Blame the Tuna

Note: This is the first in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. The posts are new material, not excerpted from the book. Each will be tied to one of the book’s chapters, in this case, “It’s All Problems.”

Thomson 1

Some people are so convinced of their powers that they seem to feel invincible. They’re too good at what they do–too rock-star “together” in general–to make mistakes. (Or perhaps they’re too deeply invested in this conceit to acknowledge that they make them.)

My attitude is closer to that of the majestic tuna I once saw in a BBC documentary about oceans. The most striking part of the film was the vision of the fish as David Attenborough calmly observed that the killer whale (clearly visible in the frame) was taking its first bite. The fish’s eyes were as steady as if it was contemplating a leaf of kelp floating by on a peaceful current. “OK,” it seemed to be saying. “So this is happening.”

It’s not that I’m defeatist about s**t happening, or that I don’t do everything in my power to avoid it. It’s that experience has liberated me from the burden of believing that when you really know what you’re doing, things just go smoothly. I’ve found that the more I know, the vaster I simply recognize my ignorance to be.*


The other day I was finalizing the installation of doors on a set of built-in cabinets. They hang in pairs, with one fixed by a catch and the other opened by a surface-mounted latch. Traditionally, the fixed door would have been held shut by an elbow latch, but I used a pair of rare earth magnets instead, for convenience. I’ve been using these magnets as catches for years. They’re strong, simple, and inconspicuous.

As I worked, one of the customers walked through the room and remarked that the doors looked great. He was heading toward one as though he might close it to see how it looked shut. I had just glued the magnet on the door in place with quick-setting epoxy a few minutes before, so I asked him not to shut the door, to keep the magnet from being pulled back out of its socket. Being a physicist, this customer knows all about rare earth magnets. He started telling me about them and mentioned their repulsive force, a feature that had somehow never even occurred to me. How had I been oblivious to something so important? I wondered. How had I managed never to set a magnet the wrong way? He grabbed a pair of magnets and held their negative faces toward each other, showing me how it was impossible to force them together, explaining “they’ll just flip around if you let go of one.” From now on I would certainly make a point of checking the polarity before gluing a magnet in place.

As I prepared to set the final magnet, I let it click into place and marked the back to make sure I applied the glue to the correct face. I pressed it into its socket and went back to work on the other cabinet while the epoxy hardened.

About a half-hour later, I was ready to install the keeper for the last latch. I gave the left-hand door a push so the magnets would pull the door closed and align the closing stile with that of its mate. The door popped right back at me.

How many of these magnets had I used over the years, without incident, only to screw up the polarity of the first one I’d ever checked? Classic. My mind went straight to the tuna.

I tried to pry the magnet out with the tip of my utility knife, but the epoxy had set too hard. When you’re on a job site you don’t have access to the tools and materials of a shop. You have to improvise. I needed to get this latch installed. There had to be an elegant way to fix my mistake. I unscrewed the door stop (of course I’d glued it in place for extra strength, so I had to break it free with a stout chisel and mallet), gave the surface a quick scrape, and turned it around with the back facing out.

Blame the tuna 1

Ugly but eminently salvageable

I screwed it into place, marked the position of the magnet on the door, and drilled a hole for the magnet in the stop. I grabbed a magnet and checked the polarity—twice, just to make sure—then glued it in place. This time I got it right.

Blame the tuna 2

Once I cleaned up the stray epoxy, it looked as good as new. The little gap at the top between the face frame and the cabinet top will be concealed by cove moulding, a detail I like to add in some cases for subtle relief.

Some may be scandalized that I find it acceptable to reverse a stop this way, leaving this imperfection on a piece of finished work. As one whose career has taken her into countless old houses, where I have seen (and learned from) all kinds of ingenious solutions made by earlier craftspersons to comparable problems in their work, I take pleasure in anticipating that some future craftsperson will come across the back of this door stop and enjoy a moment of solidarity as he or she recognizes why the magnet’s there.

*I am using the word “ignorance” according to its lexical definition, i.e. not-knowing–not in the looser sense of stupidity or uninformed bias.


31 responses to “Blame the Tuna

    • Nancy, have you ever had these magnets shatter from a hard closing? I have broken a few neodymium magnets by letting them slam together which has made me wary of using them in furniture. Thanks! Richard

      • No, I haven’t experienced that. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about different types of magnet to hazard an opinion about the rare earth magnets’ potential for breakage, but I think it’s unlikely given the circumstances in which I use them, for two reasons: First, I recess them into the surroundings (the door and the cabinet, or in this case, the stop attached to the cabinet), so they’re unlikely to come into smash-level contact. Second, they are not installed with self-closing hinges; to slam these doors, you’d really have to be furious, and doing so would likely cause damage to other parts of the door or hardware as well (perish the thought!).

      • Ah thanks for the response. Of course, recessing them a mm or two would make all the difference.

    • One (or a collaboration?) of you woodworker/authors would do a great service especially to those of us still a bit lower on the learning curve by writing a book entitled “Oops”. Nothing but fixes for the most common missteps. It would sell like hotcakes. Maybe that’s not the best analogy, given the Keto rage. Anyway I feel confident it would be popular.

      • Ha, yes. Great suggestion. I write about fixes often, and Making Things Work includes a number of them. I’m sure you’re right about the value of a book dedicated to the subject.

  1. Ah, ignorance. Not knowing. Bliss. And enlightened ignorance — knowing that you don’t know. Those are the things that keep me up at night.

