Polenta and Goat Cheese from the Pandemic Pantry


The other day a package arrived on our doorstep from Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. There was no indication of who had sent it, and when I looked for a phone number on the company’s website in the hope that I could call and find out whom to thank, there was none. So I posted a picture of the contents of the package online and asked the sender to ‘fess up so I could express my thanks.

The sender obliged. (Nice, because I can’t stand being unable to thank someone for a gift. I would out him here but don’t want to cause any awkwardness.)

Mark and I love goat cheese — on toast, on crackers, in salad. But I decided to use some of it to make my best stab at my favorite dish at Bloomington’s Uptown Cafe, baked polenta with goat cheese. I’m cooking with what we have on hand, so my guess at the ingredients reflects that.


Baked Polenta with Goat Cheese

1 cup polenta

goat cheese

1-1/2 cups tomato sauce
1 12-oz. can diced tomatoes
olive oil
1 medium red onion: chop most of it and slice about 1/7 for topping
3 cloves garlic
black pepper
1 tsp. basil
1-1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. red wine
2 Tbsp. capers
black olives, chopped

grated or shredded Parmesan
sliced red onion

Cook polenta in water with a dash of salt, stirring with a whisk, until thick but not dry. Pour into a buttered glass backing dish and spread into a flat layer.

Crumble the goat cheese over the polenta and spread evenly.

Sauté sliced onion in olive oil until transparent, then add garlic and sauté a little longer. Add pepper and basil. Stir well. Add tomato sauce and can of tomatoes, then wine, vinegar, capers, and olives. Cook until the sauce has thickened a bit. Pour over the polenta and goat cheese.

Top with grated Parmesan, then sliced onion.

Bake at 350 degrees until the onions are beginning to brown. Allow to sit before serving.

After a tiny taste I can say it’s quite different from the Uptown’s version — for one thing, theirs has a lot more goat cheese, but this being special goat cheese, I didn’t want to use too much in this dish. Nonetheless, it’s really good!


What’s in a name?


Every so often you come across a product that makes your day. Those gems are worth sharing.

Some clients recently asked about subway tile for a backsplash. Mark, the general contractor on the job, mentioned the tile one of his other clients is using in her bathroom. We stopped at her house (this was a few weeks back; we’re working from home now) to pick up a sample. I was taken by the glaze, but even more by the name of the color: “Par Avion.” It really is the color of the ultra-thin airmail paper we used in the ’70s.


Crossville Tile’s “Par Avion

When I looked up the website for further information to send to our current clients I found that all the glazes in the “Handwritten” line have writerly names — “Ink Well,” “Pen Pal, and “Post Card,” to name another three. Part of me winces at the preciousness of the branding, but in this era of touchpads, keyboards, and voice-recognition software, it’s nice to be reminded about the culture of paper and pens.

Daniel O’Grady is in the house

Daniel on his car

Illustration from Making Things Work (published by Lost Art Press, 2019)

I generally avoid superlatives. They’re overused, and meaningless without qualification. But I have no hesitation in calling Daniel O’Grady my best employee ever. He had all the attributes that make for excellence: intelligence, punctuality, a broad base of skills combined with an aptitude for learning more, modesty, and admirable self-discipline. He genuinely cared about the work, whether the job involved hand-cut dovetails in figured cherry or biscuit joints in poplar plywood. He found the ideal balance between efficient and meticulous as readily as water finds the lowest spot, was principled and courageous, polite and gracious with customers, and possessed a sick sense of humor made all the more wicked by his flair for mimicry, which ensured that I got a daily abdominal workout while he was in my employ.

After leaving my shop in 2007, Daniel went on to other work adventures. Most recently he was foreman, shop manager, and designer for a high-end custom woodworking shop in Memphis known for southern vernacular furniture made with reclaimed wood. When that business closed in late 2019, Daniel decided it was time to start his own, O’Grady Custom.

