A Neatness and Precision

In Pete Dexter’s book Deadwood, Wild Bill Hickok’s partner, Charley Utter, is thinking to himself, “He liked having a drawer, it was a neatness you could see just sliding it open.”

Making drawers requires a precision and calm missing from some other jobs around the shop. Cleaning out the dust collector comes to mind. Or hand planing some misbegotten wood like a rowed grain khaya. Drawer building on the other hand needs careful measuring, straight parts, and clear thinking to do a good job. A job that you’ll notice and admire in its careful sliding, with the slight woosh of air emerging as the drawer enters and fills its opening almost completely.

You can of course do a fast job and get it done with some drawer glides or run the drawer on a center mount. But it’s not the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t act the same.

We’ll be busy at the end of this week in the Studio with a class on Drawer Work. We’ll be making a drawer box and filling it with one precision cut and fit drawer. When it’s right, you’ll be able to stand the drawer box on end and put the drawer in place and with a close piston fit the air will only let the drawer slowly descend into its resting place. Nice.

Walnut Collector's Chest open

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Think about how you look at others’ work. You don’t look for every mistake. You look at the scope of the project, the effort required. You consider the time spent on design. You see the form, the choice of wood and think about the time taken to mill the lumber. The hours spent on joining pieces together and the detail in the joinery and the weeks spent on shaping and sanding and how the hardware is hung. You step back and look at the whole piece and you know in your heart how much it took. You congratulate the builder.

Well, do the same to your own self. Congratulate yourself on work well done. Yes do better next time. Always strive to do better, but give yourself a break every now and then. We all make mistakes.

Step back from your own projects. Give them some room to breathe. Enjoy their imperfections. Do good work and strive to do better work each time. But don’t slow yourself up with perfection.
two leaf box

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This letter was sent to me by an old friend.

Hi, Gary!

May I give you a story, as promised?

The story is told that if you were a young person in medieval France embarking on a spiritual quest, if you were fortunate you might meet up with someone older, perhaps a teacher, who would say this to you: I think I understand what you are seeking. Let me give you the name of someone I know, a cobbler, in Dijon. I think that it might work out well if you were to become his apprentice. If that happens, let me give you one piece of advice. Don’t talk with him about spiritual matters; just let him teach you how to make shoes.

So, time passes, and you find yourself in Dijon, and you seek out the cobbler. Sure enough, as it works out, you become his apprentice.

Years pass, and you learn how to make shoes. Year after year, you measure people’s feet. You watch them walk. You listen as they tell you about their work, their daily activities, their lives, their yearnings. You make their shoes, you modify their shoes, you repair their shoes. Your shoes tell stories. You make wonderful shoes that enrich people’s lives.

More time passes, and one day, the cobbler says to you, You have become a fine cobbler. Your fingers listen to the leather, and your heart listens to the people who will wear your shoes. I am growing old, and soon I will reach the end of my life. I want to leave this shop in your hands.

You begin to protest, but the cobbler goes on.

Now hear me. One day, a young person will come to you, on some kind of spiritual quest. If it works out for this person to become your apprentice, let me give you one piece of advice. Don’t talk with him about spiritual matters. Just teach your apprentice how to make shoes.

Warmly, Herman F.

The Northwest Woodworking Studio Cobbler's Bench

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Design Opportunity

A Mastery student of mine came through town to visit. Over 10 years ago he studied with me and he’s building still. Not as much as he’d like but it’s a tough game this woodworking world. Not everyone understands how much time it takes and how much skill. Nor do most people appreciate how long it takes to develop that skill.

This isn’t a new hobby for folks that they get good at in a couple of weekends. It takes work. It takes dedication, commitment, practice. I have always found it interesting that doctors have a practice and woodworkers have a job. No, we have a practice as much as any doctor. We’re always getting it wrong, learning new methods, fixing things. Just like them. Oh my Mastery student is a doc.

There are no mistakes, only new opportunities. In woodworking, as in life. Learn from your slip ups and get up and run again. Thanks for the advice Jim.


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The Fit Again

In joinery the fit of your pieces is like the fit of your shoes on your feet. If you can toss your shoes off your feet as you hit the couch, too loose. If you shoe horn them in, perfect. A good fitting joint fits snug. No pounding together but it shouldn’t fall apart either. It’s a balance you learn to achieve by sneaking up on it. Learn to use your shoulder plane and you’ll be happy no matter how you cut a tenon joint.  Finesse the fit.

