Publish and perish, #736

Last Saturday at the Lost Art Press open house a friendly fellow mentioned that he’d enjoyed my post at Fine Woodworking about improvisation on the jobsite. I hadn’t realized the post had been published, so at lunchtime today I took a look…you know, in case there were any comments I should address. Were there ever. They began with a whopper from a reader who took me to task on several accounts before veering off into a tangential discussion.

After mulling the points this afternoon while working in the shop, I wrote the following response in the interest of setting the record straight…because no one wants to read 1600 words in a new comment.



I’m sorry to be coming so late to the conversation; I didn’t know until this weekend that the post had been published. This is a great example of comments developing a life of their own, separate from the writing that prompted them. There’s a lot to respond to, so I’ll jump right in.

1 Making mistakes—and writing about them

“You should be posting this article in ‘Billy Bob’s Hack a House’ magazine not in Fine Woodworking. You made a mistake. Go back to the shop and make it again and simply eat the loss… I’m surprised that you’re not even embarrassed to reveal that you made this mistake. It was staring you in the face.”

Far from being embarrassed about the mistake, I love how this cabinet turned out. More importantly, my client is delighted. As soon as I realized my error, I called the client to let her know about it and to ask how she would like me to respond. She agreed with my suggestion that building the cabinet up to the window trim (and avoiding what would, in the best case, have been a small space between them) was an elegant move.

Like most professionals I know, I’ve built a few cabinets a second time due to some detail of the jobsite I hadn’t noticed. Sometimes those details are present at the start of the job (whether or not you notice them); sometimes they’re introduced by another craftsperson on the job along the way. What’s key is how you respond.

At this point most people will interject “That’s why every job should have a competent general contractor”—and that’s fine in theory, but I can tell you that even jobs with competent g.c.s have their share of mistakes and other, well, surprises. My husband and several of our close friends are excellent general contractors, each with a lifetime of experience in building and remodeling, who also keep abreast of new products, methods, etc. by reading trade journals and participating in new training as appropriate. Each of them, if they’re being honest, will attest that no matter how meticulously you plan, and regardless of whether you’re working from a designer’s or architect’s plans, there will always be unforeseen (if not always unforeseeable) conditions that require the kind of improvisation I wrote about in my post.

As for being embarrassed to reveal that I made this mistake, this is just the kind of thing the editors at Fine Woodworking hired me to write about! My posts are aimed specifically at fellow professionals and aspiring professional woodworkers. Everyone makes mistakes. No professional woodworker exists in the error-free fantasy-land portrayed by woodworking videos, Instagram, or HGTV. Real life doesn’t come with editing. Part of my job is to reveal that mistakes, sometimes significant ones, are far more common than most people realize, and to offer examples of how to deal with them.

2 The state of the jobsite

“Then again, the house looks like a wreck.”

Seriously? I specialize in work for houses built before the 1970s. Most of my work is for houses built between 1895 and 1930; this one dates to 1915. It’s an absolute gem that was home to a prominent Indianapolis family early on. Like so many urban houses, this one and the neighborhood around it fell victim to blight for a few decades; the resulting lowered property value is what enabled my client to buy this Craftsman-style bungalow with a fabulous tile roof and interior woodwork that’s to die for. The client is a retired historic preservation professional who is slowly restoring the place, as finances allow.

3 The cabinet’s design

“That cabinet should have been narrower so as not to interfere with the window or door trim. It should have gone right to the ceiling. The wall/ceiling crown should have been cut and the crown moulding on the new cabinet matched to that existing crown, so that it wrapped around the cupboard. That’s the proper way.
The cabinet has a major design flaw in that it doesn’t have a toe kick. It’s going to be difficult for the homeowner to do any work at that counter without developing a sore back. Without a toe kick, he/she will be continually leaning very uncomfortably forward over the counter.
Did I mention that the paint will become scuffed from the toes of shoes hitting it? The design will necessitate that the whole cabinet will have to be painted, not just the kick which could have been painted with a colour that was close to the original.”

Like most kitchens I work in, this one does not have the acres of space available in many suburban residences. Most of my built-in jobs involve optimizing the usable space in rooms that are relatively small, while respecting a house’s history and style. In close discussion with the client, I made this cabinet narrow enough to fit the space yet wide enough to store her dishes, baking trays, silverware, and so on.

From our first discussions of the crown, we decided not to go all the way to the ceiling. In general, the best practice is, as you say, to remove the existing trim, install the built-in, then fit the original trim (augmented as necessary by trim that matches) around it. As I mention in the post, the large crown moulding here is not original to the room; it was added by a previous homeowner. This is common practice when people add a layer of drywall to the ceiling in order to hide cracked plaster nailing up crown moulding is often quicker than finishing the corner joints. Ideally, the crown would have been removed during the current remodel, to make an unadorned square corner typical of utility spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms in the 1910s. However, addressing the gappy mess that is probably behind the crown might well have added more to the cost of the remodeling work than my client wanted to spend. (Note: I am not in charge of the room, just the cabinets.) She decided to put her money where it would have the greatest impact—refinishing the floor, installing a period-appropriate sink, cabinets to her specifications, etc.

