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.

Simple American

Hiestand kitchen in progress

Nearly ready for paint. This cabinet is in the kitchen of a 1915 house. The casework is made from formaldehyde-free, American-made veneer-core plywood with solid maple doors, drawers, and finished panels. The counters on this and its partner across the room are reclaimed heart pine finished with Osmo Polyx oil. In the interest of having this cabinet in particular flow seamlessly into the original fabric of the kitchen, I replicated the top section of the window trim to use as a crown.

The other night I arrived home from my current kitchen job in Indianapolis to find a piece of mail from a friend. Inside was a clipping from the New York Times of November 7 titled “Craving a ‘Downton Abbey’ Scullery.” I gave the article, written by Penelope Green, a quick read; it deals with last year’s opening of a stateside showroom for British cabinetmaking company Plain English.

I’ve been aware of the company for a few years, thanks to Remodelista, which often features kitchens furnished with Plain English “cupboards,” as the company’s branding would have its wares be known. The work is beautiful, with spare, solid lines and admirable attention to detail. But I found the article disturbing. Throughout the night I awoke repeatedly, perplexed as to what was eating at me. I analyzed my feelings over the next two days while fitting doors, then priming for paint, at my current job site, then read the article again, this time with greater care.

Hiestand kitchen_painting (2)

Applying the first coat of color after dark last Friday. The doors and drawers have been removed to my workshop for painting under controlled conditions. The yellow as it appears here is not the actual color; it’s Benjamin Moore’s Rich Cream, which has a deeper, warmer, old-fashioned kitchen look. This image shows the crown, coped to fit the original window trim.

As a professional cabinetmaker who trained, then worked, in England, and as one who has specialized in period-style kitchens (and has a forthcoming book about kitchens for publisher Lost Art Press), I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts was I hope no one thinks I’m one of those cabinetmakers copying their kitchens–not because their kitchens are anything other than strikingly lovely, but because I hate it when people assume things about me and my work that are not true. More importantly, my interest in period kitchens and my work inspired by them predates not only my awareness of the company, but the company’s very existence. No potential client has “waved pages from World of Interiors magazine” at me; I owe my interest in Georgian and subsequent kitchen styles primarily to my first woodworking employer, Roy Griffiths, who hired me in 1980 to build cabinetry at his workshop in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, as well as to his accomplished painter and woodworker friend Dan Dunton. While I worked alongside Dan in the old stables at Roy’s Georgian house, the two of them introduced me to the wonders of old architecture and inspired a deep appreciation of all things chilly, damp, cracked, worn, and enduring.

I’m still parsing out the aspects of the article that disturb me. Let’s start with the characterization of “slot head screws and brass hinges, pulls and latches, and hand-painting the cabinetry instead of spraying it” as “dog whistles to those who care about such things.” Dog whistles? I’m gagging. I won’t claim to speak for the principals at Plain English, but attending to such details has nothing to do with marketing, at least for me. It’s simply an expression of discipline on the part of a craftsperson who has taken the time to research, then honor, her subject’s history.

And then there are the names the company has chosen for its colors. Green cites a few: “Mushy Peas, Dripping Tap, Boiled Dishcloth and Boiled Egg.” Like many of the company’s signature names, most are faintly disturbing*, as though intended to connote a down-to-earth, “below stairs” realness that may well elude some of those who spend upwards of $45,000 to furnish their kitchens with these undeniably lovely products. I wonder whether Soiled Nappy, Mouse Dropping, and Monthly Blood will ever find their way into these offerings. (Perhaps one of these is already there.)

Another question for me concerns the nature of the basic materials used for cabinet construction. Are the carcase interiors made of sheet goods, and if so, which type? What’s the source of the hardwoods used for face frames, doors, and other parts? I ask as someone who once worked for an English business that imported most of its timber and sheet goods. Kudos to Remodelista’s Julie Carlson for noting the potentially “problematic” dimensions of shipping entire kitchens’ worth of cabinets from the English countryside to distant corners of the United States at a time when there is newfound emphasis on the importance of food and other products with origins close to home.

