"Oh no! #&**$! Crap! Oy vey! How could I possibly do that AGAIN?"
That's the sanitized version of what I muttered to myself a split-second after making the fourth – yes, fourth! – dumb mistake on my latest project. And that's not counting my inefficient methods of work, time lost picking up other jobs before finishing this one, and the like. If you'd been watching me, you'd have said what Homer Simpson says when he makes a stupid mistake: D'oh!
A business executive told me the story of a new manager who made a terrible mistake in judgment. His error cost the company a lot of money. His boss called him on the carpet. "I suppose I'm fired," said the manager. "Fired?" said the boss. "How can we fire you? We just spent a quarter of a million dollars educating you!"
As long as my mistakes are educating me, they won't be quite as painful. It's just so frustrating to go back and repeat, replace and readjust!
What are mistakes telling us, then? I have a lot to learn about skills and efficiency. That's what the mistakes are telling me. Can I reduce them? Is there anything you and I can learn or buy or do?
Of course there is. First, consider signing up for some good instruction. The simplest is the half-day or one-day seminar by an expert. Some of these are hands-on, while others are instruction and demonstration, but even at a lecture taking good notes and then practicing at home can build skills. (By the way, one of my mistakes on the project I started with was failing to take notes on one step in the layout when I sat in a demonstration. I spent two days trying to reconstruct the right way to do it.)
If you have time, enroll in a weekend or week-long course. It will give you a real experience in craft and construction. It will challenge you to do more than you would on your own. Highland Hardware offers classes right in its Atlanta store. Also look at the residential courses offered by the craft schools like John C. Campbell Folk School, Arrowmont, and others all over the country. I have two wonderful Windsor chairs I built at such courses, and I certainly intend to do more. Having company as you work, personal contact with your instructors, the availability of tools and someone to help keep you out of trouble are great.
Second, join a local woodworkers' club. As we baby boomers retire, these clubs are growing. There are at least two in my community. I'll bet there's one near you. To find it ask the people who work at the hardware store or lumber yard. Club meetings around here are built on demonstrations by members and occasionally by visiting experts. We serve coffee and donuts, display our own work, auction off a few donated items and do projects for the community. It's fun, and who doesn't need more of that?
Don't forget the national opportunities either. For example, the American Association of Woodturners will hold its national symposium in Louisville, Kentucky June 22-24, 2006. The workshops and exhibits at events like this are amazing.
But back home? I'm confessing to you, I've made a lot of dumb mistakes. Often I wouldn't have done it if I'd had the right equipment at hand and paid attention. Herewith, some stories about things I've learned the hard way, and am still learning.
The number one priority is safety, of course. Buy and use the right safety equipment: hold-downs, splitters and guards; eyewear, dust protection and hearing protectors. "But I'm only cutting one little piece," you say? Let me show you the place where "one little piece" kicked back and tore the end of my thumb wide open. D'oh! That mistake stopped the project in its tracks for a trip to my doctor, who threw me a devilish grin as he said "This is great, I love stitching up people like you." He seemed to enjoy my dumb mistake more than I did. Now I keep a hold-down right at the saw, not in the drawer where it was sitting that day, and I've installed a good splitter which might have stopped the kickback.
Before you pick up the wood, make a plan. A real one, a design with enough detail to show how the work will go together. Most of my mistakes on the current project happened because I had a poor plan. I'd started with no more than a simple sketch, and the sketch didn't show things like joint details or grain orientation. I wasted a lot of time rethinking those little details before the job was done.A good shop notebook or clipboard and a pad of graph paper would have saved the day at the start. A complete plan would have pushed me to see the gaps in my thinking and organize the steps in advance. It would have helped me make the "Wouldn't it look nice if I…" decisions in advance, not in the middle of the job. I've learned my lesson, and the next project is going down on paper before anything is cut.
Measure, write it down, and then measure again! Translated into English that means "Pay attention!" If I had only carried the plan to the table saw when I cut the first four pieces for the latest project, I'd have noticed that I was using the wrong dimension. But of course I trusted my memory – which was wrong. D'oh! (By the way, I cut them short rather than long, so they were wasted … but you guessed that, didn't you?)
Keep measuring and marking tools within reach, not far off. I have a steel six-inch precision rule that's in constant use – accurate, easy to read and very handy. I've started to keep measuring tapes in various spots, so there's always one close at hand when I need it.
Thinking of measuring, the lathe calls for measuring tools all of its own. Some time ago I bought a woodworker's dial caliper for turning (it has other uses too, of course), and it's one of the best measuring tools I've ever used. When turning spindles or bowls, the inside and outside spring-loaded calipers are what it takes to check dimensions on the fly. I only needed a couple experiences turning things smaller than the right size to learn that it's impossible to put wood back again once it's been cut off. D'oh!
One question I need to ask more often is, "Can I do it with a hand tool?" When a piece for my latest project was a little fat, I started for the chop saw to take off just a skosh (that's a technical term, of course). Then a light went on in my head – why not simply plane it down? The handplane let me sneak up on the right size. The chop saw wouldn't.
Another hard-won lesson: Make sure things that are supposed to be square really are. My small engineer's square, a gift from a family member, seems more essential every day. It's accurate, so it helps prevent crooked measurements and off-square cuts. Having it, or a combination square, close to the band saw and table saw let me double-check for square cuts whenever needed. For angles, there are some new protractors on the market that make angle-checking a lot easier than the old plastic school protractors I grew up with.
Here's another confession: Whenever I don't mark my workpieces clearly I get in trouble. Putting layout marks on the good face and the straight edge, the top and bottom or the inside and outside, ought to be a habit. How easy is it to flip a piece over before cutting, or to trade one end for the other? D'oh!
That means keeping the marking tools close at hand. A marking knife, sharpened pencils, gel pens or layout dye need to be where I can reach them as needed. How often have I reached into an empty pocket in search of the marking tool I should have kept there? It also means putting some good light on the work. For a long time I struggled to see what I was doing in a rather dark basement shop. Adding three flexible work lights has certainly brightened my outlook on things.
The same thing applies to small clamps. It seems that I often need a clamp at the saw to set up a stop block or fence. For a long time I hiked over to the clamp rack whenever that happened, until I got the bright idea of keeping a clamp or two right at the saw. D'oh!
Lastly, be prepared for unexpected messes. This week I assembled a small box with box-jointed corners. I knew the corners were very tight when test-fitted, but what the heck – glue is slippery and they'll slip together fine, I told myself. Fortunately, I'd grabbed some disposable gloves from the shelf and had gone to the trouble of putting the glue in a container and using a glue brush for the job, because I had no idea what a sloppy mess awaited me as I maneuvered all four corners at once and tried to get the thing square. One thing I forgot was the possibility I'd need a dead blow mallet for persuasion … it was still on the pegboard across the room. D'oh!
Woodworking is supposed to be fulfilling, not frustrating. I want my next trip to the shop to be creative, not a crisis. Those of us who started doing this as a hobby without formal training get a lot of "OJT," on-the-job-training. Our war stories may be funny later, but it sure would be better to avoid dumb mistakes in the first place!
Now where did I write that measurement, anyway? Gotta be in one of these pockets….