Beveled Oak Table by Gary Rogowski

Beveled Oak Table by Gary Rogowski







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The Fit

The measure of an eye, of a thumb extended, of one cubit is seen in the result and how well things fit. We all know it when we see it. One can sense the art in craftsmanship by simply looking at the product. Some things we have made work better for the eye and hand. It is not luck. It is the experience of your efforts showing. It is the mistakes you have made along the way and their lessons learned that now inhabit your work.

Confidence is gained by your error and more importantly your understanding of it. What went wrong and why. We gain, in our designs as well as in our technique, valuable information that tells us what to do right this time, or right again.



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Joinery Details


Joinery Details

Joinery is the art of knowing what wood to remove and what to leave behind. Reductive & simple, yet seductive in its intricacies balancing negative space with strength. Take too much wood away and you leave no strength. Take too little and you’ve compromised the tenon. You are the joinery designer/ engineer.

There are several important details to know about wood and its properties. Double a board’s measure in height and it is four times stronger than doubling a board in its width. Hmm. Wood moves more across its growth rings than between and none in its length. Hmm, again. Wood has little tensile strength between its fibers. There is more, but finally you have to practice. To learn what is a good fit takes practice and care with one’s tools.

Two weeks of joinery class start June 23rd. It will change your woodworking to learn this skill. Please join us. Take both joinery concentrations for a sizable discount!

Joinery Concentration Carcases 6/23 – 6/27
Joinery Concentration Frames
  6/30 – 7/3

Also Upcoming in Joinery

Drawer Work 7/31 – 8/2

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Good Enough

Tapered Cabinet by Gary Rogowski

As a furniture maker of a few years time, I realized something important about my work. Oftentimes my clients wouldn’t notice the extra work I had put into pieces. Some times they noticed things that were just so automatic for me that I barely thought of them and then they missed the really fine work I had done.

My realization was that I had to pick my moments on some pieces. Sometimes I needed to do the extra work to make it just so, whether or not the client would see it. Other times, I could do very good work and the client would still be blown away. Good enough wasn’t a diminishing of my standards but an understanding of what I would and would not be paid for.

Sometimes I just had to fuss over a hidden detail just because. The deal I made with myself was to say it’s okay to be this obsessive/ compulsive craftsman as long as you know you won’t get paid for it. Except by yourself. No bitching about how much you’re making or losing on this piece. If you want it to be good enough for your high standards that this hour is free. So that was the bargain. No complaining about not getting paid for time that the client hadn’t asked for but that I had to give. And at other times, I would be just good enough to fool everyone, but me.

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Human all too human to quote Fred N. Yes we makers are too human. We’re too ready to find error in our work. The voice in our head keeps repeating: Not good enough, not perfect enough. We are always so ready to point out our mistakes, to find the tiniest of errors. When our client never sees them. When another maker doesn’t see them nor care. They see the whole, the entire piece and they’re delighted.

So I say, keep your standards high but learn to forgive yourself for your errors that no one else can see. Do  better next time. If you expect perfection from each of your efforts you will always disappoint yourself. If however you try for perfection but forgive yourself for not reaching it, then your work will satisfy even your harshest critic, you. Forgive yourself for being human.



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What makes a discovery fascinating? I suppose that one could go to find every convenience store within a 5 mile radius of your home in a discovering fashion. But would this be of much interest? I don’t think so. After a time, they would end up being very much the same. Image

Discovery involves excitement, surprise. Discovery should make you fill your lungs, your head, your heart with joy. Who knew? That’s the delight of childhood discovery. Who knew there was such a thing as pies? Who knew there were water balloons? Or that trees could be climbed? Or moths?

That same sense of delight came to me when I discovered the Musee des Arts et Metiers on a trip to Paris. Like no other museum I had ever seen, it was one room after another of fantastic inventions and marvels. From flying machines to automatons to models of double helical staircases, it was a marvel of discovery.

Wednesday evening, May 21st, from 6 to 7:30pm join me at the Studio for a tour of Le Musee through the many images I took. We will tour and then discuss its magic, its power, the beauty of inspiration to be found in forms. It will enlighten you, surprise you I hope, and perhaps you’ll discover something new.




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