Know When to Use Tight and Loose Tolerances

“Measure carefully.  Know when to use tight and loose tolerances.”

Scene: Maker Faire 2014.  Adam Savage from “Mythbusters”.

Adam Savage presented his annual MakerFaire speech from high atop a rickety cherry-picker adorned with hand-painted railing.  This year he presented his Ten Commandments of Making.

Anyone who makes — builds, turns, welds, cuts, stitches, designs, etc. — would be wise to watch this speech.  The link is at the bottom of this post.

However, the best tip of the whole speech is nestled comfortably at #8: “Measure carefully.  Know when to use tight and loose tolerances.”


Check out the Reeds page — and read the Reviews!  Avoid machine-made, mass produced 2×4, buzzy monstrosities — check out the reed options and try one!  Visit the Reeds page to purchase.


A ‘tolerance’ is a gap, either physical or metaphorical, between two things.  A very small gap is said to have a tight tolerance, where as a larger gap has a loose tolerance.

Some cooks swear by recipes, while some prefer to wing it.  Both are correct and neither is correct in all circumstances.  Accuracy takes time.  An unevenly sawed porch railing has “character”.  A one-thousandth of an inch gap is enough to foul an engine.  Sealants and caulking cover unevenness, and sandpaper smooths grain.  .1mm too thick at the tip and the bassoon reed or oboe reed won’t play.  Wood can be squeezed together, but metal won’t budge.  We must decide which level of tolerance our project or goal demands.  I’ve messed up many projects because I tried to impose tighter tolerances than necessary, wasting time and frustrating myself.

We have a finite amount of willpower each day.  Could we decide to live with some looser tolerances to leave time for tightening other tolerances?

Scales are a perfect example.  By working all the finger patterns of neighboring notes beforehand, our subsequent practice requires less thought.  But do we need to practice every single note all the time?  Of course not.  Practice the general shape first, then gradually fill in the details.

The same goes for learning a piece of music, and for performing it.  How perfect does it really need to be?  Does the audience really need to hear every single note, or can you  aim for gestures and allow the rest to fix itself?  Each piece is different, so use your best judgment.


Have you seen the Tiger Reeds Reeds page yet?  I hand-make every one!  They’re they’re not ‘cheap’; they’re excellent value and they last a long time.  Don’t take my word for it; read the Reviews!  Avoid machine-made, mass produced 2×4, buzzy monstrosities — check out the reed options and try one!  Visit the Reeds page to purchase.


Adam Savage’s speech is available at Adam Savage’s 10 Maker Commandments.