Given that the ceiling crown was going to stay, and given that we were not going to carry that big crown around the top of the built-ins because it is wildly out of proportion and unsuited to the cabinets’ style (more on this below), we made the decision to end the cabinets a few inches below the ceiling. This is not my first rodeo; I have faced this same dilemma several times before, and in view of all the variables listed above, we agreed that this was the most graceful solution.

And so, on to the kick. The absence of a toe-kick is intentional. The design of the cabinetry for this kitchen is drawn from that of early 20th-century millwork catalogs, a rich resource for those interested in furnishing kitchens of early 20th-century houses with period-authentic cabinetry. This is such a vast subject, and one I’ve written about in multiple other places, that I won’t belabor it here, other than to note that several styles of kicks were common by the late 1920s, some recessed and some flush, but the fully recessed toe-kicks most people consider de rigueur today became the norm later than the era of this house and its original kitchen. As with all other aspects of the cabinetry, I discussed pros and cons of this detail with my client, who made the ultimate decision. (To be precise, we discussed pros and cons of this detail when I designed the cabinets for her last kitchen, in another house. Having lived with those cabinets for years, she already knew she wanted flush kicks this time around. Incidentally, I built the cabinets in our home’s kitchen without toe-kicks, as I have in other kitchens of my own homes since the mid-1990s. They take a couple of days to get used to, after which your body adjusts. And a durable oil-based paint is easy to wipe clean with warm water and a drop of dish soap.)

4 The practicality (or lack thereof) of the counter of the cabinet in the post

The base cabinet shown in the post is shallower than conventional in modern kitchens, at just 20” deep. The client requested this to keep the cabinet from appearing out of scale with the reproduction sink next to it. The upper section, though, is deeper than conventional, at 14”; again, the client requested this, as some of her dishes are too large to fit in a 12”-deep cabinet with inset doors that are 7/8” thick.

This cabinet is not the primary workspace for the room. There’s another, deeper one across the room; its base is 24” deep, its upper a standard 12”. The kitchen will also have a central worktable, as was typical of kitchens in the 1910s. The table will offer excellent preparation space.

5 Help! Who mentioned Shaker or farmhouse?

“Many, many Shaker cabinets were actually on short legs (feet) and this one should also have had a small raised base and feet to improve its functionality if it was to reflect “Shaker style”. –but it isn’t Shaker style. It’s a mish-mash.”

It’s neither Shaker style nor a mish-mash. The cabinets in this kitchen, with their flush toe-kick, intermediate drawer rails, true divided lite doors, inset doors, half-inset drawer faces with rounded edges, polished nickel butterfly hinges, and surface-mounted latches follow the design of a cabinet chosen by my client from an old millwork catalog on account of its resemblance to an original cabinet built into the hallway adjacent to her kitchen. (Her kitchen’s original cabinets had been removed before she bought the house, so we were unable to use those for design guidance.)

A flat panel does not a Shaker door (or cabinet, or kitchen) make. (The section on so-called Shaker kitchens in my forthcoming book for Lost Art Press begins, appropriately, with a rant on this very topic.)

6 In conclusion

“This cabinet and installation are just “a fail” in so many ways.”

“I don’t think that the installation looks aesthetically pleasing as it stands.”

Fortunately, the person whose kitchen this is has her own thoughts on the matter. My job is to design and build work that’s truly customized for particular clients and their homes—work that’s well researched in terms of its contextual history and made to a standard of which I can be proud.

31 responses to “Publish and perish, #736

  1. Just…wow. As the owner of a 1905 house that needs a kitchen remodel, I think your cabinet is altogether fabulous. And as to mistakes, I’ve made a few, but then again, too many to mention.

  2. Jeez, it’s exhausting having to read the hectoring comments let alone to respond to them like an adult. Well done Nancy for answering with grace.

  3. Nancy, I just read your post on the kitchen you just finished. I not surprised that “Suburbanguy” had to hide behind a name that no one is familiar with. I would love to meet this fellow and find out how one manages to live his/her life without ever making a mistake, always knowing what is wrong, generally being perfect. I wonder what he does for a living? Wouldn’t be surprised if he were a politician , they always know how things “should have been done” after the fact.

    As someone who has spent time with you and have had your help in correcting mistakes, I can attest to your ability and passion for “doing it right.”

