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.


Working weekend with a twist

Lost Art Press class June 2019

Last weekend was one of those times when a ton of stuff comes together and gets whacked off the to-do list. First I taught a two-day class at the Lost Art Press storefront in Covington, Kentucky, a beautiful work space in a town that’s historic, picturesque, and still happily down to earth. The participants in the class (I can’t call them “students”; they already knew much of the nuts & bolts substance) were a joy–a fun, intelligent bunch of characters. (Who knew there was a Bacon Fart app? Thanks for enlightening me, Horace.)

Lost Art Press class with plate racks

Jared, Horace, Bryant, Steve, Jose, and Marc with two plate racks dry-fitted together

Adding to the fun were the culinary treats. Jose brought Gateau Na Na, a shortbread crust with pecan praline filling, from The Kitchen Shop in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Chris supplied dangerously good cheese Danish and Schnecken from a local bakery. Every place we went for lunch or dinner had good vegetarian offerings; my favorite for lunch was Piper’s, a sandwich shop-cum-ice cream stand where everything is home made. (Try the veggie burger.) We made a pilgimage to the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and had a final meal on Sunday evening at the fabulous A Tavola in downtown Cincinnati; their asparagus salad has just the right blend of crispness and zest for a satisfying meal. As for the roasted carrots, they should come with a warning about likely addiction.

On Monday I drove to Leesburg, Virginia, to deliver a pair of Voysey two heart chairs.

Voysey chairs for Leesburg

A pair of made-to-order chairs with rush seats woven by Cathryn Peters, The Wicker Woman

I spent the night with dear family friends Richard Busch and Olwen Woodier, who live in a converted barn. Olwen is an accomplished cook who teaches classes through her Glenfiddich Farm Cookery School and has authored several books. She also raises chickens and keeps an extensive garden that includes this sublime meadow for pollinators.

Dick and Olwen_garden

Be still, my heart.

Richard is a professional photographer who freelanced for LIFE magazine before going on to editorial positions at other publications.

Dick and Olwen

Richard, Olwen, and Aggie the good girl

Yes, that is Jimi Hendrix, with Mick Jagger just below and to the right. Joe Cocker, Ike and Tina Turner, and other icons of the ’60s are scattered around this long wall of black and white images, along with others of friends and family, most notably some touching shots of Olwen with the couple’s daughter, Wendy. Richard launched another career as a ceramic artist after retiring. He operates Glenfiddich Farm Pottery, where he makes a variety of bowls, platters, cups, wren houses, and other wares in addition to teaching classes.

Tuesday was a 12-hour drive–altogether too much driving, but thanks to dark chocolate, coffee, and The Cinematic Orchestra, I made it home by 9. It was a wonderful weekend on all fronts.

Mackeral sky June 25 2019

Almost home

Who’s driving this bus? (with bonus features)


For the past few days I’ve been working on a hayrake table, and I’ve been fascinated by how differently the process is unfolding from the last time I built a table of this design. The vaguely passive voice in that last sentence–“the process is unfolding” makes it sound as though I’m not so much in charge as a participant–gets at one of the things I relish about building things.

Each time you build a piece based on a familiar form, you bring insights from previous experiences. But these insights don’t always result from intentional analysis; sometimes they bubble up from the subconscious. My sharpest insights come in the wee hours–sometimes in dreams, sometimes as a consolation prize for the lack of dreams (a.k.a. insomnia). Similarly, when I’m fully engaged in building a piece, I’m part of the process. It feels like the process itself is in charge. I love the weirdness of it.

Here’s an example. Because the hayrake stretcher is the biggest challenge of the piece, I started with it this time, instead of the legs. The joinery is a puzzle; the layout proceeds in a methodical order.  The last time I cut the short stretcher rails to length before diving into the joinery. This time it occurred to me there was no need to cut them to length right off the bat. In fact, leaving them long would allow me to redo a tenon if I messed one up. I cut them to length after I’d glued up the stretcher, basing the length on the full-scale layout and checking the diagonals to make sure the whole would be square. Ratchet down the stress level.


The stretcher assembled and pegged, with short rails still over-length

It’s a small change but an obvious improvement in method.


High stakes. Exposed tenons join the center rail to the curved rails. I faired the curve after this final check of the fit. The black marks are from the rubber mallet; I lost track of how many times I had to put this thing together and take it apart while checking the fit of the tenon, not to mention its shoulders, which are scribed to the inside radius.

Easy tapered pegs

I’m building this table in hard maple. When I drilled the tenons for drawboring, I realized I might have spaced them more appropriately for sassafras, which is soft; I was worried the oak pegs might just stop at the tenon instead of pulling it tight at the shoulder. Taking my cue from the drawbore pins, I made tapered pegs from 1/4″ oak dowel rod with a pencil sharpener to make sure the pegs would go through the holes and do their work. (With thanks to community radio station WFHB for the sounds. You can stream it from anywhere.)

