Friday, October 25, 2013

Stepping Back to Move Forward

I woke up at 4 am this morning out of a deep sleep, wide awake with an idea about how I could solve the latest problem with the cabinet I’m building.
The waking-up thing has happened a few times this week, but usually it’s been accompanied by an anxious ‘what am I going to do’ kind of feeling – and without the answers.
The week has been stressful, as I’ve spent almost all of it trying to chase out a gap where the doors will meet the cabinet sides. It feels silly to write and it probably feels that way to read as well. It was just a small gap – in a place that will have a gap anyway when the doors and hinges are actually installed.
But I want everything to be as close to perfect as possible in this piece, and a weird mystery gap just isn’t acceptable.
Photo shows the gap between the door and the cabinet side.
In a perfect world, the sides of the cabinet would be flat and square, and the doors would be flat and square, and everything would come together tight and gap-free. But that wasn’t happening for me.
I spent four straight days scraping a little here, sanding a little there, planning over here, and by the end of day Thursday the thing looked worse than it did on Monday morning. I was trying to sculpt two imperfect pieces of wood together and it just wasn’t working.
My epiphany at 4 am was this: Take a step back. Flatten the doors and the cabinet sides, essentially taking them back to where the started, and see what happens.
Funnily enough, my bench mate Jim had the same idea this morning, and so did Laura, my instructor.
So I did it. Four days of work down the drain, but when I reset all those edges, and made one additional adjustment, they came together as tight and perfect as I could have hoped.
No more gap!

And I was happy, and could go to Elephants (Friday night beers around the woodshop bonfire) with a clear conscience and an accomplishment to actually celebrate.
It’s strange, this type of work. Small, seemingly insignificant challenges can occupy days of work and can cause all kinds of stress. But when you get there, when you finally figure it out and are able to move on, it’s incredibly rewarding – and you learn so much in the process.
I may have only got one thing done this week, but I know I learned lessons that will stay with me for years to come. And I’m one step closer to a finished cabinet.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

How a Bad Day Resulted in Prettier and Better Cabinet Doors

Last Saturday was a bad day.
I had spent a few days working on the panels for the two doors that would enclose the front of the cabinet I'm building, and would therefore be the centrepiece of the whole project. The doors would be built first, then the rest of the cabinet built around them, so they had to be just right.
I had chosen to use mahogany that was spalted – a type of fungal disease that attacks trees, but often leaves them with beautiful and unusual patterns and colours.
But the problem was that part of the spalted edge, which would comprise part of a ‘live-edge’ component of my cabinet doors, was also slightly worm-eaten and a little rotten.
I had thought I could work with it and live with the worm holes, and that the uniqueness of it would make up for any structural issues in the wood.
But then on Friday, as I was cutting a profile into the edge of the panels, the corner of one ripped off, its lack of structural integrity causing weakness in the wood.
Here are the original panels, with one broken corner visible in the top left.

I was able to re-attach the broken corner and salvage the piece, and was pretty happy with the repair job -- the fixed fracture was almost invisible.
Then on Saturday, as I was shellacking my panels, the second piece slipped out of my hands and landed on the floor, the weak corner exploding into a million pieces.
Bad way to end the week.
I went home, tried to forget about the disaster, and enjoyed Sunday away from the workshop, though in the back of my mind the wheels were turning as to how I could resolve the conundrum.
By Monday I had made up my mind. I bought a new piece of mahogany first thing in the morning -- a different board but cut from the same section of the same tree – and began making new panels.
But this time I avoided the rotten section and was able to cut strong, solid panels that were easily as pretty as the original set, but had no worm holes, rot, or strength issues.
And because I had just gone through the process of making the original panels, I was able to do it quickly and without stress.
By the end of the day I had beautiful new panels that were cut to size, sanded, shaped and ready for shellac.
Here are the new panels after treatments of shellac and wax, ready to become doors.

The experience reminded me that sometimes a mistake, or an apparent unexpected setback in a woodworking project, can force the maker to take a step back, reconsider his plans, and sometimes come up with a much better approach.

That’s what happened this time, and I’m pretty happy about how it all turned out.
Here are the panels glued-up in the frames. Their positions will be reversed on the actual cabinet, with the live edges on the outside edge of each door.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Inspiration Comes Full Circle and How Furniture Can Capture the Heart

James Krenov used to say that when someone falls in love with a piece of furniture, they’ll do anything to own it -- re-mortgage their house, sell their first-born – whatever it takes. They have to have it.
I guess that’s what a fine woodworker has to depend on if they’re going to survive. When a piece takes weeks, even months to complete, it needs to sell for a decent price if the craftsman who made it is going to be able to survive.
As it turns out, it’s not only ‘customers’ who can come under the spell of a piece of furniture.
Recently, one of our instructors at the College of the Redwoods, David, shared with us a mock-up for a chair he is building.
David said he hasn’t built much in recent years, and his creative bent has been fulfilled by helping us students get started on our own projects and careers. And he helps us immensely every day, from showing us how certain tools work, to parting with precious pieces of lumber he has collected over the years, to simply looking at a problem and saying “here, try this.”
But before he got into showing us his chair mock-up, David told us about one of the exceptional alumni at the school, Sarah Marriage (mentioned in an earlier post here), and showed us photos of some of her projects. She made some truly inspiring, beautiful pieces.
After going through the slides, David showed us a writing desk Sarah had built, and said he had fallen in love with it as she designed and built it in the shop at our school.
“So, I decided to save her the trouble of shipping it off to a gallery, and bought it from her myself,” he told us.
What a compliment. Anyhow, the writing desk has sat in his home for several years, but without a chair. Recently he was stirred, came up with a design, and began putting the model together.
David was inspired by the work of a student, and I, and others, were inspired by the realization that even someone who has seen literally thousands of pieces of beautiful furniture come through the school, could still be captivated by the simple lines contained in a writing desk conceived and built by a student.