Making panels might not look as glamorous or as complicated as an expertly fit mortise and tenon (and it certainly receives fewer pages in your average woodworking text) but there is an art to this joinery just as any other, and it is an art I’m learning in stages.
It is also, in my experience, an art that is best practiced small before being writ large.
The first proper panels I can remember making were the panels for the small floor tool chest I built a year or so ago. Those panels gave me fits; cupping and bowing as the humidity fluctuated in my garage over the course of a few days. I learned to flatten both sides in one session if at all possible and those panels also taught me that wood selection is important. I’ve since made several iterations of panels (large and small) and each time I learn something.
The last big panel I made was for the walnut desk from earlier this year and I learned one important lesson while flattening that panel – do everything in your power to make the show face of the individual pieces flat and straight so that they line up when it comes time for glue and clamps. It’s tempting just to get things close-ish and then reason that you can flatten it out with the fore plane later. You can, but it’s a hell of a lot more work. It also makes it harder to judge your joints and glue lines. If you can spend the extra time bringing at least one face of each piece of the panel into a single plane it’s much easier to plane an accurate edge joint and it is exponentially faster to clean up and flatten.
In the end, the biggest time saver is just spending enough time at each easier stage to save time in the next harder stage. It’s the same idea as using tools that are easily sharpened to hog out waste before you move to tools that are harder to sharpen.
Most of us are probably stretching the limits of our workbench capacity when working large panels like this. When ad-hoc work holding is necessary and the effective reach with a hand plane is limited, you have to adopt a counter-intuitive mindset about efficiency. The fastest action isn’t always the most efficient in the long run. It is worthwhile to put in a little more time at each step to save time down the road. And then, the most important step is to build in some more time to walk away from your work before getting out the glue.
In fact, that is becoming my shop mantra: “Put in the time before you get out the glue.”
The key here is fresh eyes. Although rushing with power tools is never advisable, rushing with hand tools is a recipe either for shoddy work or for a great and disastrous series of delays. Over the past two years I’ve learned a different economy of work and time and I know that I have saved countless hours by walking away for a few minutes. When I walk away and then return to inspect my work before gluing it up, I inevitably find something that I need to tweak. It’s usually something small that can be corrected in a moment – a spring joint not as clean as I thought or a slight hump on a tenon – but it is always something that would later have caused headaches and swearing had I missed it.
In the end, if it’s worth it to build something like this, it’s also worth it to take the time to do it right. There is a delayed gratification in any panel glue-up, but when one this large goes together nice and flat and straight and tight, you get a stupid grin on your face because you know why.