Zingy cilantro pesto for pizza or pasta

One of my favorite pizzas comes from Aver’s in Bloomington and is made with cilantro pesto. The closest branch of Aver’s is several miles away from us, and they don’t deliver. So the other night I concocted a cilantro pesto of my own. So good! Here’s the recipe for my fellow garlic lovers.

1 bunch fresh cilantro

juice of 2 lemons

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2 medium cloves of garlic

1/3 cup parmesan, grated

Mix ingredients in a food processor and enjoy. We added sliced onions on top for the pizza.

Timeless Design


Timeless? Image from the laugh-out-loud-funny website McMansion Hell.

Like so many other words (curate, custom, master, local, artisan, and sustainable, to cite a few), “timeless” has been reduced to little more than a marketing term. OK, so the object being described isn’t readily associated with any particular style or period. That doesn’t make it “timeless.” What it usually means is that it hasn’t occurred to the person who wrote the marketing copy that everything, including most cutting-edge work of today (whenever “today” happens to be), will one day be associated with products that were considered desirable for a particular span of years–in other words, expressive of some period or other.

In the early 1990s, housing developers thought they could achieve “timeless design” by patching together bits of different styles into single houses: a clinker-brick façade with fake stone everywhere else, a Storybook Tudor roofline for the entryway with other rooflines for the rest of the house (“Let’s do a catslide here, for the back porch, and a mansard there at the front”). Make most of the windows look like early 20th-century metal casements (but use vinyl windows with fake muntins), and be sure to incorporate at least one grandiose multiple-story arched-top window for the Great Room, because we know everyone drools over those.

All of which is to say I’d pretty much given up on the word “timeless,” until I met Russell Gale. I’d recently arrived at the Grove Park Inn to take part in the 32nd Annual Arts and Crafts Conference. After getting my name on the sign-up sheet for the loading dock, I sat down with a cup of coffee and posted a picture of the back of the Inn, a rocky confection sometimes compared to a Hobbit castle, on Instagram.

GPI back

Back view of Asheville’s original Grove Park Inn. (The stairways and round walls are not original.)

Almost immediately there was a comment from Clark Kellogg:”@nrhiller Go see @russellgale at Grovewood!” I googled Grovewood and contacted Russell.


Inspiring carved messages (and payment options) on the front door of the Grovewood Gallery

The next morning, Russell showed me around the gallery and other buildings. He mentioned that two or three pieces of his work were on display. This caused me a little anxiety; it’s tough to be put on the spot. Don’t tell me you’ve never found yourself verklempt in a situation where your host proudly points out his or her own work…which you find less than admirable, for whatever reason. I saw some lovely ceramics and woven textiles and admired a few pieces of striking furniture. Then Russell said “That’s my clock over there in the corner.”

I nearly fell to my knees. For me, steeped as I am in the work of English Arts and Crafts designers, and also keenly aware that so many designs for kitchens and other interior rooms marketed a century ago would be equally, if not more, at home in cutting-edge craft publications today, Russell’s clock was a truly timeless design—ironic, considering that the piece in question was a clock.

I might as well have been transported in time. I was looking at a piece of home furniture as modern as any piece of contemporary craft*, but one that also could well have been designed by one of my heroes, Ernest Gimson, a century ago.**


Clock by Russell Gale. Granadillo, Alaskan hemlock, and snakewood. (Photo: David Welter)


Another version of the clock, this time in Douglas fir, redwood, and yew.  (Photo: David Welter)

We talked about the clock’s design. It was Russell’s second project at the College of the Redwoods (now known as The Krenov School); he designed and built it in 2008, drawing on twofold inspiration. First, he loved the idea of a wall clock. His grandma had had one in her living room, and as Russell put it, “It just felt like this beating heart on the wall.”  He wanted the clock to incorporate bandsawn veneer, one of his areas of study, as well as a curved top and bottom made by bending over a form in a vacuum press.

Stylistically, he wanted something more reflective of his own aesthetic. When Russell was drawing the clock and deciding on details, he had recently been immersed in Edward Barnsley’s work. “It just seemed to touch on so many genres and styles of furniture making,” he told me, “especially in his later work—it has a mid-century feel, but with stringing and beadwork you would have seen on a piece long before that.”

Unlike the bricolarchitecture of ’90s subdivisions, Russell’s clock is both contemporary and imbued with a sense of proportion, detailing, and skill distilled from more than a century of serious craft. I make no claim to defining “timeless”–well, beyond my previous sentence here, which is still just a start. But I know it when I see it.

Here are some other views of Russell’s clock.


