculptural forms to a new gallery opening in Memphis. To see work go out the door leaves opportunity to make more. That's a good thing. To sell it and move it into other people's lives will be even better.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Roger Davis10:19 PM

    Clamp a scrap board to your drill press table. Drill about a 1/4" hole (something bigger than the dowel) in it, 3/8" or so deep. Blow the chips clear, but don't move the board. File a small flat on the corner you intend to drill (the flat is perpendicular to the path from corner to corner) to give the drill a place to start. Make a starting mark on the flat with an awl or gimlet? Chuck up a smaller drill for the dowel, and set the corner of the block opposite the starting flat into the hole in the board. Carefully start the drill on the flat and drill through the diagonal of the block, clearing chips often. You can even drill halfway from each side if you are careful. If you've got a 90 degree countersink (common in machine shops alogside the normal 82 deg. ones for FH screws), the 1/4" hole would probably give better accuracy with a chamfered edge. The depth doesn't matter.

  2. John Grossbohlin11:53 PM

    Being parsimonious is a good thing for sure! I would apply the term to anyone who can net out what appears to be a complex task and accomplish it with the most basic of solutions. Often that solution seems "obvious" to others once they are shown it but the solution often escapes their detection until they are shown.

    I've noticed the parsimony in your methods of work and how you willingly convey that knowledge to others.

    On the the other hand, some figure that there is money to be made by letting people think things need to be complex... This goes back to the system of trades and their apprenticeship agreements. As part of contracting with a master the apprentice agreed to keep the arts and mysteries of the master secret!

    I've known people with sales and service businesses who would never perform a repair in front of the customer, nor do a repair on the spot, for fear they would lose the customer if they gave up any secrets.

    Thank you for being the generous type!