Toothpick Guarantee

“Needed tooth picks to keep my eyes open!”

Ms. Hiller is a first rate builder and meticulous with her layout and cutting! With that being said, she is dry as mud in her presentation! The video could use better editing (such as “fast forward” over several repetitive procedures). She also violates several safety rules while working, such as loose sleeves while at the table saw. The project is what I bought the DVD for and that is almost worth the money.–Don (Posted on 8/8/2015)

Dear Don:

I’m sorry that what you call my dry-as-mud presentation made it hard for you to keep your eyes open while watching the video I did for Popular Woodworking last spring. Your metaphor’s a new one on me: I think of mud as wet and sticky.

Don't look back

Don’t look back

When the online content editor at Popular Woodworking wrote to ask whether I’d consider doing a project video, I made clear to him that I do not consider myself an obvious choice for display before a video camera. It’s not being filmed that gets me; it’s talking–ideally in sentences that are concise and well organized–while being recorded. I’m a reasonably articulate person, but talking to a camera still comes hard. “Have you seen the floating vanity video series I did for Fine Homebuilding?” I asked him when we first spoke. He assured me that no one likes the way he or she looks or sounds on camera, and a few weeks later we moved ahead.

But look here, Don: This dry-as-mud demeanor? It’s just my shtick. For some people, the film crew’s clapper is a shot of adrenaline. “Look at me! I’m a star!” For me it signals responsibility, provoking a gut-wrenching desire to avoid  fucking up. (Hence my lifelong preference for dead languages. No chance of clumsy conjugations or subject-verb disagreement in extemporaneous speech.)

My demeanor is modeled after some of my favorite teachers: people with high standards and real knowledge of their field who expect their students to be sufficiently interested that they don’t require cajoling. So, yes, I turn into a cabbage with bottle-glass spectacles when speaking on camera. Teachers who entertain make me a little uneasy. It feels, to me, like pandering. As a student, I never needed it. As a teacher, I don’t want to engage in it, even though I know it’s increasingly considered essential by pedagogical experts.

I agree with you that some sections could have been trimmed, others expanded. No doubt the powers that be at Popular Woodworking will give your comments due consideration. But I think it’s worth bearing in mind that this type of video isn’t necessarily intended to be “watched”; I think the idea is that all the steps are provided in sequence, with lots of detail shots, so that those who want to build their own piece can refer to the video for guidance at various steps along the way. You can press the fast-forward button yourself. You can also jump from one section to another depending on what you want or need to learn.

I share your concern over the dangling cuff, which appears far closer to the saw blade due to the camera angle than it was in real life (though you’re correct; it should have been buttoned).

I was impressed by the skill and professionalism of this crew, as well as their efforts to put me at ease. They were actually quite successful at this; just not while the camera was rolling.

In the interest of keeping the world of woodworking videos somewhat grounded in reality, I think it’s good to have variety in presenters’ age, gender, appearance, and demeanor. As in any field, those with much to teach are likely to be those with many years of experience  (translation: who don’t look like the buff stars of HGTV and are not necessarily so engaging). At the end of the day, are the length and occasional slow pace of this two-disc video really so bad when you contrast them with the wacky distortions of the commercial how-to genre, where everyone looks like a model, no one makes mistakes, and viewers come away with a completely unrealistic sense of how long it takes to build a cabinet or remodel an entire house? You could try thinking of this video as a metaphor for woodworking, especially the field as known and loved by those of us who engage in it for a living, over decades: We’d go stir crazy if, along with so many other skills, we didn’t cultivate patience in the face of what many would consider mind-numbing monotony.

I appreciate your honesty and am glad  you found the content ultimately useful.

Finally, I do offer my signature toothpick guarantee. If you need some to prop your eyes open while referring to the video as you build the cabinet, send me a stamped addressed envelope and I’ll mail you a pair.

6 responses to “Toothpick Guarantee

  1. Love the toothpick guarantee!

  2. Ms. Hiller,

    I am new to your website, which is first-rate, so I apologize for this belated posting.

    I enjoyed watching your video on building a Hoosier cabinet — and I benefited from watching it, as well. As a woodworker and now-retired teacher of 40 years, I have to express my strong disagreement with the critical comments Don posted earlier this year.

    The format of the video and your manner of presentation are effective, engaging and informative. In truth, the format is very similar to that of many other project videos available through Popular Woodworking, though it is also true that almost all of those videos featured male woodworkers — I can’t help wondering if Don has been or would be as critical of those productions as he was of yours. The answer to this line of inquiry is not knowable.

    I happen to agree with Don on one point of shop safety: Loose shirt sleeves are not a good idea in the shop. Having repeated this dictum to my sons and grandchildren many times over the years, I confess I was worried about your safety. It would be a shame if such a talented and creative person were to be needlessly injured in a workshop mishap.

    Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed your video, which I have now watched twice, and am impressed by your recent publication in Popular Woodworking.

    It is clear to me that you have masted not only the craft of woodworking but the craft of writing, as well. Thank you for sharing your work.

    With greatest respect, I am


    • Jerry, thanks for your note. It’s lovely to hear that you found the video informative.

      Of course you are right, as is Don, about the shirt sleeves. Temperature control was a challenge that week in Spring; it was chilly, but the lights that the video crew brought to the shop generated a lot of heat. I had my cuffs unbuttoned because I was constantly having to roll up my sleeves, then put them down again, depending on my proximity to the lights. For what it’s worth, the camera angle at the table saw during the process that generated these concerned remarks really did distort the distance between the blade and my hand–so much so that I was shocked when I watched the video. (Incidentally, the saw is a SawStop, not that I take the added safety feature for granted.) Nonetheless, I appreciate your reminder not to work with loose long sleeves.

  3. Hi Nancy,
    you don’t happen to have a DVD laying around on the Bakers cabinet for sale? Popwood has only digital downloads and I don’t want one of them.

    • Ralph, I do have a few copies, but first, are you certain that you can’t buy one from Popular Woodworking? I’m pretty sure I saw some for sale at Woodworking in America last September. It’s better if you buy from the publisher as long as the publisher has stock for sale. If you find that they really are no longer selling it, I will gladly sell you one after checking to make sure that I’m contractually permitted to do so.

  4. Hi Nancy
    took me a while to find my comment about the DVD. PopWood only offers a digital down load and I’ve lost too many of them on my computer. I want a DVD that I can pop in/out and fast forward reverse etc etc
    my email is rjboumenot at gmail dot com if you sell it let know how to pay for it
    thanx for reply and my apologies for taking so long to find this and reply

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