Detail showing beaded edges and veneered face. (Photo: David Welter)


Interior showing details of construction and storage shelf. (Photo: David Welter)


Detail of beading and miter. (Photo: David Welter)

*using the word in the Oxford sense of “pertaining to the present and recent times”

**Sure, by European standards a century ago still qualifies as “recent times,” but in the States we call it “historic.”

For an interview with Russell, see my post at Popular Woodworking on March 4.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Louis of Louisville, summer 2006-Jan. 31, 2019


Autumn 2006, a few weeks after we found each other

On a Friday in the fall of 2006 I was driving up State Road 37 to interview Philip and Phyllis Kennedy about their interest in Hoosier cabinets when my eye was caught by a small animal on the shoulder of the road. An emaciated baby squirrel, it was headed for the slow lane, where it would undoubtedly get squashed. Knowing full well that the wild animal wasn’t likely to let me near, I pulled over anyway. When I stepped out of the truck, I realized it was a kitten. I expected it to run away, but it allowed me to pick it up and put it in the truck, whereupon it began yowling.

I stopped at the next gas station and bought a bag of cat food, along with a bag of litter. The kitten showed no interest in the food and cried most of the way to my meeting. I didn’t want to leave him in the truck–it was still too hot to leave an animal in a vehicle–so I asked if I might bring him in. The Kennedys kindly said yes and gave me a box for the kitten, who yowled throughout the interview.

On the way home I took him to the vet for a quick check in case he had an i.d. chip. There was no chip; I noted that they called him “37” on the bill for the brief exam. I took him home and named him Louis after my great-grandfather Louis Adler, who had a yellow suit.


Winnie adored Louis. Here they are together on the chair that caused him to become a shop cat.

Louis immediately became part of the family, asserting his authority over William and Winnie, our dogs. He was well behaved on the whole, but after defiling a special chair that had been given to me by a friend, he became the shop cat, going in and out through the dog door. With freedom to roam outdoors and a warm, safe shop, he had the best of both worlds.

Over his 12 years he met many dogs, some of whom lived here. He lorded it over them all. He’d crouch around a corner in wait, then leap out with a startling cry. Every day at 5 he’d jump through the dog door and run into the room where I fed him; if it was too cold or rainy, he’d wait in the shop instead, toying with Joey to keep himself entertained.


“What, you think I want to play with you, dog breath? Get outta my face.”

He flirted with women visitors. Whenever someone arrived in a car, he leapt onto the hood to soak up its warmth. I’d find him in the strangest places: curled up in a flower pot, keeping watch on the arm of the radial arm saw, lying in gravel drive on a 95-degree day. (OK, to me this seems strange.)


Often found in surprising places

He loved the garden,surveying his kingdom every morning and marking all the important plants. He loved to roll in the catmint patch. (See a video here.)


I caught this video of Lou cavorting in the catmint this fall

As attentive as he was to his property’s borders, he was surprisingly non-confrontational toward other cats–provided that they weren’t aggressive toward him. One morning several years ago I arrived to find him sleeping on a moving pad I’d slung over a trash can to dry it out after a delivery in light rain. But it wasn’t Louis on the blanket; it was another orange cat who had presumably come through the dog door. Louis tolerated him for several days, until some friends took the interloper to live in their barn.


With one of his best friends, Polaris (Photo by Kristen Clement, a.k.a. mother of Polaris)


His favorite place to sleep was under the joiner in a bed of chips.

Occasionally I would find him perched on the edge of the birdbath, taking a drink, though this summer (perhaps because he had gained some weight, or maybe just due to his age) he took to drinking on his tiptoes.


Louis had many human friends, among them those who rented my house. He was especially fond of Lauren, Kristen, and Jeffrey. He attempted (sometimes successfully) to wheedle his way into the house and had Jeffrey trained to give him treats.


Lauren gave me this sweet portrait of Lou in the zinnia garden from when he was still a young cat.


Last night, when I fed him, he showed no interest in his food. I opened a different can, thinking he might be tired of the first kind (and knowing that he sometimes just left food until later in the night). When I went to work this morning, I found him curled up in his bed of wood chips, as usual, but the food was still there. He’d pressed it down with his nose, as he did when he didn’t really like something. I gave him some affection and went to work.

We’ve been keeping the dog door closed at night the past few months, for Lou’s safety. Coyotes have been coming closer and closer to the shop. I’d forgotten to remove the barricades before I started to work. While applying finish to a current job, I saw him go over to the dog door. Finding it closed, he wandered over to the space beneath the sawbench, where I kept a bit of sawdust for him to use as litter. As soon as I was done with the brush, I opened the dog door and called him. No answer. I went to look for him under the sawbench and found him lying on the floor. Not normal. When I got close enough to see his head, I realized he appeared motionless. He had no expression. His body was limp and still warm.

I called Mark, who listened for a heartbeat. There was none. Do cats have heart attacks? I have no idea what caused his death. He’d been the picture of health. We are desolated.


