progress not perfection

The process of hand cutting dovetails for my small wall cabinet build has been interesting. It has been several years since I took my box making class, which was the last time I cut this joint. At first I considered not using dovetails at all, but decided that it was clearly the proper joint to use on the carcass. Also, the only way I am going to get comfortable cutting dovetails is to actually make some.  There is, however, a problem with that strategy. My first dovetails are probably going to suck. Now, I could practice on scrap wood or something, I guess, but that’s not how I roll. If I’m gonna cut dovetails they might as well be on something real. So, I walked right up to the boards and cut my first joint in several years. Not surprisingly, it was just plain shitty. Most of the shittiness was based on me out thinking myself. I tried the trick where you cut a shallow rabbet into the tail board to help line it up to the pin board for marking and it was a disaster. The rabbet ended up being a little off square which caused a humongous gap. After taking a break and getting my nerve back up I tried again. On the second joint I simplified things by dropping the rabbet deal and it was a lot better. Not good, still super gappy, but the best dovetail I had ever cut nonetheless.

The second, less shitty one
I was pretty damn happy with myself. So much so that I posted a picture of said joint on my Instagram account. I was typing in the hashtag #progress when the suggestion #progressnotperfection popped up. By the looks of it, on Insta at least, this hashtag is used mostly by sweaty people who have just completed a workout. Although I have been described as “sweaty” before, the rest of it didn’t really fit. However, I still went ahead and used that hashtag because it really resonated with me. Hand cutting dovetails without any saw guides is essentially using hand tools freehand. I will not be perfect on the first or third attempt, if ever. But I should not be striving for perfection, I should strive to be better, to improve each time I perform some action or process. I am going to try to apply this is all parts of my woodworking, and to remember it’s a journey.
tl;dr: My woodworking is kinda shitty right now. My goal is to make it less shitty.


today’s special

I took a long and winding road to find my true professional calling. Just like Wayne in Wayne’s World, I have an extensive collection of name tags and hair nets. A major section of this winding road was my time in culinary school and cooking professionally. It was fun but, as a person who doesn’t like shouting or working under pressure, it was not a great fit. Those traits are what led me to librarianship, btw. One of the things I did truly like from my cooking days was setting part or all of the menu. Normally it went a lot like this: 

  • Go to the walk-in cooler 
  • See what the heck is in there
  • Try to figure out what things would taste good when cooked together 

It was all about being creative while using up the stock on hand. That was the fun of it. Anyone can place an order for specific recipes, but it’s a whole ‘nother level to make something good on the fly with limited selection. So, bringing this finally to woodworking, I thought it would be cool to try to recreate this type of thing when I went to the wood store to get lumber for my small wall cabinet build. I like getting lumber at the Ann Arbor Reuse Center which has a portion dedicated to Urban Wood, a program that makes lumber from area trees felled from storms or removed by homeowners. It’s more expensive than buying rough lumber from a hardwood dealer but I like the unique selection and the chance to use lumber from local trees. Also, just between you and me, I’m kinda scared of full blown lumber dealers. I mentioned the thing about yelling and pressure, right? 

My plan for the cabinet walking into the store was smallish (~ 12×20 inches, 6 in. deep) with drawers on roughly the bottom fifth and a door over the rest. I did not have specific wood species in mind, which was what I thought would be the fun part. I did know I wanted the carcass to be relatively straight quiet grain, with the door fronts and back boards in a contrasting wood. That sounds simple, right? Well, let’s just say my seemingly simple plan became more complicated in practice. I had a very hard time coming up with a combo that was contrasting, but, like, not too contrasting. I wasn’t looking for something like a walnut and maple pairing, but something with more subtle color contrast and similar texture. It was quite hard to find that elusive combo, and the wood store became less fun after about 45 minutes. I fell in love with a piece of elm for the door fronts, and eventually picked cherry for the carcass. As the price of my purchase grew, I dropped the plan for the door. The open shelf will look better anyway (I keep telling myself). 

The fancy plan for the cabinet. I changed the dimensions but not the propositions (3:5)

My takeaway from this experience is mainly: being picky about color and grain takes a lot of time and the ability to visualize the project. Maybe I will get better as I get more experience but there probably is no shortcut. Now I know what you’re thinking, spending a lot of time shopping for wood doesn’t seem that rough. I agree, but when I start to build larger projects I will have to go to a dedicated hardwood dealer to save money. Panic attack, here we come. Having said that, I also have to make the point that the time spent picking out the material has paid off in the shop. I have long stretches of mostly straight grain cherry with awesome little pin knots and pitch streaks. I think (hope) the elm will look great in the door fronts and back boards as well. 

The picks are in: cherry (top) and elm
I knew that hand tool woodworking would be an exercise in patience, something I don’t have in excess. Now I know that even the lumber buying process will be a test of patience and on the fly planning. Hopefully my developing skills are at a point where this patience will pay off and the recipe will come together.