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.