And this matter of provenance, with the many values it represents, may underlie my biggest beef with the article, or at least with the business it describes. The company’s website credits the “life of genteel and bohemian aristocracy” that’s presumably integral to the history of its headquarters “deep in the Suffolk countryside” as an important source of inspiration for its work. Am I the only one rankled by the romanticizing of a life made possible by domestic service? Sure, many of those who worked as domestic servants were grateful for their positions and developed close relationships with those who employed them; a friend of mine whose grandmother was a parlor maid in Wales can attest to this. But still, I’ve read enough first-person accounts of this life’s realities to take a more critical view.**

In the States, we have our own history of handsomely designed historic cabinetry. You need only look to millwork catalogs from the early years of the 20th century to find handsome patterns for cabinets and other built-ins such as broom closets and telephone niches with genuinely American roots. At least these exemplars, which were manufactured for a burgeoning home-building market of middle-class families who did their own cooking and housework, have a more (if still imperfectly) democratic history than those that furnished the homes of aristocrats. –Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work


Another kitchen with genuinely local roots. Lauri Hafvenstein hired me to design and build cabinets for the kitchen and pantry of her 1917 home in Washington, D.C., to celebrate her home’s hundredth birthday. The cabinets are based on surviving neighborhood examples. The counters are made from reclaimed wood. (Photos by Lauri Hafvenstein, Old House Loves)


Lauri’s kitchen as she found it.

*Having savored my share of mushy peas over the years (along with tinned rice pudding and steamed Spotted Dick), I’m not calling the dish itself disturbing, but suggesting that many Americans may find the term, as a name for a color used by a maker of “bespoke cupboards,” charming in an ironic I’m one of the insiders who get this way that I, for one, find a bit galling.

**See, for example, Cott et al., Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women and Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Yes, these books both concern American service, and the realities of domestic service in 19th-century America differed in many respects from those of 18th- and 19th-century England.

Disappearing dishwasher

This is the first in a series of occasional posts related to my book about kitchens, to be published in 2020 by Lost Art Press.


The large door to the right of the sink hides a dishwasher. Instead of using the toekick system recommended by the manufacturer, I made a removable toekick that’s fully integrated into the cabinet design.

Contemporary appliances are the bane of my life (or at least, one of the banes). Their designs, specs, and modes of installation are constantly changing, with increasing complexity as manufacturers swap the simplicity of the analog universe for the obtuseness of the digital.

My latest challenge involved fabricating a panel for a client’s new dishwasher. The appliance came with a poster-size sheet of instructions that featured numerous graphics and few words. Unlike most of the dishwasher doors I have fitted with decorative panels in the past, which had a metal framework or flange to hold the panel, the blank grey plastic front of this one offered no clue as to how I should proceed. Try as I might, I could not make sense of the “instructions.” So I called the manufacturer, expecting a bit of help. This was no naive expectation; over the years I’ve received invaluable assistance from Oneida, BlumZinsser, LaCanche, BEST, and SawStop, to name just a few, and I expected the same from this internationally respected company, whose dishwashers are prized for their efficient, quiet operation.

Instead, the customer service person I reached said the design and installation of the panel were the responsibility of the kitchen designer and cabinetmaker. “I am the designer and cabinetmaker,” I replied, “and I can’t make sense of the instructions, so I am trying to get help.” She clearly did not know how the panel should be made or installed and insisted there was no technical department that could help. (When I told her I was surprised to find that her company offered no assistance to professionals, she replied “I’m not taking nothin’ from you.” I thought I called the “customer service” number?) At least she turned away for a moment to consult a colleague, who gave her the acceptable range of width and height dimensions, which was a start. I built the panel and delivered it to the jobsite, where it sat for days while I completed the straightforward aspects of the job.

In the end, my client’s builder figured out how the panel should be attached. Thanks to his help, it went on easily.

That left the toekick. This dishwasher comes with a prosaic metal panel you can affix at the bottom to hide the guts. Alternatively, you can use the pair of clips provided to affix your own toekick. In both cases, the toekick would have been recessed far more deeply than the cabinets’ toekicks, which I installed closer to the faces than customary to hide the unfinished section of subfloor the builder had installed to bring the level of the original mid-century floor up to that of the oak my client had put in several years ago.