Sleep well, my little orange friend.

Thank you for the opportunity

I’m thrilled to announce that I will be showing my work at the 32nd Arts and Crafts Conference at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn next February. I’ve long wished to exhibit my work at this splendid gathering, which I first attended about 16 years ago. It has been damn-near impossible to break in, partly because of a longtime policy whereby once an exhibitor has a booth, he or she may return annually. So I stopped trying and told myself to be grateful that I wasn’t making an 8-1/2-hour drive with a trailer full of heavy furniture and spending days standing around talking to strangers in a loud, stuffy room.

English A&C promotional pic

A string of events led to this chance. I recently put the publisher of my book English Arts & Crafts Furniture in touch with the operator of the conference bookstore. (Could there be a more ideal marketing venue for this book than this event at the Grove Park Inn?) Putting these people together involved contacting Bruce Johnson, the event’s director. When a furniture maker from California decided to retire from the show, he offered a booth to me.

Everything that happens is a product of numerous factors. In this case three editors who have worked with me to publish my Arts and Crafts furniture have my heartfelt thanks.*

    • Patricia Poore at Old-House Journal was the first to publish any of my writing. Over the years she has made space for my writing and furniture in Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival, Old-House Interiors, and related magazines.
    • Anissa Kapsales at Fine Woodworking has worked with me on several articles.
    • Megan Fitzpatrick, longtime editor at Popular Woodworking (who now runs her own business, Rude Mechanicals Press), invited me to write a project article on an Arts and Crafts bookcase inspired by the designs of English furniture manufacturer Harris Lebus. When her books editor, Scott Francis, pitched the idea of a book on English Arts and Crafts furniture, she referred him to me.

One of the best things about working with this trio of women, each of whom I admire deeply (for more reasons than would be appropriate to relate here), is that I now call each of them a friend.


Like writing a book, doing a furniture show is a major undertaking. Out-of-town shows involve long drives, heavy lifting, and talking to strangers for hours each day. Sometimes sales amount to far less than the cost to participate. (For Michael Fortune’s take on marketing through shows, read this.) My husband used to think I was mad to put in the work for no discernible monetary return. But now he gets it. You have to put in the work and the time to get opportunities to do the kind of work you love.

Too many people imagine that invitations to write books or build kitchens in cool old houses just fall in my lap (and the laps of others who do work that looks enviable). They don’t. These opportunities result from hard-core slog–and in turn they require more. Overall, as long as my back, eyes, and hands hold out, I say the slogging’s worthwhile.

*listed in chronological order

Patricia Poore and Mark and Nancy

After admiring Patricia Poore’s work for many years, Mark finally got to meet her during a trip to Massachusetts in 2017.

    • Anissa and Joey 2018

      Joey loves Anissa too.

      Megan and Chris

      Megan with Chris Schwarz at the end of a work party, August 2017. (Chris was lending his sturdy, if exhausted, shoulder to his equally exhausted colleague and friend.)


Kitchen Cabinets Video for Woodsmith Magazine

One morning last January I opened my email to find a message from Colleen Douglass asking whether I would be interested in making a video about building custom cabinets for Woodsmith Magazine.

Over the next few weeks we negotiated some twists and turns. For one thing, being in front of a camera is among my least-favorite positions. I speak slowly, because I try to be thorough and precise, and I really don’t like seeing or hearing myself on video. Colleen fielded those objections by saying she’d seen a couple of videos I had previously made (Popular Woodworking’s “Build a Turn of the Century Baker’s Cabinet” and Fine Homebuilding’s “Floating Vanity”).

I threw out another challenge: Colleen had said the editor at Woodsmith suggested me, specifically, for the video, a claim I found odd because my way of constructing built-ins is so far from the norm–and also because my flattery/b.s. radar is always set on HIGH. When I addressed this concern to Phil Huber, the editor in question, he said he’d done so precisely because my way of building cabinets is not the norm among commercial cabinet companies. I asked where he’d seen examples of my kitchen work; he said he’d seen them in Old-House Journal and its sister publications over the years—Old-House Interiors, Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival. That clinched my interest, because those publications take period detail and the often-idiosyncratic character of well-loved homes seriously (unlike the media universe constructed on fantasy DIY home makeovers, house-flipping instruction, and saccharine “unique home decor ideas,” “spectacular home recipes,” and “sneak peeks” into the personal world of one particular Texas family).

All good. But one potential obstacle still remained: I had to ask Chris Schwarz whether doing the Woodsmith video would violate the terms of my contract with Lost Art Press to write a book about kitchens. Not at all, he said; in fact, given that the video series would have a somewhat different focus from that of the book, they would complement each other.

