writing by steve smith


For me, starting a project is thrilling. The unknown is exciting. The opportunity to solve new problems in new ways is inspiring. But nothing compares to the joy of finishing. Starting is easy. Finishing is hard.


Years ago I started learning the craft of woodworking. I was never a professional, and didn’t always build the most intricate pieces of furniture, but I always enjoyed the process of building things with my hands.

The hobby, like many, fell to the wayside, but recently I’ve picked it up again. During my first project in years, I re-learned a lesson I’d forgotten over more than a decade of lax: Finishing a project takes way more time and work than starting it.

But for a really beautiful piece, it takes a lot more time and care.

The beginning of a woodworking project involves cutting your major pieces, sometimes trimming and rough sanding lumber to certain sizes. It takes a good plan and some dusty work, but usually things come together rather quickly. But even when your piece is fully assembled, it’s far from complete.

An assembled piece may be completely functional. But for a really beautiful piece, it takes a lot more time and care. Multiple sandings, starting with rough paper and moving towards more and more fine grains. Polishing sharp edges down. Smoothing rough surfaces. Removing any evidence of the saw teeth, nails, screws, and hammers that go into the construction.

Then, the finish. Stain. Wipe. Wait. Stain. Wipe. Wait. Sand. Wipe. Stain. Wipe. Wait. Check. Seal. Wait. Sand. Wipe. Seal. Wait. Sand. Seal. Wait. And that’s if everything goes according to plan.


Do you notice such attention to detail on the piece from across the room? Maybe not. But furniture is meant to be used. Touched. And detail at that level takes a piece beyond mere utility. Interestingly, it’s those details that people may hardly notice. They won’t see the work that went into getting the stain colors on those two parts to match. How long it took to sand down that imperfection. How your wrists hurt from polishing down the finish.

At times it's frustrating. But when you're done, it's glorious.

But if they’re not there; if the piece is left in it’s rough form, barely sanded with maybe a quick coat of stain and seal, they definitely notice. People see specific imperfections. The light makes the finish look uneven. The milling lines are visible. There are gaps in the seams. The surfaces feel uneven. It looks rough. It feels rough.

Assembling a piece creates the utility. But the finish work makes all the difference in perception. It’s what brings joy and pride in craftsmanship; or ownership.


These details take time. Usually a lot of time. And pain. And dust. And mess. And repetition. It’s not glamorous. You don’t see a lot of progress at once. It’s slow-going. At times it’s frustrating. But when you’re done, it’s glorious.

In software, we have the exact same patterns. Take your time in finishing your work. Be careful. Be attentive. Be meticulous. Don’t rush. Put effort into finishing your projects. People will notice.

December 29, 2013