Ideally, new cabinets and appliances are installed on a floor that runs across the room–or at least covers the first several inches behind the plane of the cabinets’ faces. This job did not allow for that convenience.

To make the toekick appear seamless with the surrounding cabinets, I made a pair of returns, each a simple “L” shape. The wider section would be attached to the back face of the cabinet stile (or “leg”) at each side of the dishwasher opening and painted to match the cabinets. The short part of the “L” would extend inward just enough to support the toekick.


The L-shaped returns that would support the painted toekick (the blue piece in front)

Dishwashers must be able to be pulled out of their opening in case they need repair, so it’s important to make the toekick removable. It’s also essential to ensure you have sufficient width between the toekick supports to pull the appliance out. I allowed about 1/8″ on each side. I attach dishwasher toekicks with Velcro, which is available in self-adhesive strips from many hardware stores; cut the strips to width so that they fit the short section of the L-shaped support.


A thin strip of Velcro goes on the back of the kick at each end.


When installed, the toekick appears to be part of the cabinetry. Yes, I could have incorporated the little cove detail that appears on the rest of the cabinets, but the dishwasher door is clearly distinct from the other cabinets by virtue of its scale and the vertical divider. Adding the cove detail would look excessively fussy, in my opinion.

–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Dishwasher: Bosch
Bin pulls and latches:Rejuvenation
Cabinet paint: Benjamin Moore oil-based Satin Impervo
Hardwood lumber and plywood: Frank Miller Lumber
Marble backsplash tile: Lowe’s
Sink: Whitehaven apron sink by Kohler
Counters: Hanstone Quartz from Quality Surfaces

A caveat about color

This post relates to the book about kitchens I have written for Lost Art Press. We’re looking at summer 2020 as a publication target.

Hoosier ad with color

Ad for Roper gas ranges, Good Housekeeping, March 1928. (Lest you forget the brand, the name is repeated on the front of three doors.)

When choosing colors of paint, tile and other elements, resist the feeling that you have to have all decisions made at the start. Every job will have a few defining elements. You should choose other pieces of the puzzle with those in mind.

One kitchen I’m working on has its original maple floor from the 1910s. The homeowner is planning to have it sanded and refinished. She has already bought a jadeite green fridge and green glass wall tile. The other existing commitment to color is the heart pine counter, a warm reddish-amber. Yesterday, before the floor sanding, she was asking about paint color for the walls and cabinets. She’s concerned that there may be too many different colors. She explained that she has two light fixtures on order, a schoolhouse pendant with a jadeite stripe for the ceiling at the center of the room and a pendant with a ceramic shade in speckled ochre for above the sink. I told her it’s too early for paint colors; she should wait until the light fixtures are on hand and the floor has been finished.

Here’s why. First, we still don’t know exactly how the floor, one of the largest features of the room, will look. The floor finisher has not broached the question of water- versus oil-based finish. If the floor has a water-based finish, it will stay close to the cool white maple my client found under the particleboard cabinets when her contractor removed them. But if the finish is oil-based, that nearly-white maple will get a yellow cast. The choice of floor finish will make a huge difference to the look and feel of the room.

Floor finishes

Oil versus water, warm versus cold. This cabin-grade hickory flooring in our kitchen (with ever-present hair from our dog) is finished with Waterlox Original Satin finish, a polymerized tung oil (left), and a contemporary catalyzed water-based finish (right). Choose your paint colors without taking the floor into consideration and you may find yourself repainting in a month. Alternatively, if you’re dead-set on particular paint colors and have not yet dealt with the floor, choose the floor treatment based on the paint. Whatever you do, don’t consider these decisions in a vacuum.

Second, the light fixtures are still on order. While the jadeite stripe seems fairly safe, the real appearance of the other fixture’s ochre shade remains to be determined. It’s not a good idea to rely on photographs online or even in print for true representations of color. The only way to know how a color will look is to have it in your hands. Moreover, as with appliance specs, subtle shifts can occur from one manufacturing run to another. (This is why it’s a good idea to buy more tile or wallpaper than you need. Should you have to replace a section, you’ll have a match.) In this case, the ceramic shade is made to order, which raises the stakes even higher.