    Hope you and Mark are doing well, and you enjoyed your solitude over Thanksgiving. Both Peg and I are looking forward to seeing you in April.

    Best wishes, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,

    Peg and Jim

    By the way an old friend of mine set me a t-shirt you might like. “Don’t let the gray hair and beer belly fool you, I can still kick your ass!” Send Surburbanguy over anytime. Jim


  4. Well with a username like “suburbanguy”… I mean that really just tells the whole story right there. Who would have guessed how effortlessly the shifty opinions would flow from such a character 🙃

  5. What possesses someone to be so uncivil and blatantly crass as well as mannerless.

  6. Wow! No pleasing some people.
    As usual, wonderful prose and craft!

  7. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen

    If only Augustus Pugin (upon publishing “Contrasts” in 1836 thus starting a debate about the proper method of conserving historic buildings which continues to this today) had waited a hundred years or so then he could have spent his time leaving weirdly aggressive anonymous comments online, instead…
    Seriously though, your thoughtful approach is appreciated Nancy. Not just by your clients and readership but (no doubt) by the next decent tradesperson on the job. Good work pays it forward.

  8. “Seriously, Suburbanguy?”

    Well done. I admire your restraint, for you must have been boiling. But I’m glad you haven’t resorted to an ad hominem because that way you lose your dignity. Others take note!

    I wish there were more tradespeople who sought and followed the wishes of their client. On the other hand there are too few who will challenge those wishes if they’re flawed; rather, they go ahead and do the job, and say “It’s what the client wanted” when things go wrong. Somehow I don’t see you doing that, though.

    To veer off tangentially, but remaining just about on topic, I could wish you were still in this country. We’ve just bought a nice solid mid-century bungalow in the south of England (not too far from Michael Hall, so maybe somewhere you’d know). It’s been slightly remodelled, and we’re about to remodel it further, but the kitchen will take an awful lot of thought if we’re to be modern while at least nodding to the original. Oh well …

    • Martyn, thanks for your delicate treatment of the ins and outs of doing what the client wants. You’re absolutely correct that some people use that as an excuse. I do my best to provide a comprehensive list of pros and cons on every decision that seems to warrant them, as most of the unconventional details in my clients’ kitchens do, and then I follow the client’s wishes. Years ago, Bert Gilbert, one of those excellent general contractors I referred to here advised me to write up a memo after each meeting, summarizing the decisions made, and send it via email to the client(s). That’s a big help in ensuring we all remember which decisions are made.

      As for your kitchen, if you’re serious about potentially involving me in the design, just send me a note via email (address readily available at my website, I work with clients at a distance, and aside from that, I’m over your way every so often.

  9. Nancy, grace and poise surround you and your comments. Your response is “high road” and spot on. Thanks for being who you are.

  10. No complaints here; the kitchen looks great! Most of your work appears to be in older homes. Have you ever done a kitchen in a new house? It would be an interesting chapter of your career if you took one on.

    • Yes, I have done a few kitchens for new houses. I love variety, so the occasional contemporary kitchen is a lot of fun. Generally speaking, though, I thrive on the kinds of constraints old houses provide: small rooms that often have lots of doorways, odd layouts, and lovely historic context.

  11. Referring to your previous blog post, “Simple American”, the first picture of said cabinet is quite revealing. The grey dog next to the cabinet looks at ease with your design decisions. No kick on the base allows easy access to any water bowl pushed up against it. Although the pooch displays a certain ambivalence—dare I say indifference—toward your choice of crown trim. You’ll be fine as long as the gap between the upper cabinet and ceiling is small enough to prevent any cat from using this space to lie in ambush….

  12. Apparently Suburbanguy is just another internet troll. He thinks he is the self-appointed expert on all things cabinet. Way to go, Nancy. Give him hell.

    • I’m not an Internet troll. I’m a perfectionist. I expect it of myself. I expect it of a contractor or anyone with whom I do business with. I know it’s become a dirty word.–but you do expect your Dr. to be a perfectionist, don’t you? But, that’s different, I guess.
      Another Internet name caller. Just call anyone who doesn’t agree with you a troll.

  13. Suburbanguy is right in his replies to Geordie Smith and crookedhandwoodshop. We may not like or agree with what he said in his comment on Ms Hiller’s FW post, but he has a right to his opinions and to express them. Doing so doesn’t make him a troll. If we don’t want to read what he says, fine – flick to the next comment. If we disagree with him and can back up our argument, then say so. But don’t attack the man himself for holding views contrary to our own. Certainly don’t attack him for his online nickname. And to deny his right of expression would be only a step short of the “no-platform” movement that is blighting public discussion and is one of the distasteful aspects of neoconservatism that is taking hold of today’s society.