I first met Daniel toward the end of 2004, when he helped carry a back-breakingly heavy cast-iron tub into the bathroom of the house I was working on with a view to inhabiting. Not long after, I took the plunge and hired him in my business. A couple of anecdotes from before we met will do a better job of conveying Daniel’s character better than I can.

Around the year 2000, when he was 24, Daniel went on a bike ride with a friend. No ordinary bike ride, this; they cycled from their home in Wisconsin to San Francisco. Via Canada. The ride took about two months; they camped in a tent almost every night. On such an extensive trip, with minimal kit and powered by muscles alone, most people would want to have a phone—you know, in case of emergency (or, less dire, just basic emotional/dietary desperation). Not Daniel. “Its presence will change the experience,” he told his friend. Go full-existential or go home.

In 2001, Daniel was well into a degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when he decided to leave academe and work full-time. He had a longstanding interest in woodworking, so he took some classes at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Eager to learn more, he decided to do a 12-week intensive at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Of course, that would cost money—big money. So he spent that summer and fall painting houses in his spare time until he’d saved enough.


When Daniel moved back to Milwaukee in 2007, he returned to college and completed a bachelor’s degree with majors in anthropology, religious studies, and architecture while running his own custom woodworking business. He employed a helper part-time. “Employing someone gave me more sympathy to what it must have been like for you to have to deal with me on a daily basis,” he reflects. If I had my druthers, everyone would have the experience of being an employer, as well as an employee. In a culture that celebrates self-employment (too often without acknowledging its downsides) and generally undervalues the particular kinds of discipline and ego-checking you have to cultivate as an employee, I’ve always been impressed by Daniel’s appreciation that there are good sides to working for someone else–and that when you’re the employer, you are working for your employees as much as they are for you.

“Running my own business in Milwaukee made me keenly aware of the difficulty to make money as a cabinetmaker,” he says. “I was fine becoming an employee at Palladio [in Memphis] because I didn’t need to always take my work home with me—though I often did, at least mentally. Also, the steady-paycheck phenomenon provided me with stability, which I lacked in Milwaukee.

Mainly, I think being able to turn off woodworking [when you are] an employee is a value that can’t be overstated.”


Employee of the year (for two years), 2007

While working for Palladio, Daniel took as many classes as he could at Marc Adams School of Woodworking, expanding his already-impressive repertoire through courses such as bending wood with Michael Fortune, Federal furniture with Steve Latta, hand-tool joinery with Garrett Hack, and veneering with Marc Adams. In his new business he brings together techniques learned in educational and professional settings over 20 years with the qualities of character that have long made him one of my favorite people.

My father’s coffin

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! The remainder of the judges’ top picks will continue to be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  

This story comes from furniture maker Jeff Miller, who will be familiar to many readers from the pages of Fine Woodworking magazine.

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Jeff at work

My father’s coffin, by Jeff Miller

A few years ago, my adult son and I drove from Chicago to New York with my father’s coffin crammed into my Mazda micro-van. The coffin just fit, if you count being wedged between the front seats and extending from the tailgate all the way up to the rear-view mirror as “fitting.”

My father was not in the coffin.

I’d never thought about building a coffin, really. Although I’d seen Mike Siemsen and his crew build one at Handworks, and had seen Chris Schwarz’s blog post on the subject when he hosted a coffin building party to explore the topic for his book, both of these made me feel a little uneasy.

But when it became clear my father’s ten-year battle with cancer finally became un-winnable, I decided I would make his coffin. As opposed to the lighthearted fun of Mike’s and Chris’s builds, this one was intense, sad, and meaningful.

Despite the cancer and his age, my dad had always seemed immortal, as most of our parents do – up to a point. At 83 years old, he was still active and full of life. The two of us had taken a ski trip to Vermont together when he was 80. The weather was bitter cold, but the snow was perfect, and we skied nothing but expert slopes for three days. My concepts of aging and fighting cancer were radically upended.

I’ve always been fascinated by the transformation that takes place as I work, when a pile of fancy sticks turns into a piece of furniture. My first woodworking was building musical instruments. I was a musician at the time, and that change seemed even more magical and mystifying. How (and when) did a collection of wood bits transform into something able to play music, express emotions, and move an audience?

