The Beauty in Imperfections

May 24, 2023

Like people, wood has flaws. Gnarls and curves, bows and twists, knots and holes. We tend to call this “character”. It gives us an assurance that things are real.

We also know that when there is too much “character” things can get ugly. A board with a big knot hole right in the middle is often not useful but with a little imagination and some creative workmanship we can make it more appealing than the “perfect” board.

Jolie Laide is a French term which doesn’t translate well in English but literally it means “ugly beautiful”. It recognizes that the way we hold ourselves in our imperfections is often the thing that makes us beautiful. It’s the thing that makes someone or something stand out from the rest.

Perhaps the best cultural expression of this is the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi. Which is even harder to translate in English. Wabi Sabi embraces time, decay and patina as well as the quirks and inconsistencies that come in the process of making something. To me it recognizes a respect for the things around us, the elements of nature and the things we create from them. It says to the object “I will still love you when you are old. I see the beauty in your formation and in this inevitable decay that we both experience.” With our world in a state of mass consumption and waste I think this is an important value to apply to the construction of a dwelling. In this time of world wide transition so many of us recognize that changes need to be made but it’s all so big. We are all so deep in the system. I would like to suggest that small changes in our values will reflect powerfully into our world.

There was a maple tree lying in the forest at my current job site,

well on its way to decay, it was just another tree that got old and fell down. With a Client interested in using wood from their own property, we cut a piece out to see what condition it was in. It turned out to be good timber with some spalting and interesting features. We milled the wood on site, had it kiln dried, and were able to get enough wood for many features in the home.

The only way this would work for us though was to use a lot of wood that otherwise would have been deemed too much hassle to utilize. In a perfect world the timber would air dry for years, but kiln drying can make wood more brittle and twisty. Also the dead wood had open and loose knots and inconveniently placed checking. For baseboards this meant that we had to use shorter pieces and more joints. More joints in naturally finished wood baseboard is usually undesirable so we took the joint and made a bit of a feature of it. After it went in I liked it so much I wished there were even more joints . When you unsuspectingly notice a joint in the baseboard, it’s like a little treat for your eyes. Also like Easter eggs hidden throughout the house are dovetail keys used to fill in open knot holes or to stabilize checking.

Are these ways more cost effective than painted MDF trims? No. Are they cheaper than using old growth vertical grain fir or clear hardwood trims from the lumber stores? Yes, depending on how you go about it. What cannot be quantified though is the value of creating and living in a home that reflects your values and the impact those values have on the world around us.

A little creative craftsmanship can go a long ways in our efforts to create a more sustainable future. Recognizing the beauty in imperfection is just one way to proceed.

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