Woodsmith set pic

We shot the video over four days this summer in Des Moines at the studio used by Woodsmith for its PBS program. The work was intense—and thanks to the seasoned, competent crew, it was also a lot of fun. I’m proud of the video we made, especially because it’s full of safety points and detailed asides related to materials, techniques, and period nuance. (There’s even the occasional bit of humor, though you have to pay attention to catch it.) You can see a preview and buy the series here. (Use the code NANCYSAVES to get $30 off.)

The toughest part of the week came at the end, when Colleen said it was time to do the promo. “What, you mean I have to ‘sell’ the work?” I asked, feeling the blood drain from my face. I was never a cheerleader or even remotely popular in high school. I’m not an actor. I’m the person attracted to the wall at parties. I grew up with an ethos that shunned self-promotion of any kind. And now I had to smile at a camera and invite people to check out my video? I felt the same impulse to flee that led me to run out of the doctor’s office when I was 6 and terrified of injections.

Taking one for the team called for strong measures. Had there been a bottle of bourbon on the set, I would have helped myself to a swig, but no such luck. There was, however, a bowl of M&Ms…and cameraman Mark Hayes had kindly replenished the coffee in the break room. After five small packets of chocolate and three cups of coffee, I was ready. (The crash came a few hours later.)

Thanks to Colleen Douglass, Phil Huber, Mark Hayes, Dennis Kennedy, Becky Cunningham, Becky Kralicek, and John Doyle.

Woodsmith set pic makeup

Becky Cunningham and I shared quality time discussing makeup and menopause amid the lovely colors of Woodsmith shirts in the dressing room. (Seriously, how often does one get professional makeup while wearing a dusty shop apron?)

Custom Cabinetry, Part 3: A case study

But first, a response to comments:

If you’ve read my two previous posts about custom cabinetry (part 1 and part 2), you may think I’m arguing for a definition of custom work so exclusive that few would be qualified to use the word. You may also infer, as one comment seems to suggest, that custom work is only for the wealthy. 

Neither is true. The understanding of custom work elaborated here has deep roots in history and encompasses work done for family, love, or barter. As I mentioned earlier, the level of care involved in genuinely custom work has made “custom” a buzz word for marketers only thanks to our contemporary backdrop of near-universal standardization. While such care takes time, close attention to a customer’s particular needs and preferences, along with details of the context for which you are working, can result in a job that costs less than some products that are not custom made.

How is this possible? Clue: Budget is a critical dimension of context. As long as the budget seems reasonable based on my experience (I’ve kept detailed records of job costs for the past 25 years), I can tailor my design for a dining table, sideboard, or kitchen accordingly. While it’s true that some see custom work as an opportunity to inflate their charges (cue the appliance salesman who once referred some customers to me, adding with a wink that I could charge virtually whatever I wanted because “It’s custom, baby”), some of us want our work to be affordable to people in the equivalent of this year’s 22% tax bracket.

Why go on at such length about a single word, “custom”? Words are important.* The richer our understanding of the words we use, the richer our lives will be. And as a woodworker whose career has been spent in custom work, I’ve been living too long with the cognitive equivalent of a festering splinter due to this word’s misuse.


Now let’s move on to the promised case study, with a caveat: It is long and detailed, even though it touches on only a few of the considerations that have shaped this kitchen’s final design.


As in most cases, the “before” was someone else’s “after”: cherry cabinets with full-overlay-everything, fully recessed kicks, backsplash tile with a country motif and fancy rope-style edge. Notice the dramatic crown. One detail our customers found most objectionable was the depth of the cabinets and protruding fridge next to the window on the north wall (at right), which obstructed light from the window. There was a nearly useless cabinet over the fridge, flanked by a tall pantry cabinet to the right of the refrigerator. All of it made the room feel darker and more cramped than necessary.

In our first phone call, these customers made two goals clear. First, while they didn’t want to be wasteful by getting rid of their perfectly usable cabinets, they did want better traffic flow and more practical storage. Second, while they appreciate the historic character of their home, the sharp division between the kitchen and dining room didn’t function well for their three-generation family.

Their concern to avoid waste and their respect for the historic character of their house spoke to me. These people were not just following design trends, which would typically dictate removal of the wall between the kitchen and dining room to create a single space.

The city’s historical survey lists the house as a Colonial Revival built circa 1930, which might mean anywhere from, say 1923 to 1934 (though my money would be on 1925-30). The exterior is limestone; a pair of elegant stone columns support the roof of the porch at the entry. Inside, public rooms are spacious and light, with original oak floors (sanded and refinished to their natural pale color), lightly textured plaster, and metal casement windows. Doorways are cased with dark-stained trim and a backband moulding. Baseboards are plain, with an eased top edge. Windows are recessed in plastered openings without trim. The effect is a warm, minimalist “black and white.”

After several meetings, we had a plan.