There was a different mystery when I went to the lumberyard to pick out the wood. The plain pine boards felt like a coffin the moment I touched them. And really, from that moment until I finished my father’s final resting place a few days later, I spent my time alternating between focused woodworking and reminiscences of life with my father.

Dad died about six weeks after I made the coffin. I never did tell him what I did. Despite the fact that he had chosen hospice, I didn’t feel he needed such a concrete reminder of where he was going. Instead, we chose to celebrate his life as best we could with the time we had.

It is a great blessing in the Jewish religion to be able to do something for someone when they can no longer do anything for themselves, or even thank you for what you’ve done. This is ritualized at the funeral, where the mourners will shovel a bit of dirt onto the coffin. This has always been the most painful and meaningful part of the burial service for me. But building the coffin expanded that moment and combined it with something I love to do for other reasons. It was a profound and moving experience — one that made coping with dad’s impending death much easier.

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Jeff with his shop companion, Lola

Heartbreak at Granadillo

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! The remainder of the judges’ top picks will continue to be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  

Heartbreak at Granadillo (or “How I Learned to Love Hide Glue”) by Kevin Almeyda

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Granadillo is a beautiful wood. Reddish brown with some fantastic striping. And it’s as hard as it is lovely, perhaps more so. Imagine a wood made of the same material that Captain America’s shield is composed of. Now make it a touch harder. OK, you’re getting in the ballpark.

I bought a rather small board of the stuff as I set out to make a teabox I saw in Fine Woodworking magazine. I had to order it from an online dealer as my local hardwood dealer not only didn’t carry it, but the always-helpful, and never condescending, employees hadn’t heard of it. And of course I’m being sarcastic. I’m pretty sure lumberyard workers take the same customer service classes that are required of employees of plumbing and electrical supply houses.

After the milling, I prepared to lay out my dovetails. I grabbed my very sharp marking gauge and struck my lines on the tailboard–or at least I thought I did. Let’s try that again. This time using enough force to induce hernias in lesser woodworkers. There. Much better. Now I can almost see a line.

Granadillo. Really hard stuff.

The tone was set for the rest of the dovetailing experience. Sawing was a cakewalk compared to chiseling to my line. It felt more along the lines of chipping away at ceramic tile then working with wood. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had dovetailing but things were moving along well enough.

When I test fit the dovetails, they were just about perfect. Actually, dare I say, they really were perfect! They were gap-free and came together with a minimal use of force. My heart sang with delight. The editors of the leading woodworking magazines would be competing to feature me on the pages of their next issue. Has anyone gotten rich by simply writing a dovetail article for a woodworking journal? I’m guessing no. But with these dovetails, I’m destined to be the first. Would the fame go to my head? My narcissistic inner-child squealed with delight at the thought of walking the halls of the next woodworking conference while my cadre of assistants insisted no one make direct eye contact when speaking to me.

Let’s glue this bad boy up and prepare for our victory lap. I carefully applied the yellow glue to the walls of the pins.

As I assembled the box, the tails in corner #1 mated with its tails in a loving embrace. They shall be joined forever. No pre-nup needed. Their union was perfect and eternal.

Corner #2 came together as easily as the first. I was halfway home.

It was then that I noticed the smell of the delicious food my wife was cooking. I could hear my children playing together beautifully. Sharing and caring for each other.

Suddenly, the sun, which had been shining brightly just a moment ago, was enveloped by thick, sickly-gray clouds. Thunder crashed in the distance. A wolf howled.

I tried to press-fit the joint together but it had other plans. It was going to take a break halfway in, stop moving, and grab a smoke. That’s okay. I’ll finish up on the last corner and come back. The last corner must have seen what corner #3 was up to and decided “if they don’t have to come together then we sure as hell don’t either!” I had a revolt on my hand. But that’s okay. I grabbed my rubber dead-blow mallet off the wall and prepared to persuade these last two corners to fall in line with the others.

