The Bell Curve

January 5, 2013 § 5 Comments


The shop shortly after we moved into the house.

An archaeology professor once explained to me the typical life cycle of a project. No matter how large or small the project, you usually start with just a few fundamental questions and working theories. As the project evolved, the questions and hypotheses would quickly multiply. And before you know it you’re swimming in data and trying to solve every mystery of the universe. Then, you begin to pare down, re-focusing on your original points of interest. And by the end you are back to answering just a few relevant questions, about the same number as where you started. Even when you understand the seemingly inefficient ways of this process, it is largely unavoidable. The bell curve will happen regardless.

Many things in life follow the predictable bell curve. Our lives, in general, start simple, get exceedingly complex, and then simplify again in our golden years. Consumerism and the bell curve go hand-in-hand. Look at all the stuff we buy, all the junk that fills our homes. We are told by economists and politicians that we need to spend money and buy things or the economy will suffer. And moments later we are chastised for irresponsibly running up debt and not saving enough. When you are young, fresh out of school and just starting out in your career, you don’t have as many material possessions. A lack of money will do that. But later, as you are packing up yet another box of stuff for Goodwill, you look back on those times with nostalgia. And then, at some point, we start moving downward on the curve, and the purge of material possessions begins. Judy is always amazed that her parents have largely empty closets in their small condominium.

If you engage in a hobby, you go through the bell curve on many levels. With woodworking, an initial spark is ignited when you see a bowl turned, a beautifully crafted box, or an elegant piece of furniture. You set out to learn the craft, but just the basics at first. Then you become interested in all sorts of things. Pretty soon you want to build furniture, turn bowls, carve panels, do marquetry, build chairs, make your own tools, make your own kitchenware, and build your own timber frame house. When all this becomes too overwhelming, I suspect most re-focus on a few aspects of the craft, those that they find most appealing.

Consumerism in woodworking always follows the bell curve as well, and it is typically more pronounced with hobbyists. Start out with a few tools, ramp up to hundreds (or thousands), and then settle back down to those you actually need. Christopher Schwarz has written extensively on this (as recently as just a few days ago), and it was a central theme of his book, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  His book has been devoured by literally thousands of woodworkers, and comments on his blog suggest that it has revealed some guilt from those who have large tool collections. There should be no guilt, however. The bell curve is inevitable. It will happen. All you can control is how high and how quickly the upward curve grows. Sharpening equipment is just one example of this. What is the advice you always hear about sharpening? “You just need a few things. Don’t jump around from system to system. Pick something and just go with it. Keep it simple”. And yet, there we are, with drawers and boxes full of waterstones, diamond stones, oil stones, newer ceramic waterstones, honing film, strops, jigs, grinders, etc. But hey, how do we know what we like if we don’t try them all first? (I tell myself that sometimes to feel a little better).

For professionals, I suspect the bell curve is much less pronounced. It needs to be to stay in business. They just can’t afford, in either time or money, to buy every new plane from Lee Valley. They need to quickly acquire a good working set of tools, and then focus on their clients.

I’m reminded of all this as I look around my shop. It’s been only 2½ years since we moved into our house and I started to carve out portions of the basement for shop space. I started with just a few tools, built a work table, and settled in. The project list began to grow. The list of things to build in order to build other things began to grow. Then I started to get stuff. And more stuff. And lumber. And more lumber. At this point I have tools piled upon tools piled upon lumber piled upon boxes, the contents of which I’ve long since forgotten. And what has become of that project list? It’s still there, and not as many things have been crossed off as I’d like. Judy slyly remarked a little while back, “I see a lot of wood going in, and not much coming out.”

So my focus for the next year is to bring a little order to the shop. It was never meant to be a storage facility or a museum, but a place to build things. Shop furniture needs to be built, along with some jigs and appliances. Restoration work needs to be completed on a few vintage tools. And yes, some tools need to be purchased. Boxes of tools won’t be completely disappearing from our doorstep, but I’m at the point where I just need to be filling in specific gaps. I’ll be selling a few things as well, both on this blog and on Craigslist. Maybe I’m still moving up on the curve with tools. I honestly don’t know. You probably only know where the top of the curve is after you are well past it, looking back upward.

I don’t get a lot of joy from building shop furniture. The list is long, however, so in the next year I don’t anticipate a lot moving back out of the shop, but at the very least wood will get removed from the stacks. Just to keep my sanity I’ll sprinkle in some other smaller projects that actually leave the shop. The pictures below are of my current shop. I’m going to revisit them towards the end of the year. Here’s hoping things look a lot different.



Shop, Jan 2013





§ 5 Responses to The Bell Curve

  • Building shop furniture can be good practice for building the house furniture.

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Ralph, yes it can. And I definitely look at it that way as well. And I know that some build things for their shop as if they are building a piece for their dining room. Some find it inspiring to be surrounded by such fine craftsmanship while they work. I can’t argue with that, either.

  • The bell curve you describe happens to me not only in my workshop, but in… well every ‘hobby’ I get into. Whether it’s audio gear or whatever, I tend to get a bit OCD. Not quite like hoarders or anything, but all those little things you pick up along the way really add up.

    Unrelated, may I ask what the rare disorder was that your father suffered from?

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Hi Carlyle, thanks for the comment. It is amazing how quickly things add up. Just last night I found a box with five old auger bits that were duplicates of better ones that I use. Sigh.

      My father suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy. Only a brain autopsy after he passed confirmed the disease. There are a few different neurological disorders that share many of the same symptoms. Horrible disease.


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