  14. I am truly in shock at these comments and also those on Fine Woodworking. I’ve been following it carefully just to see if anyone validates any of my opinions.
    I noticed that you failed to include in this blog the compliment that I gave you on Fine Homebuilding when I referred to your “otherwise fine work”. It was certainly more convenient to your mission to simply let your readers think that I had nothing good to say about your work. You also pulled quotations from my original post and also my post replying to a commenter who castigated me for criticizing your “Shaker cabinet.”
    I go to Fine Woodworking to be inspired; to be in awe of what I see, by both the beauty of the object’s and also their skilled execution. I have learned so much from watching videos and reading articles from masters like Mike Pekovich, Loni Bird, Christian Becksvoort, Bob Van Dyke, etc. Ben does a wonderful job when the interviewing various professionals. This article was not up to the excellence that I have come to expect of the magazine. The article’s content even left me wondering why Fine Woodworking and not Fine Homebuilding (although I’d have been just as surprised and made the same comments).

    I go to Fine Homebuilding to learn about building sciences from masters in that trade; Mike Guertin, Matt Risinger, etc and to see the excellence that is on display there. I’m sorry I don’t see excellence here. I know that you disagree, so I would like to ask you to please submit the Fine Woodworking article as an example of your work to those two gentlemen and ask to be designated as a “preferred subcontractor”. If you get on with Matt, I don’t think that his clients would think twice about paying the cost of shipping your cabinetry and other case goods to Texas.
    A blog is a bit of an echo chamber and only a fervent admirer of a writer would follow the blog. In that sense I can understand everyone here “hating on me”. Nonetheless, it’s truly puzzling to me that so many people would hire (and pay) a company to make some kitchen cabinets and when one didn’t fit, allow their house to be somewhat irreversibly modified to accommodate the error, and as I learned here, at the suggestion of the contractor no less. …and it gets even more puzzling to learn that the client is an “historic preservation professional”. That trim is an important feature of the period, but I guess trading elegant trim for an “elegant solution” is acceptable, especially when one gains an extra 1 1/2 inches of cupboard space.

    Although not under your control, I’m also left shaking my head at the whole planning of this work. Cabinets are the last item to be installed with the floors properly protected, etc. Floors are yet to be refinished. I can see from the other pictures that painting is still to be done. …and the lead-based paint that needs to dealt with first. If funds aren’t available, use $30 metal shelving or $100 flat-pack cabinets until there is money. Yes, the house is in no state to be installing custom cabinets and rather than call the home a wreck, I’ll phrase it more delicately, this stage it’s not a very appealing place to live.
    An empty beer bottle on a construction jobsite? Really? Perhaps it was left by the client the previous evening.
    Thank you for now explaining the aesthetic of the piece in the context of its historic origin, but I still think that the 3 inch gap at the top looks both odd and is a terrible dust collector. I understand that aesthetic is a personal opinion and I would have never commented on that if I had not felt compelled to comment on the installation. I stand by my comment about toe kicks along with the millions of users and manufacturers of modern cabinetry. You’re quite within your right to stand with your small cadre and argue otherwise. As one thoughtful commenter on Fine Woodworking said, “It looks like it’s going to be a microwave shelf”, in which case a recessed kick isn’t so important.

    I am very disappointed to see that your blog is followed by individuals who would resort to ad hominem attacks when they have nothing of substance to contribute. Never have so many people obtained degrees yet can’t form a cohesive argument and resort to name calling.
    When the new white car you ordered arrives in grey and the salesman says, “I have an idea, we’ll send it out to be repainted”……. I look forward to reading the salesman’s “elegant solution” in Road and Track.

    • The beer bottle was indeed the client’s, from the previous evening. While I could explain various other circumstances of the job and jobsite that you mention, I am instead going to invest what limited time I have for writing in the next piece of scheduled work I have on my plate.

  15. Derision doesn’t work. Engagement doesn’t work. Please don’t feed the troll.

  16. Well, I think that comment #8 on the FWW post was the internet win in all of this.

  17. Fantastic original post and much more measured than I’d have been when replying here 🙂
    Having weathered on-site jobs, the astonishing range of ‘challenges’ that crawl, pop and drop into the job is neverending. And no more so than in restoration work. As a ex full time tradie (Australian terminology) I salute your candour, applaud your brilliant solutions, and enjoy a good chortle at the helpful expert comments offered by thems that don’t….

    • And thank you for introducing a new word into my vocabulary: tradie. I love it. I’m praying for rain to put out those fires raging in your country. Stay safe.

  18. I liked the reply in FW that asked Suburbanguy to touch the doll where the cabinet touched him. Clearly the cabinet has emotionally scarred Suburbanguy. We wish him well and hope he is not harassed by any other cabinets. Kudos to Nancy.

  19. Some people’s kids… ‘nuf said,

  20. Very creative ideas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.