Lessons From a Cabinetmaker
Measure twice; cut once.

For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved working with my hands. There is a certain joy and satisfaction about immediately seeing the results of your handiwork. Some find this pleasure in gardening while others enjoy arts and crafts projects. For me, it is all about working with wood.

As a child, I rummaged through piles of discarded and partially rotted wood on our property to find something I could use to construct my latest project. I also had a can of old rusted and bent nails. I would spend hours with a hammer in my hand on the concrete driveway, carefully bending the metal back into what resembled a straight, usable nail. I would get lost in time with this task, working hard to create something useful to fasten the carefully and painstakingly cut pieces of wood together to construct my project: a wooden airplane.

At the time, I loved airplanes because my dad was a pilot, and my incredible youthful prowess with a hammer, nails and a saw brought my dreams to life. The planes were the clunkiest non-flying planes ever made by hand, but they were hardy and virtually indestructible when test flights were scheduled. Crash landings on the driveway regularly occurred, and the emergency crews were quite capable of tweaking the location of a wing or landing gear so the next flight might have more success.

To anyone else, these planes might have resembled just a couple of pieces of junk wood assembled in a rough crisscross manner, but to a child’s imagination, they were the product of hours of careful, high-level design and planning—executed by a master craftsman at his highest skill level, honed to perfection on the driveway drawing board.

Day in and day out, rain or shine, more and more airplanes were constructed, crashed, redesigned and flown again and again. The driveway was strewn with bits of scrap wood, bent nails and the carnage of unsuccessful flights.

Somewhere around this time, a love for working with wood was ingrained in my dna. As I grew older, my skill set also grew. I no longer made abstract airplanes on the driveway; I had moved on to more complicated ideas and began to work on housing projects. Building a fort was now the main subject of my daily dreams and my after-school projects, although most people might only have seen a shantytown. The wood was bigger now, as were the bent nails, and there was a real purpose: shelter.

This was actually going to be useful. The planes, while very skillfully designed and developed, were not practical for everyday use. But a shelter—now that was going to be the envy of the neighborhood! With a tape measure in my hand, a hammer hanging from my belt loop, a pencil behind my right ear, and my tongue peeking out of my mouth—indicating deep thought—I would spend hours measuring and cutting to produce my architectural masterpiece. I was no Frank Lloyd Wright, but I was sure I had designs that would rival some of his ideas for incorporating nature into the architecture; after all, the fort did incorporate several trees and use the canopy to provide shade for the outdoor patio area.

As my skills increased, I became an eager participant in remodeling our home. I had made it to the big time, and now I could show off my skill and talents as I worked side by side with master craftsman Salvador Gardino. He was the king of woodworking tools. Not only could he single-handedly wield power tools, he was also skillful with a hatchet and could sculpt tree trunks into artwork using a chainsaw. He was amazing to watch, but he was also frustrating to work with. He was so deliberate in every cut he made. He never once cut a board without checking the measurement again. He was the first person to teach me the axiom: “Measure twice; cut once.” This is a lesson that would come up again and again in my woodworking future. But this method seemed so inefficient to me. Economy of motion and speed—I was sure that was where my future lay.

Having successfully put another notch in my hammer holster, our home remodeling project concluded, and I moved on to summer jobs with local carpenters—remodeling other people’s homes. Now I was a professional—because only professionals get paid. I was finally receiving some long overdue recognition for my advanced development at such a young age. I had become a master of doing things old-school. No power tools for me—that was much too wimpy. Only a real man can cut a piece of wood with a hand saw.

As my “skill” increased, so did my assessment of my abilities. It was hard at first working for bosses who didn’t really see my skills for what they were. After all, I had built airplanes, designed and developed housing additions, remodeled my own home, and was now a professional—all by the age of 16. I was a child prodigy—and an under-recognized one at that.

My skill set diversified once again when I began working on high-rise buildings in New York City. I was now regularly commuting with a van load of equally gifted tradesmen. Once again, I found it a challenge to work with those who just wouldn’t catch on to the best way to accomplish the task at hand. I stuck with this crew until I was accepted to Ambassador College. I knew that AC would be where my ever-increasing, ever-improving skill set would finally be recognized.

Once at college, I applied for a job in the maintenance department in their carpentry division. Much to my amazement, they hadn’t received the glowing reports from my previous employers, so they weren’t expecting me. But once I had badgered them long enough, I got the job.

In this job, I added many new skills to my résumé, including concrete forming and finishing. It was hard work in the summer sun, but after all, this was my calling—I couldn’t let all of the things that I had mastered in my 18 years of life go to waste.

