The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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The bravery test.


I can say without shame that I am not a furniture designer. I know that I’ve written before about how I rarely follow woodworking plans, and that is true. But while most of the furniture I make I do technically design myself, I usually base it off of previous design elements. My current project is no exception.

For this project, I wanted to make a narrow, somewhat unobtrusive cabinet that would sit nicely in a corner, hold some framed pictures, possibly a few little odds and ends, maybe a trophy  or medal (ahem). So I measured a few possible locations in my house, narrowed it down to two, and came up with the dimensions accordingly. And while I can’t claim to be overly concerned with proportion, I did make an attempt to make this cabinet proportional, as in the shelves are twice the case width, and the height is three times the shelf width. I’ve found that those proportions are usually pleasing. So with all of my careful planning it was only natural that something went horribly wrong.

Sunday morning I burst into my garage all ready to go. My stock was already initially prepared, my tools were sharp, and my work space clear. The first step was to make the dados to hold the shelves. I normally like adjustable shelving, but in this case (both literally and figuratively) I want all of the shelves static because it will allow me to incorporate decorative hardware into the design. I have a dado plane that I’ve restored, and that was the tool I had hoped to use, but I’ve been having trouble with the wedge, and the practice dados didn’t turn out as nicely as I would have liked, so I used a saw and chisel.

Because there are ten dados in this case, and because some family was stopping by for a visit, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do all ten, so I concentrated on the top and bottom set. To make the dados, I used a knife to define the cut, used a chisel to make a knife wall, used a carcase saw to get the depth, chopped out the waste with a chisel, and cleaned it all up with a router plane. It wasn’t fast work, but it didn’t go too slowly either, and I had the four dados finished in about an hour. To my credit, the dados turned out nicely. The fit was good, and the one real mistake I made was going to disappear when I rabbeted the case side for the back panels. But when I did the test fit something didn’t seem right.

****before I go on, I just want to say that if you are cutting your dados with hand tools and you need to mark a knife line, the only tool to use is a 12 inch combination square. I tried a square I have from Woodpeckers, as well as a try square, and both were almost useless. The combination square, with it’s “triangle” shape and thin blade is by far the most steadfast and accurate way to go about it****

Finished dados didn't turn out so bad

Finished dados didn’t turn out so bad

The shelves fit tight with almost no gap

The shelves fit tight with almost no gap

After our company left, I brought my lovely wife into the garage with me and I assembled the case. My wife held it up and I stepped back to get a proper perspective, and right away I knew the case was just too tall. I wanted this case to almost disappear into a room, and instead it was towering over my wife (to be fair she is only 5′ 1″ tall). In any event, it just didn’t look right to my eye. Of course I didn’t yet curve the case sides, or add any of the decorative trim or features which will certainly lighten the look of the case, and my wife suggested that I should possibly do that before I made any rash decisions. But I don’t think it will make much of a difference, and in doing that it may only cause me to do the same work twice. So I’ve decided that I will shorten the case by ten inches. The good news is the bottom dados are salvageable; the bad news is that the top dados are not.

It's just too tall.

It’s just too tall.

Unfortunately this is going to negate most of the work I put in on Sunday, but I feel it has to be done, because I know I’ll regret it completely if I don’t. I’ve never been the person who has taken the easy way out. I’m not saying that taking the easy way out is necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes the easy way is also the best way. But in this case the easy way out is really just the lazy way out. Whatever I may be, and whatever bad qualities I may have, being lazy isn’t one of them.



  1. Kinderhook88 says:

    One step up and two steps back. I think we’ve all been there once or twice.

  2. Greg Merritt says:

    On the plus side, the dado work looks really good.
    Visualizing the actual size of a piece can be tricky. Especially for larger pieces. It’s a process to be sure. Basically, any new design is a prototype. Sometimes everything goes like you thought it would. Sometimes, not so much.
    I like that you are jumping right in and making adjustments to bring this piece to your liking. Making a piece to be exactly what you want/need is one of the reasons we do this stuff.
    Looking forward to seeing this progress.

    • billlattpa says:

      I know it was the right decision because it took all of two seconds to make. As soon as I stepped back while my wife was standing next to it I knew it needed to change.
      The dados actually did turn out nicely. I followed the “Paul Sellers Method” to the letter. I had wanted to use my dado plane but it needs some more tuning up. The truth is, I probably would have used the table saw if the pieces were easier to manage, in this case hand tools made more sense.

  3. Alex A. says:

    Looks great! as someone who also has a 5’1″ wife (I’m 6’3″, picture hanging is an argument) it is tough to design around them;-)

      • billlattpa says:

        I didn’t necessarily design it with her in mind, but I definitely want her to be able to approach it and reach anything she needs to reach without stretching etc. If it were a bookcase and not a display case I would probably have left it tall. Either way, I’m happy with the decision. I know it will look much more closer to how I envisioned it.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Good call on reworking the parts. When something like this happens to me I can waste a lot of time thinking about it, looking at it from different angles etc. when I really know I just need to commit to the pain and get started on the remedy.

    • billlattpa says:

      I was saying to Greg Merritt, I know it was the right call because it took about two seconds to make. There’s not too many times in life when you see something so clearly that you immediately know what to do. In this instance there was no hesitation, and as soon as I saw my wife standing next to it I knew what had to be done. There was a time when or if something like this had happened I would have wanted to put my fist through wall. Maybe I’m maturing, but I think it’s more because I have no doubts.

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October 2015
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