Here, job number one is to decide the floor finish. Then, once the lights have arrived, the cabinets are installed (still unpainted) and the counters are in place, the client will be well positioned to consider paint.

Classes and events in 2020

Here we are, near the end of September, and it suddenly occurred to me that my calendar for 2020 has a lot more on it than I’d realized. The following list includes classes, workshops, and shows.

February 20-23, 2020
Asheville, North Carolina
Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference
I will be showing a variety of work, selling my books, and leading a small-group discussion on the ethic of perfectionism versus economic realities for furniture makers of the Arts and Crafts movement. Join me and many other artists and makers for an inspiring and fun weekend at the fabulous Grove Park Inn.

April 17-18, 2020
Southbridge, Massachusetts
Fine Woodworking Live 2020
I’ll be teaching workshops on various finishing techniques using milk paint–some familiar to those who use milk paint, others new, serendipitous discoveries.

June 15-19, 2020
Berea, Kentucky
Pine Croft Woodworking School
Weeklong class: Build a Voysey two heart chair.
This surprisingly comfortable chair is simple to build when you have a few tricks up your sleeve. This high-back version of Voysey’s two heart chair has been one of my favorite chair designs since the moment I first set eyes on it. I traveled to the Cheltenham Museum in 2017 to take measurements and make tracings for templates to go in my book on English Arts & Crafts furniture. This is going to be a fun class, and you should have your chair assembled by the end of the week. If you have time for another week, stay on and take Cathryn Peters’s class on weaving your own rush seat. You’ll go home with a chair ready for the dinner table.

September 5-6, 2020
Amana, Iowa
I’m looking forward to being at Handworks with copies of my new book about kitchens, to be published by Lost Art Press. Publication is planned for summer 2020.

October 5-10, 2020
Tampa, Florida
Florida School of Woodworking
Build an heirloom desk
Originally designed as an Arts and Crafts piece, this desk is surprisingly adaptable to other styles. Stick to the original oak and dark finish or customize the design with a different wood species, finish, and hardware for a more modern or Scandinavian look.

Hurry Slowly, Part 2: Lesson learned

This is the seventh in a series of stories related to the tales in Making Things Work. These are new material, not excerpts from the book.

Hoosier 1932 catalog cover


Almost 16 years to the day after arriving in England with my mother and sister, I moved back across the Atlantic to the States. I landed in Florida, where my family lived, and spent a week with them. I’d brought my dog, Oscar, with me; it was precious to see him recognize his father, a bearded collie my mother had found rummaging through dumpsters in London.

I bought a used Ford Escort, and we headed north to our destination: Amherst, Massachusetts. It was either going to be Amherst or the Hudson Valley; both were the closest I could imagine getting to England in terms of landscape and historic architecture.

Shortly after reaching the edge of Amherst  I was scanning the Help Wanted ads in a local paper and found one for skilled woodworkers. The people I spoke with on the phone seemed lovely. There was just one catch: The shop was not in western Mass., but near Montpelier, Vermont. After driving up for a visit I decided the people and the job were worth the move.


The workday began at 7 a.m. and finished at 5, with every other Friday off. The shop was about a half-hour drive from my apartment, so I set my alarm for 5:20, pressed snooze, stayed in bed ’til 5:30, then took Oscar for a walk and prepared to leave. Summer had scarcely ended before the nights grew longer than the days. It was dark when we went to work and dark when we headed home.

On my first morning I arrived extra-early and found myself in the company of a fellow early riser, Kent, another recent hire. He was intelligent, handsome, and friendly. We found we had more in common than showing up early for work.

Kent at lake (2)

Kent, autumn 1987

As the holidays approached, Kent asked if I’d like to spend them in Indiana with his family. I was overjoyed. In the meantime, winter had arrived. I had rarely seen snow in England, but by mid-December that year in Vermont we had almost two feet on the ground. The air was so cold and dry it literally took my breath away.


Kent’s parents drove us down the interstate from the airport to Brown County. I was shocked by the number of billboards along the roadsides. Montpelier and its environs had none; local residents had even reportedly said no to an interstate highway. I distinctly remember thinking “Thank goodness I don’t live here.”