Tap, tap. Hmmm. Let’s try this again. TAP, TAP. Am I sweating? Why on earth am I sweating?

TAP, TAP, TAP. Please come together. TAP, TAP, TAP. Do I smell dinner burning? TAP, TAP… “If you kids don’t stop fighting I’m sending you to your rooms!” TAP, TAP, oh ****!

It had gone so wrong, so fast. Those perfect joints, drunk on the water in the PVA glue, swelled enough to seize the joint. The extremely hard, and brittle, granadillo couldn’t stand that incessant tap, tap, tapping and decided to implode rather than subject itself to any more mallet blows. I’ve never had a project before, nor a project since, be so completely unsalvageable after a mishap.

Then something odd happened. I started crying. Not because of this mishap. But this pushed me over the edge. I was coming off a terrible week. A family member was desperately ill. I had spent countless hours at the hospital and many more researching long-term care options. I had kept my emotions bottled up and I finally reached my breaking point and they came pouring out.

Spending time in the shop was, and is, my refuge. It lets me be with my thoughts or forget them entirely. This project’s failure felt symbolic of the utter chaos and helplessness of the past week’s events. And I just lost it.

I tossed my tools on the bench and retired to the family room. I had no desire to be in the shop. The thought of going back in there sickened me. I told myself, “just take a few weeks away from the shop and maybe you’ll feel the urge to step back in.”

Well, weeks turned into hours because later that night I re-ordered another piece of granadillo. And yes, I did pay extra for two-day shipping. This fiasco turned out to be incredibly cathartic. I got my urge to step back in the shop, be with my thoughts, or forget them entirely, and give it another go.

Aside from being my hobby, woodworking is also my therapy. It broke my heart when I needed some support, but jumping right back in (and learning from past mistakes) was exactly what my spirit needed especially when “teabox 2.0” gave me a big pat on the back upon completion.–Kevin Almeyda

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Origin story

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! Several of the judges’ top picks will be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  


Origin story, by Robert Fiedler

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Robert’s Jennie Alexander chair

i am a child of the woods. But first a little background.

Let’s call it an origin story.

It starts ten years ago with the five-and-a-half-hour drives back and forth to Rochester and Mayo Clinic. It starts with the words from my mom that begin the ending. A voice light years away at the end of a telephone cracks, they found a tumor in my brain. But it’s not my brain and it’s not my tumor. It’s hers. And so I lie awake in a warm summer bed, sheets kicked in puddles on the floor, staring at the ceiling fan cycling wondering why it hurts so much to know love and to imagine it falling away.

I’m back late again from Minnesota and Amy’s asleep in our bed. Having a cigarette on the front porch steps. Time and place for everything. I’m thinking thinking thinking. And then I’m thinking we need a sofa table. The house is new to us. Built in 1925. But to us. New. So I pull the car out of the garage and with circular saw belt sander glue dowels rubber mallet screws impact driver jig saw and shrink wrapped red oak and mahogany from a store whose entrance looks like an exit and whose exit looks like a…start making sawdust. Guerrilla Woodworking. Eventually a sofa table. Finished with poly, the beginner’s finish. I like it. A lot in fact. i liked making it. So does Amy. We adopt it.

I keep making trips to the Mayo. I keep coming home and can’t tell the difference between night and day. There’s a craniotomy. WBRT. Months of physical therapy. Learn to hold a pen. Learn to put one foot in front of the other. She left in a wheelchair paralyzed on the right side and came home on her own two feet. My jaw dropped. It still does. Not perfect. But. Not. Dead.

When I was a child before school ever came along it was just she and i. We lived in the country. Against and in the trees. A spring came out of the ground. We drank from it out of a cup tied to an old pipe with white string. i ran marathons through those woods. Climbed trees. Fell out of trees. Believed her when she said you are the fastest runner I’ve ever met! Endlessly whittled sticks into sharper pointier sticks and endlessly poked myself in the hands with the pocket knife. Bless you for trusting me with a blade.

