It was the right thing to do

I know this about myself, that things have to pose a reasonable challenge to me in order to hold my interest. I’m glad woodworking isn’t too easy. I’d have given it up already.

I also know this about myself, that when things seem too difficult I have a tendency to dabble in them just long enough to know I’ll never be an expert and move on to something else. I’m glad woodworking it isn’t too hard. I would have decided I know just enough to be dangerous and found something new to occupy my time.

For me, woodworking is like Goldilocks and a baby bear sized bowl of porridge – just right.

This is not to say that this work doesn’t have it’s endless array of challenges. It is just that I have found enough variety in the work to keep my hands and mind busy and productive without feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I will never know or accomplish. I am not planning on building a Philadelphia highboy anytime soon, but I feel like if I wanted to (and I worked toward it) I could. Mostly, I just want to do the thing right in front of me and do it right.

Here is the thing for me; when sharp tools and wood come together there is always something new to learn, and there is always the realistic possibility of learning it. Sometimes the lessons are easy, sometimes they are of the “one step forward, two steps back” variety.

Recently, in working on the trestle table I learned something I didn’t want to know. The realization came not from the table itself, but in trying to determine the dimensions of the benches to accompany the table. I’m adapting a free-standing Shaker style bench to dining dimensions and I realized that things weren’t adding up. Or, to be more specific, they were adding up to too much. I realized that in putting together the trestle ends I had been liberal on the length of the leg and the height of the foot and once the top was on, those small licenses ended up producing a top surface that was about 1/2″ too high. I am a tall person and I had no idea how uncomfortable 30 1/2″ could be until I sat at the table and my forearms told me everything I needed to know.

My first thought was make higher chairs but the human body is a carefully calibrated instrument and that would really only be solving one problem by creating another. A higher seat might be alright for me at 6’4″ but what about my family? No, the right thing to do was lower the table to bring it into the proper 29″ to 30″ range, but with the base assembled this was easier said than done.

I want to say at this point I was happy to have developed my skills as a hand tool woodworker because I could bring those skills to the work and not the work to a machine. I’m still not sure how I would have accomplished this with machines, but it took about an hour with saws, chisels and planes.

I first marked the feet and recesses of the feet for 1/2″ of material to be removed and then began by sawing kerfs in the recess. I should note that this is exactly how I did it the first time, (but it was easier when everything fit in a leg vise). A sharp 1 1/4″ chisel did most of the work but I followed that up with a rasp to fair the curves and a low angle jack and block plane to flatten and true the surface of the recess. I finished by sawing most of the excess from the feet with a tenon saw and planed them true with the LA jack.

 I was pleased to see the joints just as clean and tight with 1/2″ of material removed.

A few years ago I might have been tempted to put the top on and ignore the uncomfortable looks on everyone’s faces when they sat at the table, but I’ve grown as a woodworker and as a human being. I’ve learned that an hour’s worth of work to avoid a lifetime of regret is a good trade. The math works. It was the right thing to do.



4 Comments Add yours

  1. flatironjoe says:

    Well done, Jim. Your opening about the ability of woodworking to hold your attention definitely sounds familiar to me. One of the things that comes with your increased skill is knowing when things are right and when they need fixing, plus the ability to make that fix. Early on, you’re just happy if all the parts go together, but your expectations grow and your design eye sharpens as you get more projects under your belt, and making things _right_ is the challenge more than just the making of things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. handplanepastor says:

    Often when we step back and take in the big picture we see the right thing is usually the hard thing. If the right thing were easy, we would done it already, and wouldn’t be stuck in over analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian says:

    That is the part I’m still trying to learn. My free time is so very short as it is, however I want to be able to step back when necessary.


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