After Christmas, Kent was going to spend a few extra days with his family, but I had to return to work. The flight from Indianapolis arrived in Burlington after midnight. By the time I drove back to Montpelier and got to bed it was past 2 a.m. I briefly flirted with the idea of calling first thing in the morning to say I’d be coming in late, but I took punctuality too seriously for that, so I got up, bleary-eyed, and made a cup of coffee.

By this time the snow had been on the ground for at least two weeks. The area got so much snow then that local authorities didn’t even attempt to scrape down to blacktop and melt the residue with salt; they plowed the bulk from the road and dumped it in the Winooski River. Trucks and cars packed down what was left, and highway crews added fresh sand for traction after every fall. That morning I was pushing it in terms of getting to work on time, so despite my hesitation even to approach the speed limit, I set my foot a little harder on the gas. Other people were driving at the speed limit, so why not follow their example?

The car was handling surprisingly well until I reached a long, straight section of road. A truck was heading towards me, and suddenly I was sliding. Despite my frantic efforts to steer, my car was locked on a collision course. For a starkly surreal moment I realized I was going to hit the oncoming truck. Just before impact I turned the wheel even harder, and the next thing I knew my car was spinning off the road, out of control.

“I am going to die now,” I thought, just before the deafening CRASH.

“Am I dead?” I wondered, once I came to. I checked my fingers on the steering wheel; I checked my toes. Miraculously, I seemed fine. Less so was the front wall of the coffee shop/country store that had blessedly stopped my slide. A huge dent now creased the façade. I got out of my car and went inside, apologizing to the woman at the counter who’d just set down her coffee pot, startled by the impact. A couple of patrons exchanged a look that said “damn flatlanders.”

“May I use your phone?” I stammered. “I need to tell my foreman I’m going to be late.” A policeman showed up a few minutes later. After taking down the details he drove me to the shop.

Less than a year later I was living in Indiana. I’ve been here ever since. And these days I worry a little less about being a few minutes late to work.

Hurry Slowly, Part 1: Soggy Bottom

This is the sixth in a series related to the tales in Making Things Work. These are new material, not excerpts from the book.


It really was as grey as it looks.

Around 1986 I was working at a small English workshop that made custom furniture and kitchens. Every day I rode my bicycle from the dank old row house I shared with three other renters on a quiet street in Cambridge–first to the train station, where I put the bike on the train, then from the station in the countryside to my place of employment, this last leg a short ride that usually took about 10 minutes.

One day in mid-spring I punctured a tire on the way to British Rail-Cambridge. This was years before I’d even heard of cell phones, let alone could have afforded one. There was no way to notify my employers, so my best hope was to minimize my lateness. I ran/walked the bike the rest of the way, hoping to make my usual train, and locked the bike to the railing.

Though the workshop wasn’t far from the station at the other end of the line, the only way to get there was via a U-shaped route that took you into the village, past the public lavatories, and out again to farm fields. Following that road on foot would make me disastrously late. I knew just where the shop was in relation to the station—straight across the fields. But being a respecter of property rights, I was loathe to set out across the newly planted earth. Then again, if anyone stopped me I could explain the situation. What reasonable farmer could object to someone gently passing through in an effort to avoid being late to work?

I set off on my adventure, running as far as I could, my bag slung across my shoulder. Walking, then running again as my lungs allowed. Aside from my boots getting clogged with mud, things seemed to be going OK until an obstacle came into distant view. A ditch. The area was essentially fenland, lying close to sea level. Without drainage the fields would have been far less productive for crops. No matter, I thought. I’ll just hop across. But the closer I got, the bigger the ditch appeared. Oh well. I’d just have to clamber down one side and up the next.

By the time I reached the edge of the ditch I realized it was more of an industrial pipeline. There was no telling how deep the water might be. It was definitely too wide to jump over. I was certainly going to get wet; the only question was how wet. I looked back toward the station. Too far to be worth reversing my course. There was no other way around; the ditch continued all the way to the road I usually took on my bike.

With a lump in my throat I eased myself down the bank, hoping for water no more than ankle-deep. The cold, dirty water came up to my arm pits. I sloshed forward, holding my bag aloft, and climbed the other bank. At least there was just one ditch.