    Al Breed once shared a story about the upper portion of a Newport bookcase-on-desk that he worked on. The shelves in the tall upper portion were hidden by magnificent carved mahogany doors. Whoever had cut the dad is for the shelves had made them for 7/8ths or so stock. Someone ekse made 1/2 inch shelves. So every dado had a 3/8ths strip glued in to fill the space. Your fix is invisible by comparison.

  2. What an empowering story. Thank you.

    I make mistakes all the time, and blame myself badly. When someone else does too, the guilt is lessened dramatically. And when they tell their story with truth, it feels like their confessional has absolved my sins. Yaay.

    When my spouse asks me how long I think it’ll take to complete something, I try to be realistic, and then add on 50% extra as my margin. So how does that work out in practice? The accuracy is certainly there: if I only had to do the task once, my margin would even be profit (in time and credibility). Trouble is, so many of my tasks need to be done twice…

    What if there was a sharp tool of the mind that could save the second time around…

  3. Roger Hillers

    Good save!
    Not that particular error but numerous ” been there and done that.
    Thanks for the story,
    Roger Hillers

  4. Or you could highlight this and sell it as a secret hiding spot! Find a nice small metal container, put some keepsake in it and stick it to the backside magnet. It would be a great place for a special key or some other small item that the client wants hidden.

  5. 😄 I haven’t done that one yet! Just give me time.

  6. Difference between amateur and professional is the ability to problem solve when there is an oops.

  7. I have checked and double checked those things until blue in the face, never trusting that I had gotten it right last time I checked. Brilliant save. Isn’t being a good craftsperson about knowing how to fix your mistakes? I think that is what qualifies us for such a title.

  8. Marvelous and thought provoking . Thank you

  9. Craftspersons make mistakes and come up with ingenious fixes. A true artist has subconscious inspiration manifest itself in the piece. Only the pedestrian ignorant of fine art observer would dare question such an artistic expression.

    Say that with a straight face and extreme pomposity. A monocle and black beret wouldn’t hurt, either. Then add a zero to the price.

  10. Douglas Furby

    If you fix the magnet to one piece and a piece of steel to the mating piece then the polarity of the magnet is irrelevant

    • You clearly know more about magnets than I do. The manufacturer offers cups in which to seat one of the magnets. They may achieve this end. I will experiment. Thank you.

  11. I’m trying to understand why you use two magnets instead of one magnet and small steel plate or even a slotted flathead screw. It would be cheaper and no polarity issues.

    • I hadn’t ever thought of using a slotted flathead screw. I’ll do some experiments–thank you. The one thought that comes to mind vis-a-vis a screw is that the head offers a small surface area, which may provide a less robust bond than a full-size magnet (or steel plate). With doors this large, I want a good bond. Again, thanks for your suggestion.

    • Two magnets provide greater holding power than one magnet and a steel screw head, or one magnet and a plain piece of steel.

  12. I am largely a self-taught woodworker, if you discount the 150 or so DVDs on woodworking in my collection. For many years I chastised myself for my frequent errors, blaming my lack of “proper” training. At a recent meeting of the Charleston Wood Guild two of the best woodworkers I know, Sam Sprouse of the Charleston Woodworking School and Charlie Moore of the American College of Building Arts, in a demo stated that “60% of woodworking is fixing your mistakes.” I feel vindicated (but still frustrated) for my own high rate of errors, and this posting just adds to my reluctant acceptance of my own failings!

  13. Since these little magnets are so powerful it had never occurred to me to use two–have always used just one. Certainly understand about lessons in humility. The tuna visits my shop with appropriate frequency.

  14. Milford BrownI have none

    The mentioned cups essentially bring the opposite pole of the flat magnet around to the front, thus allowing both north and south magnetic poles to do the holding.

    • If this were true, then a magnet in a cup, with both a north and south pole on top, wouldn’t stick to a magnet not in a cup with only one pole, or it would stick off-center. The cup changes the geometry of the magnetic field, but whichever pole is down remains down.

  15. If you install a magnet in a steel cup it will actually increase the magnet’s holding power, about double in my experiments. Lee Valley sells special properly sized extra-thick countersunk washers to use to mate with their magnet cups. The challenge I generally have with magnetic latches or attachments is getting the right strength. The last time I used them—for latches on some very small doors—the magnetic force was too strong and I had to do something to weaken it. (I added a layer of high friction material. Increasing separation of magnets even by a tiny bit has a huge effect on their pull force, so the extra space created by the added material weakened the strength enough to make the doors usable.)

    More here than probably anybody wants to read about some tests I did with magnets, and their strength, for a project where I made “magnetic wood” to hang kitchen utensils:

  16. Magnets are available in a range of sizes and magnetic field strengths; instead of using two magnets (as suggested by johncashman73) just buy a stronger magnet. However, the essence of magnetic latches is not to make them strong enough to support a truck, but just strong enough to hold the door in the closed position but able to be opened with a gentle pull.

  17. Mount one magnet, then stick the other magnet on. Use a highlighter or a Sharpie to color the face of the magnet. Shut the door. Now you’ve located the receiving hole for the magnet, and identified which face goes in the hole, all in one fell swoop.*

    *This is my solution, having done EXACTLY what Nancy did.

    • Yep, that’s what I did–the first time (and I proceeded to put the magnet in the wrong way around…), then the second time (when I paid closer attention). Thanks for your comment.

  18. Charlie Boardman

    I recently discovered your site and am randomly reading through your posts. I love your ability to tell a compelling story concisely.
    In 1972 I started my carpentry apprenticeship. I was lucky to work with some very smart journeymen carpenters. Two of the things I learned from them were; “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything” and “Anyone can make a mistake, it takes a professional to fix it.

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