Category Archives: “It’s all problems”

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.”

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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.

 

Live and Learn

Some people have the vague notion that when you’ve been a woodworker for decades, you know how to do everything. If only. No one knows how to do everything. Experience in a variety of techniques may be transferable to new forms, but just because a technique will work does not mean it’s especially good in structural or aesthetic terms, let alone efficient to use in specific circumstances.

When faced with a woodworking mystery–say, a look I want for a finish, or some convincing 3-D effect I’d like to produce in an 1/8-inch-deep relief carving–I like to try to answer the question for myself before I seek the answer from others. The effort of thinking a problem through will often give me deeper insight into methods others recommend, and it’s especially satisfying when I find that “my” method is the one used by other woodworkers I respect.

I’ve enjoyed a few such moments while planning how to build a hayrake table for the book on English Arts & Crafts furniture I’m writing for Popular Woodworking.

Gimson table drawing

My contact at Bridgeman Images provided a hi-res image of Gimson’s original drawing for the table, which we will purchase the rights to reproduce in the book.

I chose this particular table based on an original drawing by Ernest Gimson that I came across online. The artistry in the rendering is delightful, and the table fit the bill when I was looking for a furniture form distinct from the other two projects in the book, a chair and a sideboard. It wasn’t until I was at the lumberyard looking through stacks of sassafras that I got wind of the fun in store for me, thanks to a message from Frank Strazza. “The challenge is getting all 5 shoulders to meet perfectly, everything is scribed to fit,” he wrote in an Instagram post to which he referred me. My blood ran cold. Then I adjusted my perspective: This table is a puzzle.

In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say across the Atlantic. Here are a few of the thrills I’ve enjoyed on this journey to date.

The lamb’s tongue
I love the look of a lamb’s tongue, but in more than 30 years of work as a cabinetmaker, I had never before had occasion to make one. I devised my technique based on what made sense, starting with a saw kerf to make the clean transition from chamfer to carving. I made a sample; it worked well.

Lamb's tongue trial

Yeah, it’s super rough. It was a quick experiment in a piece of discarded wood. But I figured out how to make a lamb’s tongue.

When you’re writing for publication, you want to be informed about these things. I was especially concerned that my use of the saw kerf might be way out in left field. So I did an online search. Up came a Lee Valley post written by Chris Schwarz, who starts with a saw kerf and follows through with a chisel, as I had.

Yes.

The joint between the stretcher and the legs
The hayrake table form I’ve seen published most often is based on one by Sidney Barnsley in which the stretcher meets the legs at a 90-degree angle. I’d seen the same leg-to-stretcher orientation in a gorgeous hayrake table made by Ernest Barnsley at The Wilson last spring. But the Gimson table’s stretcher rails meet the legs in a V—commonly known as a bird’s mouth in the realm of architectural moldings, which presents a challenge.

I could see the joint being an actual bird’s mouth (in molding terms, if not in ornithological terms), preferably with a tenon or spline to lock the stretcher mechanically in place. Not that I was sure about how I’d create that mechanical part. Alternatively, the stretcher could be notched into the leg.

This time I consulted Christopher Vickers, an English craftsman-designer who has built several variations on the Gimson hayrake theme; we met last spring when I interviewed him at his home in Somerset for this book. (Look out for a post on Vickers, coming soon. You’ll be blown away by his shop.) “Your first guess is almost correct,” he wrote back, “in that the legs are notched for the stretchers but with the addition of a short tenon on the end of the stretcher with a mortice (1/3rd width of the stretcher) into the leg.”

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Cool again. It’s so fun to learn a new technique that builds on stuff you already know.

Mitered mortise and tenon joint
The hayrake stretchers meet the center stretcher rail at 45 degrees, and the drawing indicates a pegged mortise and tenon joint. This all seemed fine until I experimented with chopping the mortises. How would I get the point at the far end, I wondered—that is, make a mortise that ended in a pointed V?

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A trial tenon for the hayrake-to-center-rail joint, placed next to the full-scale layout. I tried to cut that sharp far point of the mortise but wondered whether it was really necessary.

It seemed to me that it would make more sense to make that end of the tenon square, but I was worried that this might be cutting corners. (Ouch.) So I looked up Mike Pekovich’s article from 2012. Mike cut the far end of the tenon square.

Happy dance.

