A lesson on flaws and the visibility thereof

Or “how I once learned not to wallow in self-criticism”.

When I was in my second year of University, I build a canoe. It’s still in my back yard rotting away, but that’s another story. I knew next to nothing about working with wood and I’d never made so much as a bird house before undertaking this project. I bought a book that looked promising, but I didn’t have access to many of the tools required, most importantly a table saw, so I enrolled in a night course on canoe building. I followed the book’s plans rather than the methods taught in the course – the most important thing I got out of the course other than access to the table saw was a list of material suppliers, including a lumber yard that sold 20 foot long boards of red cedar. I was doing the 18 foot “Abenaki” out of the book, and unlike everybody else in the course I wanted continuous strips with no joins, so I used the full length boards. The course was miles away, and I had to share the table saw, so once a week I’d load 20 foot long boards on the top of my car and trek to the course, and come home with a load of strips.

Building the canoe was time consuming – it seems like I spent most of my four month work term in the garage, gluing the strips, then planing them down with a Shurform and sanding with an orbital sander. I made several mistakes, including a few that seemed like outright disasters to me. I pushed on, figuring I had to finish in spite of them. A few times, I was on the verge of taking a axe to the whole thing because of frustration or anger. But when I did the outer layer of fiberglas, it brought out all sorts of lovely colours in the redwood and I started to think it was going to be ok.

The following summer when I did the inside of the canoe was even worse. First problem was when I took the canoe off the form to do the inside, it was so floppy you could fold it in half end-to-end. Oh, that can’t be right, I thought. Next, in order to save time I did what the book suggested and rented a disk sander to do the inside. But I’d never used a disk sander before and the rental place was only used to people who rented them to do body work on cars, and knew nothing about how to do wood with them. Needless to say, I didn’t have the right disks or use the right touch with them, and at one point a disk shredded itself and embedded chunks right through the wood and between the wood and outer fiberglas layer. I quite literally put down the sander and cried. You can still see the delamination on the outside of the hull, and the “Plastic wood” that I squirted in to fill up the holes. Fibreglassing the inside was hard, because instead of the fabric nicely draped over a convex surface, it’s loosely draped on the inside of a concave surface, and continually in danger of falling down and wrinkling and all manner of other ills. And yes, there are bubbles and wrinkles and other flaws, and even now, 20 years later, I can see in my head exactly where they all are. One bright spot was that after the glas on the inside finished drying, the canoe was a bit more rigid.

Before putting in the seats, I took it to the local conservation area to see if it was watertight in spite of all the flaws. I was startled by people telling me how beautiful it was. I kept saying to myself “what are they talking about, it has this flaw and this flaw and that one and I didn’t get that right and …”. But I felt a little bit better about it, in spite of its flaws.

In spite of that experience (and the fact that it was watertight), It took me a another year before I got around to putting in the seats, just because I was sick of it and all its flaws. Then Shani and I took it on a couple of wilderness trips in Algonquin Park, and every single person we met enthused about what a beautiful canoe it was, and eventually instead of cringing inwardly about all the flaws they weren’t seeing, I’d say “Thanks, I made it myself” proudly, and feel good about my canoe.

I still feel good about my canoe. The flaws are there, and I know where every single one is, but I also know that other people don’t see the flaws, they see the whole, and the whole is beautiful.