1 Respect the windows


Windows let in natural light and define architectural character. The customers would have preferred that this window come down lower than it does; its height above the counter is probably due to the original sink, which almost certainly had an integral backsplash that came up to the underside of the trim.

The position of everything on the west wall was determined by the original kitchen-sink window. In the original architect’s drawing, the sink and window were centered on the west wall, but a previous homeowner added the bump-out visible here to augment the half-bath with a shower. The new sink, a narrow apron model, will be centered on this window. After discussing the feasibility of reclaiming that space for the kitchen and deciding that doing so would be more costly and complicated than desirable, our clients decided to work with the existing footprint.

2 Regard historic character as a guide


Aaron McDaniel painstakingly toothed the new rift- and quartersawn oak boards for the kitchen into the existing dining room floor to minimize the visibility between old and new. (This was shot before the floors were sanded and finished.)

The ceiling fixture in the dining room is original to the house. A pair of matching sconces are on the north wall.

The kitchen previously had a swinging door into the dining room. Now there will be a cased opening about 8′ wide. Kitchens in homes of this vintage were not open to adjacent public rooms; they were work spaces for servants or the woman of the house. We decided to use the original cased opening between the dining room’s south wall and the entry hall as a precedent for the design of this one; the remaining sections of the wall would honor the original division between them, while preserving valuable space for storage on the kitchen side.

3 Listen

It seems obvious, but too few builders do it. Listen to your customers. Respond with pros and cons so they can make informed decisions. Then do what they want–because it’s their house, not yours.


Sink base

I usually urge people to consider putting their trash can in the sink base instead of using precious cabinet space to house garbage, but many prefer to have a dedicated space. These customers wanted a pull-out that would house trash and recyclables and could be opened hands-free.

Instead of building two cabinets–one for the trash/recycling, the other for the sink–I combined both in a single base so that they share one clean face frame stile. A recessed kick will be fitted below; the floor supports attached to the cabinet sides (and at the center of the floor) double as nailers.

Fitting the sink and a trash pull-out into the limited available space while centering the sink on the window took careful planning. For this job, the most functional and cost-effective solution for trash was a ready-made unit by Rev-a-Shelf. I will add a pedal at the bottom of the door so it can be opened with a tap of the foot.

After searching for taller cans to avoid wasting vertical space (none of those available will fit the width we had to work with), I broached the possibility of adding a drawer above and provided an estimate of cost. The cabinet will now include that drawer.

4 Enjoy your freedom

Custom work liberates you from the tyranny of standard dimensions. Sure, you still have to work with the specifications required for appliances, plumbing fixtures, etc., but apart from these, you can size your cabinets to fit the space and your (or your customers’) preferences.

None of the cabinets in this kitchen is a standard width, and only three are standard depth–the sink base, a set of drawers for pots and pans next to the stove, and the narrow base for baking sheets, all of which are 24″.

The upper cabinet to the right of the sink is about 14″ deep, to accommodate extra-large dinner plates behind 1″-thick inset doors.

The peninsula cabinet is 19-1/2″ deep, a compromise between keeping it as shallow as possible to minimize the intrusion into the dining room, while maximizing the cabinet’s utility. In determining this depth I factored in the length of full-extension drawer slides that are actually available (as distinct from what I wish were available); 15″ or 18″ would work in the space. Experience has taught me that Blum Tandem slides occupy 1/2″ more depth than their nominal length, so this meant a cabinet of 15-1/2″ or 18-1/2″ net interior depth. The former would be so much less useful for kitchen base cabinet storage than the latter, so we went with the larger dimension.

Peninsula cabinet?” you may ask. “That is not an authentic early-20th-century feature.” Correct; it’s not. This was in the “con” column of my list of pros and cons, for just this reason. But the customers wanted a peninsula, as it would be an ideal place for their children to draw or do homework right there with them in the kitchen. We settled on a plan to make the dining room side of the cabinet more dining-room worthy and less kitchen-like in appearance by finishing the end and back. Instead of just plonking cabinet doors onto the peninsula’s exposed sides, as many conventional manufacturers do, I designed the end and back panels to extend to the floor, increased the proportions of their rails and stiles so that they would look more structural, and allowed for the two panels to be mitered at the dining room/kitchen corner for a seamless, intentional look. Finally, instead of topping the peninsula with the same stone as the other counters, we agreed to use solid wood stained to match the house’s original trim.

This peninsula cabinet differs from most of the kitchens other cabinets in another way: To keep the depth minimal, I made its face frame and drawer faces 3/4″ thick instead of the 1″-net standard of most cabinets in the kitchen.

Once the contractor had installed the cabinets, I noticed a chunk of space I hadn’t thought about before. I checked with the customers, who agreed it was worth modifying the peninsula’s back panel in order to use it.