Hedge your bets by leaving parts over-length until you need them cut to size

It seemed like a good idea to leave the stretcher parts long, cutting each joint in a logical sequence called for by the structure. This way I wouldn’t cut the joint on one end of a part only to find I’d thereby made the part too short to allow for the joint on the other end. Leaving the parts long would also allow me enough material to redo a joint if I messed it up. If I was correct, the parts should come together like a puzzle. It was nice to see that Mike recommends just this approach in his article, although the joinery in that table has significant differences from that in the Gimson example.

And so it goes. We live and learn.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

9 Lives for the Win

There’s nothing like a great hardware store staffed by people who know their stuff. In Bloomington we have two: Kleindorfer’s and Bloomington Hardware. When I needed something in a hurry to sand the inside radius of several arched brackets for a current job, Kleindorfer’s lifer Scott Cosby fixed me up with the parts to transform  a steel cat food can into a sanding drum of the perfect radius. (It was the perfect radius because I’d used the can to mark the curve.)

Pop Wood 001

Drill a hole in the center of the can’s bottom

Pop Wood 002

Insert fender washer and threaded bolt

Add outside fender washer and fasten with two nuts

Add outside fender washer and fasten with two nuts

Cut strips of self-adhesive abrasive paper and stick to can

Cut strips of self-adhesive abrasive paper and stick to can

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See it in action

Louis in sawdust

Why I have access to cat food cans

 

Cabinetry in Extremis: “handyman special” edition

This pack of sandpaper has been in my mother's collection since the 1980s, when such items were still being manufactured in England

This pack of sandpaper has been in my mother’s collection since the 1980s, when such items were still being manufactured in England

My mother and sister decided to do something about the space-hogging, impossible-to-keep-tidy storage shelves in my sister’s tiny bathroom when I was visiting them last weekend. I’d often wished that I could build a shallow cabinet for that bathroom–something more interesting, durable, and practical than they were likely to find at Target, Lowe’s, or IKEA–but living so far away and visiting by plane, not by truck, made it impractical.

As we discussed possibilities for the space I found myself increasingly determined to build something rather than have them buy it. There was just one small catch: they’d waited until the eleventh hour to get going on this project. I had a plane to catch the next day. So we dutifully checked the stores. They offered various ensembles in medium density fiberboard. All would have eaten up more floor space than necessary, and in every case the price was steep for something that would be a practical and aesthetic compromise.

Family friend and carpenter David Heeren had given my mother a pair of old doors he’d found at a garage sale. They were in great condition, the older-growth softwood aged to a lovely patina, rusty shadows of long-gone hinges adding character. If I planned a cabinet around them all we’d need would be a few 1-by-6 boards.

By now it was late afternoon. We were going for it.

Professional drawing and materials list

Professional drawing and materials list

Fortunately my mother’s welding studio located next to my sister’s cottage had many of the tools I needed.

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Sawhorses in the grass made for a workable bench

It wasn’t quite as simple as hanging a couple of old doors on the crudest of cabinet structures, a box. The cabinet sides had to be notched for the chair rail and baseboard (thanks for the use of your jigsaw, John Freeland), and the braces on the backs of the doors had to be trimmed. Limited time and less than ideal working conditions called for <choke> creative treatment in hanging the doors. I trimmed them to fit the available space, then notched the braces so  the doors could be hung full-overlay style* using steel butt hinges from the hardware store, screwed (shh) straight onto the cabinet parts without mortising. Dave generously let me rip an astragal molding of sorts on his table saw.

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Brace marked for trimming

Since my mother's chisels were nowhere to be found, a bit of screwdriver improv was called for

Since my mother’s chisels were nowhere to be found, a bit of screwdriver improv was called for

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One benefit of using old stuff: precious signs of earlier makers. This carpenter’s elegant script still indicates that this brace goes “Top.”

When all eight adjustable shelves are in place they’ll hold a lot. The 5-1/2-inch depth is perfect for bathroom stuff; the minimal protrusion makes the room feel twice as big as it did before.

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We decided to leave the area under the bottom open for additional storage.

Fine cabinetry it’s certainly not. But it’s a solid piece of built-in storage furniture that will last decades–assuming that the next person in the house doesn’t consider it junk and replace it with the aforementioned store-bought fare. It has the kind of character that comes with using old stuff. Most important, my sister and mother love it.

*covering the face edges of the carcase