Back home she grows old each year. The paralysis slowly creeps back into the right side of her body. This time not from the tumor but from the radiation meant to kill it. How can you be angry. You made deals… just 5 more years. i’m begging. Wish granted. But it comes with a price. The Machine. Like in the Princess Bride. Each year she ages three times faster than the rest of us. Her memory fades. She sees things that aren’t there. She fixates on imagined memories. She still says I love you every time I see her. She says you make beautiful things.

I keep trying to make those beautiful things with wood late into the nights and over the years. I stop the cigarettes on the front porch. Maybe it’s not the end of the world. Maybe it’s better to keep pushing. Keep going. Maybe you live until you don’t. The progression. Sofa Table. Picture Frames. Cutting Boards. Coffee Table. Dining Room Table. Desk. Tool Boxes. Roubo Workbench. Shoji Screens. Shaker Benches. Curves. Stools. Welsh Stick Chair. Greenwood. Spoons. Bowls. Balloon Back Windsor. JA [Jennie Alexander] Chair. I keep my day job keep my commute keep my student debts. I keep working wood. Every morning before work 2 hours. 1 hour carving at lunch. 1 hour carving spoons in front of the TV at night. 10-hour Saturdays. I can taste it. the Flow.

i don’t have an end date. she doesn’t have an end date. i We.

During grad school, one of my professors, Craig Stevens, told the class that making photographs saved his life. He then asked us, “what will save yours?”

I found my answer in the trees.–Robert Fiedler

Cracking a Few Eggs

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Several entries will be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com in the next few days. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  Check the Lost Art Press site this Saturday, February 1, for the winner!


“Haulin’ Oaks. I wish I were a rich girl because this board turned out to be split city when I ripped it. And I can’t go for that. No can do. (Ok I’m out of Hall and Oates puns.)” (Image from Marselle’s Instagram page. You can follow her at @marselleisadeb.


Cracking a Few Eggs, by Marselle Bredemeyer

When friends ask me to make them something, here’s my go-to offer: “Why don’t you join the woodworking guild with me? It’s only $90 a year. This is simple, I could teach you how to do it with our tools.” I’ve been taught by many patient volunteer woodworkers there, so I want to give back, teach what I know to someone else.

I also really don’t want to make anything, for anyone. Just for me.

Here’s what I’ll say in my defense: I’m more of a scared woodworker than a selfish one. I worry the piece won’t live up to my hopes for it once I hand it off. Maybe if someone could promise me a monthly newsletter update from the table they’d like me to make, I’d take on some requests. But for now, it’s me, making furniture for me in my available free time, struggling in the way a person who wasn’t born with a talent struggles on the path from “I kinda suck at this” to “I can hide how much I suck at this.”

That’s probably why I told my friends Rebecca and Justin that I could make two new balusters for the staircase in their century-plus old house. It just seemed so easy. I could help a friend and not embarrass myself, a woodworker less than a year into practice at the time.

I walk the half mile from my apartment to their house, and grab a couple original balusters for reference. They’re white oak, we all agree. A golden oil finish and patina have given the oak a soft, glowing warmth. I’ll buy stock they’ll reimburse me for and make all the required cuts. They’ll take on staining the replacement pieces to match the rest. I’m copying something craftsman-style straightforward: two square sticks, each with a dovetail on one end where the balusters join the stringer. It’s a shallow, 1-1/4″-long dovetail, the back of it — half the thickness of the stock — removed. The carton of farm-laid eggs Rebecca hands me as a thank you are my first-ever duck eggs.

Getting eggs that I don’t know if I like in exchange for woodworking is deeply charming for me. So charming, I want to roll my eyes at myself when I relive the feeling again. When I text my dad that I can’t believe I get to trade my woodworking skills for something, he reminds me what eggs cost at Aldi, but who needs Aldi when you’ve just started my own barter economy in the heart of midtown Kansas City? Surely I’m only a few months away from trading cabinets for bricks of farm-fresh tofu.