I was aware of the space behind the wall (at far right here) that would go unused unless we added a recessed cabinet accessed from the dining room side. The customers decided against that. Until the builder installed the peninsula cabinet, however, I didn’t realize that the area between the jamb of the cased opening and the inside corner of the peninsula (space required  for the peninsula cabinet’s drawers to bypass the stove and its handles) would accommodate a cabinet about 15″ wide by more than 16″ deep.


Now the right panel of the peninsula’s finished back will be a door that appears to be stationary like the others. This section will have adjustable shelves. We discussed adding drawers, but they would have increased the cost far more than a single door and would also have made this side of the peninsula look more kitchen-like than the customers preferred.

5 Think


Vertical storage for baking sheets. Because the narrowness of this cabinet would make chopping the mortises for hinges horribly difficult after assembly, I cut the mortises in the hinge stile before assembling the face frame, then glued it to the carcase.

The 8-1/2″ space between the dishwasher and cabinetry on the north wall used to be occupied by a filler strip. (Pause for a moment to imagine an 8-1/2″ filler strip.) Now it will store baking sheets.

We discussed installing a pull-out unit (along the lines of this one) to store condiments or spices. My experience with these is that they utilize less space than promised; side bars on the shelves make reaching contents relatively inconvenient and restrict the usable width, while the limited adjustability of the shelves further restricts the amount of space available for practical use. These units make sense for some applications, but this was not one of them. Instead, the narrow cabinet will store baking sheets, which this family uses regularly.

6 Use space intelligently


Twins in looks alone

The 4-inch-deep cabinet on the left will hold spices; the shelves will be 1/4″ glass with ground edges, a material that takes up minimal vertical space and is easy to clean. Why not make the cabinet 12″ deep? For two reasons: First, a deep cabinet for storing spices just ends up being annoying. Most spice containers are less than 2″ deep. Storing them more than one-deep means having to rifle through to find what you’re looking for. Second, the customers wanted to maximize the diffusion of light from the north window across that wall and into the rest of the room. Keeping this cabinet as shallow as possible does the trick.

The 12-inch-deep cabinet on the right makes use of additional depth offered by an alcove that housed the original cookstove; 8 inches will be recessed into a framed opening in that alcove so that the cabinet will appear symmetrical with the spice cabinet in depth, as well as width. When we discussed whether to increase the cabinet’s depth to take advantage of existing space, I pointed out that the cabinet’s contents will be a challenge to reach once the stove and adjacent peninsula cabinet are in place. The customers wanted to go ahead anyway; space that’s hard to reach can still be worth building to store items used less often, such as holiday glassware.


Once installed, the two cabinets appear to be the same depth. The exhaust vent will be finished (we’re still deciding the design), and there will be a stone shelf in the recess behind the stove, a detail the customers had seen elsewhere and found attractive. The peninsula is barely visible here on the right. There is a spacer about 1-1/2″ wide between its face and the stove, to allow the oven door on the right side of the stove to open without hitting the adjacent drawer pulls, which will protrude about 1″.

7 Some on-site assembly may be required


Missing you

Because the face frame and finished side panel of this upper cabinet for pantry storage will extend down to the counter and up to the ceiling, we won’t install it until after the counter has been fitted. That’s the only way to ensure a good fit at the counter.


We’ll be together again soon.

The upper cabinet that goes with the still-unattached face frame has a top section for pantry storage and a lower section that will be left open, housing a microwave. Because the lower section will be open, I built it separately in cabinet grade plywood that does not have a prefinished side. This way it can be painted to match the rest of the cabinet faces. After assembling the two cabinets, I screwed them together through the ceiling of the microwave section for ease of installation.

The corner where this upper cabinet and its matching base will go is 16-3/8″ deep, so I made the upper 16″ deep. The base will also be 16″ deep with drawers on full-extension slides. Blum Tandem slides come in 75mm/3″ increments (and remember, they’re 1/2″ longer than the nominal sizes), so by the time I factored in a face frame, cabinet back, and inset drawer faces, the longest we could use would have been 12″. Too shallow. I asked our customers whether they would mind substituting a different type of slide for this cabinet, the Knape & Vogt full-extension ball-bearing slides, which come in 2″ increments. This allowed for a slide length of 14″, provided that I made the face frame and drawer faces 3/4″ thick, as with the peninsula cabinet. This is what we agreed on.

Finished pictures of this kitchen, which will illustrate the points here far better than these process shots, will likely be included in the book about kitchens that I’m writing for Lost Art Press.

*Some, such as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, even claim that language is a distinguishing feature of our species. 

Custom Cabinetry, Part 2

Matching dresses

When my sister and I were little, our mother made many of our clothes.
(Clearly one of us was destined to become an entertainer, the other a woodworker.)

The relationship between custom and costume referred to in my previous post is telling in several ways.

