The Mental Side of Woodworking, Revisitied

Another Essay

Do you have a set of standards to which you work? I do. I'm not sure I've always been successful or consistent at meeting them, and in some cases I definitely haven't achieved them, and I certainly haven't defined all of them, but I have them. Some of them are unrealistic, too, but as I mature (hah!), I sort of re-evaluate and re-order them. I think one of the things that has driven my standard setting was obtaining the approval of those knowledgable people who might see my work. I didn't want anyone saying, "oh sure, it looks nice, but he used nails."

The first major project I built was a grandmother clock in 1974. I prided myself on not using any metal fasteners in the case work. For some reason I had imposed that standard on myself as a sort of link with a certain level of craftsmanship of old. After all, I believed, they didn't have nails and screws in the 18th or 19th century, and we know the esteem in which we hold so much 200 year old furniture. They had to depend on joinery and adhesives for the integrity of the particular construction. Therefore, so should I. Eventually, I relaxed what I came to understand to be an unrealistic standard, and allowed screws and air driven fasteners into my projects.

Of course, some of that old world protocol is desirable based on sound engineering. For example, dovetails will always be a worthwhile feature of an important project because they are the mechanically superior method of joining two panels. I bought my first dovetailing jig in 1972, but I have always felt unclean somehow using it. Getting an Omnijig a few years ago was occassion for a major tool gloat, but I felt no less unclean. Over the years, and at various levels of accomplishment, I have tried hand cutting dovetails, most often after watching Roy Underhill effortlessly execute a few. There is obviously an especially strong link between practice and skill in dovetailing that I have been remiss in developing.

When I finished the sewing cabinet I made for SWMBO, I felt pretty good, because for the most part, I had worked to my standard. I did use the Omnijig for the dovetails in the drawers, and that sort of bothered me. But SWMBO loved the drawers. To her they are almost the highlight of the cabinet (I had hoped the raised panel doors would have been). I pointed out that they were made by machine. She said she didn't care; they were beautiful. When my friend Jim Webb looked at the project and admired the drawers, I was convinced. Hand cut or not, dovetails simply add a touch of elegance to a project.

I couldn't tell you where I got it, but I have had the idea for some time that sanding was a sign of poor workmanship, and I have been loathe to sand all the years I've been woodworking. And not because I abhor the physical effort. I especially apply that philosophy to lathe work, and the 80 grit gouge to me is the antithesis of everything good in woodworking.

Perhaps in early woodworking reading I saw references to scrapers, and I drew the conclusion that proper stock preparation and precision joinery were the hallmarks of quality craftsmanship, and that sandpaper was merely the poor workman's substitute. Conceding that my skills were nowhere near the level required to eschew sandpaper, I conceded the acquisition of a power sander or two, but remained stalwart in the belief that a belt sander was the devil incarnate.

I scored a minor victory in making the main panels for the sewing table. I used oak veneer plywood for the panels, and then banded the edges with solid oak approximately 2" wide. Trying to get miters, biscuits, and clamps all arranged for proper glue-up necessitated bands that were thicker than the panels. After the panels came out of the clamps, I set about thicknessing the banding to match the ply panels.

After an abortive attempt with the devil incarnate, then with three failed iterations of router methods, I finally tried my old bench plane. I prepared by treating the iron to a Scary Sharp® session (hone your teeth on the method here) and then planing away, followed by a touch up with the random orbit sander. Voila! Those old methods still have some advantages.

What's funny about all this is that I never extended the stock preparation standard to thicknessing and surfacing by hand. I've been happy to let the jointer and planer do that, although I did make a shooting board and jointed the panels for the grandmother clock by hand. That was before the jointer acquisition. I must be some sort of hypocrite.

I mentioned unrealistic. In laying out the panels (main top, rear table, left and right tables) for the sewing table, I took pains to use the panels as I cut them from the plywood sheets, so the grain would match, even with the 2" bands in place. I think this comes under the heading of anal retentive. I even used the piece I cut out of the main table where the sewing machine comes through for the sewing machine shelf. It looks great. Nobody has noticed it yet. I've had to explain it to everyone. I finally quit; it isn't worth it. There's only one person who has any clue that I did that, why, and what it entailed. And he's not going to bother working to that standard of detail again. Well, not for a while.

Actually, I guess the lesson I learned in setting down this rambling missive, is that it's good to work to standards, but be realistic and flexible about them. And most importantly, don't let other people's potential opinions affect the way you work.

In my earlier Mental post I alluded to my lack of formal training. I guess it keeps nagging in the back of my mind that I'm supposed to be doing things a certain way, and I don't know what it is. So I set my own

Last updated: 27 January 2009

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