Thoughts on tools and learning

When you are learning a new tool or technique it can be frustrating. It might take longer than expected to complete tasks. You might not do the job to a standard that you had hoped. You might burn a lot of time with little to show for it when you are done.

This has happened to me over the last few weeks. Today I have been considering what the lesson learnt is.

I have been building a guitar pedal from a kit, it is not my first, I have built several, but it is the first that I planned to give to someone else. So I wanted this one to look professional, or at the very least neat and tidy. In all of my previous builds I have used at predrilled enclosure; however, with this build, I wanted to use a larger enclosure than the kit recommended so that I could fit a battery in as well. This meant that I could not buy the pre-drilled enclosure, but I have a drill, so that’s fine. How hard could it be? I also wanted to label the controls. Etching looked like it would be tricky, but would look beautiful. A sharpie would be much easier, but not look as nice. So I thought I would try metal stamping the enclosure, and filling the stamped impression with enamel paint.

I am now a man with a plan.

The first enclosure started ok, except I was missing a drill bit that I had to order online, which took a while to be delivered. Once I had all of the drill bits I successfully drilled out all of the holes without any problems. I started stamping the case with labels, but it was difficult. If you didn’t stamp it correctly the first time, lining the stamp up perfectly for a second attempt was pretty much impossible. The result of re-stamping to make a better impression resulted in it looking like two letters typed on top of each other. I decided that I needed a bigger hammer so that I could make a solid impression with the first blow, but I did not have one. By now some of the hardware stores had reopened, I waited a few days before picking up a 1kg hammer. This first attempt did not look great, it would have been better to just use a sharpie.

The following weekend, I practised stamping on the old case with the new hammer. The impressions were much better, not great mind you, but I was improving with practice. A second case had turned up as well, so I was able to get started again. But disaster struck almost immediately. I had rotated the case 180 degrees to better clamp it into the vice but instead of drilling one of the holes at 8mm, I drilled it at 12mm. By now the deadline for completing this case had been and gone, this gift was going to have to be late. So I soldiered on, I used a larger washer to allow that potentiometer to sit neatly. After completion, I had to admit I was not satisfied in presenting this to my friend as a gift. The larger washer was visible beneath the knob from all angles. So I ordered another new case and had to wait another week for it to be delivered.

Last weekend I completed the drilling, stamping, and assembly, and I am happy with the result. So what did I learn from this?

  1. If you are attempting a new technique, make sure you have adequate time and spare materials to practice and experience the process thoroughly before you try it for real. If you make mistakes when it matters then it might be costly.

  2. Know your tools well, practice with them, and discard tools that do not work well for you. If you do this you will become more efficient, and be happier.

  3. Rushing to meet a deadline when you are unfamiliar with your tools and techniques makes everything worse.

These learnings apply to so many things, but I have also been thinking about this in the context of my day job as a software developer. We learn new tools and techniques all the time, but do we spend the time to get to know them properly? I probably know only a fraction of the capabilities of my IDE, yet I am frustrated with it regularly. I think I need to set aside some time to identify the parts of my tool kit that I need to get to know better.

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