First, as the history of the word “costume” makes clear, custom work should take into account the character of the context for which it’s made. Consider an old house–say, a Craftsman bungalow from the early 1920s. This is not to say that everything made for the house has to match the original millwork, but it should at least be premised on careful observation of any existing fabric that defines the place’s character–and I am talking about that particular place, not some vague notion of “Craftsman” style you once heard about on HGTV. Like any style (or sub-style), Craftsman was expressed in widely varied ways.*

Even if you decide to build something completely different from what was there originally, it’s important that you open your eyes and think about what’s around you instead of simply imposing your ego. Sometimes this entails seeking out precedent for some detail you’d like to include; sometimes it means crafting a narrative based on available evidence to provide a rationale for your design.

The same goes for updating an interior based on current fashion. Removing the crystal knobs from a 1920s fir built-in and replacing them with something “mid-mod” from the big box home store will not make your cabinet croon “I’m Noguchi’s cousin.” Instead it will scream “Get me out of here. I feel like a Catholic priest in a brothel.”

The greenest house Linoleum1943

Come into my playpen. A colorful garden-themed kitchen from the 1940s.

Second, as with costuming or custom clothing, custom cabinetry is made to fit. Whether or not it is actually attached to the walls, floor, or ceiling, it is sized with its destination in mind, not built to standard dimensions

Beyond dimensions, custom cabinetry is customarily shaped to conform to irregularities in its surroundings by means of a process called scribing. When I was first learning to build furniture, my stepfather mentioned this process. All I could think was, What? I’ve taken all this care to build the thing and now you want me to make it fit that out-of-level wall? Cruel and unusual!

Finally, custom cabinetry should be made to serve the needs of its users. By this definition, incorporating a wine rack into a set of kitchen cabinets for a couple of teetotalers (as one respected designer in my town proposed to do several years ago) is not custom work; nor is designing cabinets with a counter height of 36″ when your client is 6’7″.

Without such consideration, you may well be designing to order, but you should consider using an adjective other than “custom” to describe your work.

This post relates to the book about kitchens I am currently writing for Lost Art Press.

Part 3 will be a case study.

*The book I’m writing will include copious discussion of ways to put this point into practice. For theoretical perspectives on this and related matters, see Giving Preservation a History, edited by Max Page and Randall Mason. You may also be interested in a book of essays on historic preservation that I edited several years ago, Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field. Although the essays refer primarily to examples in Indiana, they deal with principles and strategies that are widely applicable.

Essays from the Field

The softer side of custom


Alexandra Morphet
(Photo from Alexandra’s website)

I may spend most of my time in t-shirts, but every so often I have reason to wear something nicer. For years, my favorite shirt has been one I bought almost two decades ago at a locally owned store. It’s made of Tencel, which has a lovely drape, with strategically placed darts that make for a beautiful fit. I’ve often wished I had more than one.

As someone who makes her living building custom work for others, I finally realized that I could talk to Alexandra Morphet, one of my longest-standing clients, about using that favorite shirt as a pattern. Alex makes clothing through her business, Bias Custom Clothing.

In case you’re wondering why I couldn’t just make some shirts myself,  I’ve never cultivated the patience to deal with fabric; I find its fluidity exasperating. Give me wood any day.

I understand that having shirts custom made will strike some as extravagant (just as commissioning custom furniture prompts outbursts like “How can working people afford that?” based on no information about actual costs, but solely on the knowledge that something “custom” has been made). These shirts cost more than shirts from chain fashion stores in a mall but less than many sold through mail order catalogs, and way less than a day pass to Disney World (which I have zero interest in visiting, ever). What matters to me is that by hiring Alex to make them I was reciprocating her custom, which has helped sustain my business and provided opportunities for creatively satisfying work.


This was the first time I can remember being measured as an adult. It was a fascinating experience to see how many points of the body are relevant to the construction of a shirt. Even though my original shirt provided the basic design, it was off-the-rack. Alex wanted dimensions for everything from the circumference of my upper arm to the distance between my nipples.


Beware the lady with the tape measure.

Alex often uses fabrics salvaged from other clothing and had a stock of old kimono fabric to draw from. I was fascinated by my glimpse into her craft.


One way to identify a fabric type is by burning a tiny corner and smelling it (not to mention observing whether it melts).

Alex shirt 2

Yes, this shirt is black, but there’s detail in the fabric, as the close-up below shows (though I snapped the close-up in bright light that distorted the color).


The black kimono fabric reminds me of the pattern produced by raindrops on water

Alex shirt 3

A sage green fabric with cucumber-like buttons (below, at the online store where Alex found them)


Alex shirt 1

Sweet details: notched cuffs and side seams

These photos don’t do the shirts justice, but I am not in the mood to put them on right now. Trust me; they fit–and in this age of standardized-everything, I have a newfound appreciation for this rarity.