One of the hardest and most daunting things I’ve learned, and am learning, is perfectionism in my work. When I started out, my goal was to “make knives”, which I accomplished easily. I did the bare minimum in accomplishing that goal, in that I only made what could barely be defined as a knife. My knives weren’t beautiful knives, they weren’t even good knives. They were functional knives, but that was it. A year ago, I went on a trip to Europe and took some knives with me. I visited several bladesmiths and asked them to critique my work, and the main thing throughout was I needed to perfect each aspect of every step before moving on to the next step. If I made a mistake I could not fix, I had to learn to throw it away and start again.
This is true, and learning to accept that you can’t fix it and so throw it away is very important. At the time I had the skills to make a good knife, I just lacked the patience and perfectionism. I’m not naturally a perfectionist and so I had to force myself to make each step perfect and have the perfectionist mindset throughout the entire process. “It’s good enough” became a crime.
Many people recommend, when you learn something, just do it over and over and make a whole bunch of whatever it is. At first, do so. This is giving you the muscle memory and basic intellect as to how to do the things. But only doing this, your hundredth knife is not sellable. Why not? It’s not flawless. It’s useful. But it’s not perfect. Once you feel you know how to forge, you know how to grind, you know how to peen, work wood, heat treat, and so on, start your next knife slowly. Take a month to do it if you have to. But when you start, make sure each step is done to the best of your abilities. When you forge out the blade, is it too thin? Throw it away. Is there a deep forge mark? Throw it away. When you grind the blade, if you grind too thin, fix it or throw it away. If the ricasso is not lined up perfectly on both sides, take a week to fix it. If you ground a divet too deep, throw it away. It gets harder after the blade is near finished, and after the knife is assembled. Its easy to make a mark, to cut the wood too far, to skip over sanding a barely visible mark out. Don’t let it happen. Make a mental checklist before you move on to a next step, some knifemakers even have a real checklist.
It’s daunting and touch, forcing yourself to make each step perfect, but one thing I wasn’t told is that it will become easier with time. It really does. After you force yourself to perfect the knives, and you make a few that way, finishing it becomes habit and it is no longer daunting. You can finish a knife quickly, as quick as before, but it’s still perfect. Habit makes perfectionism a joy, rather than a drudgery. Get through the initial perfectionism stage and it’s smooth sailing from there.