By now, I could see that my bosses recognized my worth and valued my contribution, and I began to further increase my prowess. I was now eyeing a position in the cabinet shop. This was, of course, the natural next step for a person of my skills. Again, they didn’t initially recognize my worth, but eventually they came around to see what an asset I could be for the team.

This is when things began to change. I was now living my dream, working with highly exotic species of wood, making beautiful furniture that would be admired for decades to come. For my first major job, I was tasked with a special project: Make six identical bookcases out of walnut—exactly 7 feet tall and 3 feet wide. One of my workmates told me he had been in the shop for three years before they even let him get near a project using walnut. I felt I had finally been recognized, not only by my bosses, but by my peers.

As I confidently planned my material cut list and laid out the various materials needed for the job, I reflected that I was prepared for this moment—my moment to really show my stuff. I began to cut the material, very conscious to avoid the time-wasting techniques I had seen long ago. I was now free, ready to let my skills be known to all.

I strategically and efficiently moved through the project; I cut the sides, cut the top and bottom, and rebated them both to accept the bookcase’s back. I assembled the pieces, forming a tall and narrow four-sided box on my workbench. Then I cut the back to fit and squared everything up. Voilà! A bookcase! One more step: Build the face frame, dowel it, glue it, and then attach it to my pièce de résistance.

Around this time, my boss came by to admire my work. “Very nice,” he said. I figured he would say that—I was pretty impressed with the job myself! He got his tape measure out and measured the height: exactly 7 feet tall. Perfect!

Then he measured the width: not quite 3 feet.

I was sure it was exactly 3 feet wide. What had gone wrong? Me, make a mistake? That was a highly unlikely proposition. It had to be someone else’s fault, or maybe something was wrong with the tools I had used. Perhaps his tape measure was damaged and reading differently than mine.

I really never thought that my boss would check my work to see if it measured up to the high standard he expected and that I knew I could deliver. All the accolades I had received now seemed to ring hollow. My boss no longer seemed impressed with my incredible abilities. His facial expression changed from joy and elation to incredulity.

That is the moment that my perfect world came crashing down. I had failed to measure twice and cut once. All those frustrating moments with Salvador Gardino—measure it, mark it on the board, measure it again, and double check—now played out in my mind as an unwelcome reminder of my impatience.

I rationalized that it was a simple mistake. Any other skilled craftsman would have done the same. After all, the bookcases would only be used in an out-of-the-way place where no one would really see, so it really didn’t matter. My mistake was so small that it was easy to dismiss. But was that really the problem?

At this point, I had a choice: Own my mistake, or justify it. Justify it is. It is the easiest way to deflect guilt. No one wants to be called out for being wrong or making a mistake, especially when we have built up such a high expectation of our own abilities in our minds.

Well, there it was—my mistake, out there for all to see. No longer was my exquisite execution of a difficult task on display; now, my faults were. Did I say faults? Yes, I had faults. I’d had them all along, but my vanity had blinded me to the real problem. I was human. As a human, we make mistakes and are definitely not perfect. I had actually never been perfect, but our minds and vanity play tricks on us, making us think that we are better than we really are.

The goal had been perfection. But I had missed the mark. Now I was exposed with nowhere to hide.

God tells us we should strive to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That is hard to achieve—no, impossible to achieve—when you try to do it all by yourself.

As time has gone on, I have continually been reminded of my inability to be perfect. That in no way means that we can settle for imperfection. We have to continue to strive for perfection. The goal is always perfection. The difference is seeing that any good thing we do did not come from us at all—it came from God. This is a hard concept to grasp when you have so much youthful energy and enthusiasm.

The reality is, Salvador Gardino was right. If we take the time to measure twice and cut once, the final product will be more in line with what our boss wants. Our Spiritual Boss wants perfection from us too. That takes time, patience and emotional maturity. More importantly, it takes us relying on God to guide our minds and attitudes until we can begin to see our own failings. We must go to Him for daily help to succeed.

Perfection in this physical life is truly elusive if we rely only on ourselves. The Apostle Paul told us that, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). Jesus Christ is the only perfect physical being to have ever lived. What was his trade? He was a carpenter. Could you imagine apprenticing with the most perfect tradesman who ever lived? That is what is available to us if we truly seek Him and suppress our over-inflated impression of our abilities. God looks to the humble. If we take on that Christ-like attribute, we will be well on our way to becoming a perfect cabinetmaker who always measures twice and cuts once.