Highland Hardware Wood News Online No. 12, May 2006

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Man With a Plan

By Terry Chapman

Man With a Plan by Terry Chapman I am an engineer by trade - precise, organized, and I get things built according to the plans. I look at all the possibilities and gather all the necessary information, and then make the best choice of method and material in order to design it. I love eliminating the wrong answers and getting the correct answer down on paper. It’s what I do – it’s who I am, and I am good at it.

A few years ago, I was surprised to see a discussion of my profession in the Ask Ann Landers column in our local newspaper. The discussion concerned how difficult it is for spouses to live with engineers. Engineers see things in black and white - there is no gray and apparently that lack of gray is a major problem for many spouses. Plus we never get on juries. You see, it all stems from the way we are trained and the way we work. If two equally qualified people have the same set of facts, they will inevitably arrive at the same conclusion. It’s simple. How could there be any other answer, except that one person may not have all the facts, or is simply not qualified.

In the past when I did woodworking, because of my engineering background I thought the way it was done was to make all the pieces to the dimensions on the plan and then just glue it together. Just the way all my projects are done at work, you know. Pretty simple stuff, just like any other problem. Only one right answer – how could it be anything else?

A few years ago, I went to a seminar where the instructor was building a Windsor chair. He started out by carving the seat, and then he did the most amazing thing, a thing which changed my woodworking life forever. He made the next piece to fit the first piece. And then he fitted every other piece to the ones he had already done.

Building every piece to fit the pieces already made was a revelation to me. I had never before done anything like that because it was critical to me that the next piece be made to the plan dimension. The guy who drew the plans must have known what he was doing, because people who don’t know what they are doing don’t draw plans. Surely he considered all the possible answers and materials (as I would have done) and then selected the best answer (as I would have done). No plan company would publish a plan unless the guy who drew it knew what he was doing. Besides, if it is not built by the plan, it will not look like the plan and that’s wrong. If you are not going to make it look like the plan, why did you buy the plan? You could have just sketched it on the back of an envelope and built that. I don’t like people who draw plans on the back of an envelope. When you draw plans on the back of an envelope, you get stuff that looks like the Dr. Seuss “Cat in the Hat” Juried Furniture Show and Exhibition, and they put pictures of your stuff in the artistic section at the back of those secondary woodworking magazines because they don’t know what else to call it, and people sit up late at night looking at the magazine and wondering what you were high on when you made that and how you kept from hurting yourself making something while you were loopy.

Then again, maybe not. As I get a little older, I am beginning to see maybe the way that guy built the Windsor chair might work. Maybe you can build each piece to the last one and have something decent when you finish. That chair certainly came out well. In fact, a few months ago I made a lap desk from a picture in a catalog and I didn’t have a plan for that. This getting older may not be so bad after all. Maybe next I can get on a jury.

I am a serious amateur woodworker and I live in Fairburn, south of Atlanta, with my wife and two cats. I am a civil engineer and a land surveyor by trade, or did I say that already?

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