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Perspective: The art of the shim

Chris Fink

For a solid month this summer, I built a deck. This ego bruising process made me realize that I’m ill-suited for building a deck. But it’s finished now, and it’s solid, and I did it — with a little help from my friends.

Chris Fink

What I wasn’t working on for that month was my writing, but the one craft made me think of the other. When you’re writing a story, you can start with a single sentence and see what comes next. You learn what you want to say by saying it. Building a deck is…not like that. To build a deck right, you need to know what you want before you start.

I’d be a better carpenter, and probably a better writer too, if I were a better planner. At times on the job, I’d be so focused on a mitered corner that I’d leave the other end of the board hanging shamefully over a joist. Or I’d realize too late that I hadn’t squared a factory edge and have to rip up the board.

In writing, if you set down a bad sentence — a clunker or a squinter — you can always come back and fix it later. In deck building, such revision is unforgiving and expensive. However, I did discover a magic tool that carpenters use to revise their projects. I discovered shims.

Shims saved my deck. The shim is the carpenter’s magic pencil: part eraser, part comma, akin to the mythological board stretcher. Walk on a flat deck and you’ll never know how many shims lurk beneath the veneer. Just like you’ll never know how many times I revised these sentences to arrive precisely here.

I’m Chris Fink and that’s my perspective.

Chris Fink is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Beloit College. He is the author of Farmer's Almanac, A Work of Fiction.