The art of tact

A wise philosopher once said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” It doesn’t matter that I’m quoting Thumper in “Bambi.” It’s still true.

I have two friends with whom I regularly share woodworking stories and experiences. One is an extremely good craftsman, and his work is top-notch. The other dabbles in his tiny shop occasionally, and his work is… well, not so top-notch. In fact, it’s awful.

My first friend recently made a dresser, with influences borrowed from Mission and Arts & Crafts styles. The piece was beautifully designed, tastefully proportioned, featured perfect dovetails on the drawers, and was topped with a finish so excellent I was envious. But his fantastic work was ruined by his choice of wood – a different wood species for every drawer front and piece of trim. In all, maybe 15 or 16 different colors of wood. The thing looked like the aftermath of an explosion at Sherwin Williams.

My other friend’s endeavors are less ambitious – things like serving trays, small turnings and lidded boxes. His work is terrible; there’s just no other word for it. And yet he’s having the time of his life working in his shop, and couldn’t be prouder of things that sometimes look like he’s hacked them out of a board with a screwdriver.

So, what do you do when each proudly shows off his work for you? For my first friend, it’s easier. His work and his skills are so exemplary that there’s plenty to praise. I wasn’t kidding when I said I envied his finishing techniques, and his hand-cut dovetails are drool-inducing. You just don’t mention the grab bag of mismatched colors in his wood selection.

My other friend’s work is so bad that it’s difficult to look at, much less praise with anything stronger than “nice tray,” or words to that effect. In his case it’s best to opt for encouragement, noting any improvements in workmanship he may have made since his previous project, and offer carefully worded advice when you can. But the key for him is that he is having so darned much fun. That, in and of itself, is highly praiseworthy. Naturally, that’s the route I take.

I think Thumper would approve.

Till next time,



  • Paul Jensen says:

    Wise words! Soemtimes it is difficult to know how to respond when someone says “what do you think?”. I heard once that the definition of tact was “The ability to make someone feel at home…when you wish THEY were”!

  • Gabe says:

    I’m not sure however if Thumper would approve of you trashing them both in your blog.

  • Brian Burns says:

    Hi AJ,

    Alice Roosevelt Longworth used to say “If you can’t say anything nice, come and sit by me.”



  • Jon Walpole says:

    I feel the same way about most multi-specie projects. OK, a little tasteful ornamentation here or there.
    Didn’t you have enough of any one of those woods to do the whole chest? That’s what I would like to have said. Maybe that’s why I don’t have any friends?

  • Douglas says:

    I would have to agree with Gabe. And I am sure they both will be able to pick themselves out if they read your blog. So, exactly what is your advise about: “If you can’t say something nice about somebody don’t say anything at all.” I guess I missed it in your blog with the way you talked about your “friends.”

  • Craig says:

    I’m still trying to get over you taking 2 hours to make 2 sticks.
    He does nice work, just not much of it.
    How was that for encouragement?

  • When people show me work (as in carvings) that they have done, I generally give constructive opinion. Since I teach woodcarving during the winter months, I get to give lots of “opinions”. If they can’t handle comments other than flattery, they go away. Forunatly most all take it well and improve. I would venture that tact is a good thing when talking to someone with cutting tools in hand. Keep it light!

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