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.”
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.
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.
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.