On arrival at the workshop I received the predictable ribbing. I was glad to find the woodstove aflame. One of my bosses kindly suggested I get out of my sodden clothes and offered a pair of his overalls. It was a long day.


This is the fifth in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. These posts are not excerpts from the book. This one relates most closely to the tale entitled “No.” Due to operator error, the previous post in this series, “Beggars Can Be Choosers,” did not appear on the Lost Art Press site. You can find it here.


On 06/07/2018 12:23 AM, Mr. X wrote:


A few years ago I was looking for an Arts & Crafts bookcase to build for my den.  I am a retired draftsman, so I was able to pick and choose components from different designs and combine them into one.  But even after looking at so many different designs I still couldn’t find one that really made me happy.  And I looked at a lot.  Then one day I received my copy of Popular Woodworking and there on the cover of that issue was the very one I wanted.  It was perfect.  So with my drafting background I began to draw a bookcase a little taller, a bit wider and a little bit deeper, all the while keeping your basic design.  It came out beautifully, which leads me to my question.  I’ve recently been asked to put a price tag on it for a possible commission. But I’m not sure what to say. Can you help?


Mr. X,

I’m glad you found my design to your liking.

I don’t suggest prices to other woodworkers. I think I recall seeing a post by Chris Schwarz recently that was perfectly in sync with my own longstanding reasons for this policy. I’m a professional designer and furniture maker. My livelihood depends on this work. Those who are retired or have alternative sources of support may price their work quite differently from how I do. How you price your work is your business.

With best wishes,


Beggars can be choosers

Beggars can be choosers

This is the fourth in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. These posts are new material, not excerpts. 

Nancy with poptart in Brendan's Pop Tart chair

Eat and be happy. In this case, I was not eating, but pretending to take a bite of a sprinkles-bedecked Pop-Tart supplied by Brendan Gaffney, who was explaining his name for the upholstery fabric he used on this “Fat Man Pop-Tart” chair. (Pretending because if I’m going to splurge on sweets, I would rather eat cheese danish or Gateau Na Na. (Photo by Brendan Gaffney.)

Early on in my time pursuing a City & Guilds of London Certificate in Furniture Craft I attended all-day classes. It was still autumn, so at 1 p.m. I rode my bicycle to a small park near the college and ate my lunch while sitting on a bench. It was heaven.

I took the same lunch every day: a sandwich made from home-baked wholewheat bread with a couple of paper-thin slices of cheddar–no butter, lest I gain an ounce, let alone a pound. In those quasi-anorexic days the best compliment anyone could pay me was “Dear, you’re looking quite thin. Are you sure you’re OK?” When someone said I looked “well” I knew they really meant I’d gained weight, so I doubled down on the caloric austerity.*

The sandwich was always followed by an apple. There’s nothing in the States to compare with a Cox’s Orange Pippin, though an orchard near Bloomington, Indiana now sells a variety called Gold Rush with papery brownish-green skin and a firm white center that rival the English apples known as Golden Russets, my second-favorite variety.*


The divine Golden Russet of my youth.

One day I had just unwrapped my sandwich and was about to bite into the first half when an elderly woman approached me. I’m calling her “elderly” because that’s how she seemed at the time, though nearly 40 years on I’m aware that she was probably no older than I am today. “Can you spare ‘alf that sarny?” she asked, “sarny” being the widespread pronunciation of an abbreviation for “sandwich.” I briefly contemplated the sacrifice–I would be borderline-hungry the rest of the afternoon. But this person needed nutrition, and I wanted to help her out.

“Certainly,” I said, handing her the second half.

She took one bite and tossed the half-sandwich on the ground.

“There’s no butter on it!” she said in disgust.

Sometimes, it seems, you just can’t win.


*I am not glorifying anorexia. Having lived through a mere brush with that condition and its attendant health problems, not to mention the ongoing, unrelenting pressure on women in particular to equate thinness with attractiveness and self-worth, I still battle the pressure to be thin.

**The Gold Rush sold in Bloomington is not the same as an English Gold Rush. It’s far closer to a Golden Russet. Something seems to have been lost in translation.



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