Most trips to the lumber shop still make my confidence waiver. For the balusters, I get a few feet of 8/4 white oak, slowly, but without second guessing. Days later, I’m in the guild’s shop, set up on one of the two Roubo benches stationed in the hand-tool room. I shape up my long squares and go for a hand-tool approach to the dovetails.

Why don’t I just trace them onto my new sticks? Instead I trace them onto cardboard and cut the tail out of the cardboard, so that I have a reverse outline I can overlay and mark on the sticks. As a woodworker today, I notice those fried-brain moments in myself as letting stress get the best of me, letting thinking in circles distract me from doing something that’s making me nervous, which in this case is doing work that makes a friend less stressed. Plus, I really don’t want to mess up these sticks — what would the ducks think? I take an Instagram photo and make a Hall and Oates pun for a caption — Haulin’ Oaks is a great pun, worth at least one egg.

Hand-cutting the dovetails doesn’t go the way I planned. Over and over my saw slips off the corner of the baluster that I’m trying to cut into, since the end of the tail is the width of the stock. The tails turn out narrower than the originals, but close enough that Rebecca and Justin think it’ll work.

“It’s actually red oak.” I’m sent this text with a side-by-side comparison of the end grain of the new and old boards, from the staircase, a few days later. If I knew what I know now, I’d tell them: it doesn’t matter, blending new pieces alongside century-old pieces is going to be near-impossible anyway.

Instead I feel like a fraud. Endgrain on red oak vs. white oak is a lesson three different woodworkers felt compelled to bring up to me in my first months. I’d never looked at the endgrain of the old balusters because there wasn’t much to look at; that grain had blackened with oil and glue and time.

I knew I’d feel too guilty to even ask to be reimbursed for the new red oak, so I ask Justin to meet me at the nearby lumberyard where he can buy what’s right, and let me take it from there. We make it, an hour after it closed. “Wouldn’t a real woodworker actually know when her ‘favorite’ store was open or not?” is what I picture him thinking. I’ve scammed my way into these eggs and better eat them fast.

When I’m back at my bench, with red oak this time, I realize I can trace the dovetail directly from one piece to another, and that cutting it on a bandsaw will make this a two-minute task.

No need to haul so many oaks next time. I’ll slow down and step away when I’m putting too much pressure on myself over a few sticks.

Because they are classy, Rebecca and Justin don’t just reimburse me or give me eggs. I’m surprised with extra cash that I could even use to buy my own brunch. I want to give it back. After what I’ve put myself through, it would have just been better if they’d bought their own guild membership.


A tale of two helpers

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Several entries will be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com in the next few days. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  Check the Lost Art Press site this Saturday, February 1, for the winner!

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A tale of two helpers, by Jesse Griggs

Pursuing my passion for woodworking with 2 toddlers has been a wonderful exploration into the unknown. Every time we set foot into daddy’s shop I never know what to expect. Sometimes my children play happily with their plastic “workbench” and tools. Other times they want to be right in the action and sit on my workbench snubbing their noses at everything but the real tools. Teddy, the oldest at three, usually asks for his favorite, a cheap unknown brand rattail rasp a friend gave me years ago when I first started in the hobby. “Be careful, that end is pokey,” I say. And off he goes widening the gouge he’s been working on in the same piece of scrap the past half-dozen visits to the shop. When not at the plastic bench, I usually find Henry, the younger at two, playing in the shavings on the floor at the back side of the bench.

Of course their favorite pastime is to find any and every box or jar of hardware, usually screws, and empty its contents all over the shop. Invariably they find holes I didn’t know existed in which to stuff these things. Once, I nearly had a heart attack when after hearing a metal clank, I realized they had stuffed several screws into the holes of my 8” jointer. Fortunately, after much weeping and gnashing of teeth and many stifled profanities, I managed to excavate the screws. The  cherry on top came a few days ago.

Over Christmas break the boys managed to crack the porcelain sink in our bathroom. My wife and I never much  cared for the pedestal style thing, but tolerated it well enough. We looked for a replacement cabinet off the shelf, but I couldn’t stomach looking at the garbage available, let alone allow one of those wood-shaped objects into my home. So, I set about building a new cabinet—Shaker style, Baltic birch carcase , mahogany face frame and drawer fronts, eight drawers, plus a pullout stool disguised as a drawer.

While I was installing the thing, Henry decided to come “help.” He absolutely loved climbing into the unfinished cabinet. Then, he found homes for his little people in the drawer slots. Soon after, he discovered the brand new box of drywall screws on the floor and emptied it—half on the floor. He was so proud of himself for putting the other half into a nice pile inside one of drawer slots that he pointed it out to me. I think it was all just a ploy to distract me from his true intent. I had been squatting on my knees examining something near the base of the cabinet when all of a sudden I felt a strange sensation.  It was sort of like a pebble in my shoe, except it wasn’t in my shoe. Fearing the worst, I reached into the abyss and found a drywall screw lodged between my backside and under pants. In that moment, my two-year-old had discovered and exploited the plumber’s crack.

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A story for Christmas

The following true account is excerpted from my book Shop Tails, which I’ve been working on sporadically and hope to complete in 2020.


“Hey, Nance, look at this. We have a visitor.”

It was a fine day in early autumn, so the overhead door of the shop was up. I ran from the back of the building to find a mourning dove strutting across the floor, unfazed by the aliens looming over him. Was he sick? Injured?

I came closer. He stopped, but made no sign of flying away. I grabbed a cardboard box, thinking I’d take the bird to be looked at by a vet. I picked the bird up, surprised he let me handle him, and placed him gently inside.


“His wing is broken,” said the vet. “He’ll never fly again. Would you like us to euthanize him?”

Of course I didn’t want them to euthanize him. Apart from his wing, he seemed perfectly fine. Besides, it hadn’t been long since I’d let my partner, Dick, talk me into finding a new home for the parrot I’d adopted from a client. I missed having an everyday avian presence. If this one was doomed to die (let’s be honest; when you’re a flightless mourning dove in the wild, you’re what’s for dinner), he could at least have some kind of life with me.

I cobbled together a cage and put it in my office at home. The vet had recommended feeding him birdseed, so I bought some. I called him Henry.

When I was working in the office, I let Henry out of his cage. He showed no interest in me; for the most part he wandered around the room, flutter-hopping onto the desk and printer, sometimes gazing out the window to the backyard. He ate his food and drank his water. Cleaning up bird droppings became a familiar chore. There was never a spark of recognition, let alone affection, in his eyes—just a blank, wide-eyed stare. I still maintained that his abduction by aliens must be preferable to being ripped apart and eaten by an owl.

I had never been so close to a mourning dove and was struck by his subtle colors and lovely speckled wings. His pink feet were especially endearing.


The following spring we were finishing the house Dick had built at his shop property, where I worked. When we packed our trucks with bedding, food, the dogs, and my butterscotch cat, Joey, to spend our first night, I put Henry in his cage on the front seat next to me. As soon as we crested the hill about half a mile from the farm, he grew agitated, more alert than I’d seen him since the day he wandered into the shop. I didn’t know what to make of it. I took him into my new office and set his cage by the window facing one of the fields where Dick kept a small herd of buffalo.


Mother and child. This is Ruth, the most prolific breeder of the herd, with one of her recently born babies.

The next morning I found that Henry hadn’t touched his food or water. He was still on high alert; he seemed to recognize where he was, and wanted urgently to be let out. I kept him another night, but he still wouldn’t eat or drink. If he kept this up, he was going to die anyway, so I figured I might as well let him go.

With a heavy heart I took his cage outside and set it on the deck railing. “Goodbye, Henry,” I said softly. “Please take care of yourself.” I opened the door. He hopped out onto the rail, then lifted himself up, testing his wings. He flew a tight circle around my head—think what you like, but it felt as though he was saying goodbye. Then he made a larger circle, higher up.

Tears rolled down my face. He flew higher and higher, in ever-widening circles, until, confident that his wings were sound, he soared over the field toward the shop, back on his way after a long, strange dream.—Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

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.