I Always Make Mistakes in the Shop

MEK Woodworks - woodworking mistakes

By Matt Kenney

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Thankfully, calm and clear thought always saves the day

I’ve been making furniture for over 20 years, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Still, I make mistakes regularly. They’re unavoidable. Certainly, you can work in a way that minimizes the chances and severity of mistakes. In fact, I think learning to make furniture is a matter of developing methods of work that mitigate the opportunity for mistakes to happen and an understanding of joinery that allows you to focus on the steps critical to making it strong and attractive (when visible). However, regardless of your knowledge, experience, and skill level, you will make mistakes. What’s important is how you respond and recover.

The worst thing you can do when you make a mistake is get upset. Anger and agitation cloud the mind and you cannot think clearly when you are upset. When I make a new mistake (i.e., one I’ve not made before and don’t immediately know how to fix), or one that appears catastrophic, I take off my apron and walk out of the shop. I go do something else, like draw a robot or sit with my pup, Jo Jo. That gives me time to let go of the fact that I made a mistake and begin thinking about potential repairs. I never go with the first fix that comes to mind because it’s likely not the best one. So, I just think and think about all the things I could do, about what their strengths and weaknesses are. It takes time, but I’d rather spend time thinking than rush into a fix that just makes things worse.

A friend of mine once said to me that the solution is sometimes worse than the problem. I don’t recall exactly what I had screwed up, but his point was that just leaving the mistake was a better option than whatever fix I might use. I continue to follow that advice to this day. If I am going to undertake a repair, I want to make sure that it’s a better option than doing nothing. That’s another reason I move slowly and cautiously after a mistake.

Anyway, I was making some half-blind dovetail pins yesterday for four drawers and really screwed up. I had spent days thinking about how to cut them. Hand tools were not an option because it’s too slow, and I hate doing them that way anyway. That same friend told me how he does them, but I’d not done them his way before, so I opted for a technique I have used many times before. I clamp the drawer front vertically in a fixture and then rout the waste with a spiral bit.

MEK Woodworks - woodworking mistakes
The drawer front is clamped into this fixture for routing.

The router’s depth stop determines where the bottom of the tail socket is, and a fence clamped to the fixture’s horizontal surface allows me to cut a uniform and clean vertical wall in the socket. Generally, it works really well, and it takes just a few minutes to fit the tails when I am done. End grain does not put up the kind of resistance that face and edge grain do, so it’s not difficult to rout the sockets free hand. It does take a steady hand and some courage, but it’s not bad.

The benefits of this technique for half-blind pins are that it results in clean, accurate, and repeatable shoulders and front walls and is very fast. The risk is that you are using a router free hand, and routers can make really bad mistakes really fast. With experience and the confidence that comes with it, that risk is slight, and the benefits are more assured.

MEK Woodworks - woodworking mistakes
Typical results: I spent about 5 minutes cleaning the sockets before the tails fit perfectly.

But walnut, dear reader, is a dark wood, and it’s not always easy to see a pencil line on walnut. The built-in light on my router helps, but layout lines can still be hard to see. And that’s how I ended up routing into a pin.

MEK Woodworks - woodworking mistakes
Yeah. This is not good.

I sent a photo of my mistake to my buddy, another professional furniture maker, and he once again asked me if perhaps I’d rather collect stamps. After laughing at my stupidity and his lame joke, I got back to work. Thankfully, I knew just what to do to fix this mistake. I squared up the router cut, found the offcut from when I cut the front to length, made a plug, and glued it in. I then flushed it. Results below.

MEK Woodworks - woodworking mistakes

So, what am I getting at? Well, mistakes are not a big deal. Everyone makes them, so don’t get upset. Instead, slow down and think. If you are not sure how to repair it, Google it. I’m sure you’ll find many ways to repair it. Then think carefully about what you find online or in magazines. Choose the option that makes the best sense for the specifics of your situation. Also, realize and accept that the furniture you make isn’t defined by your mistakes. Nor by the repairs. When you’ve completed the piece and moved into the house, those things fade, and the joy and beauty of your work move to the fore.

One day, I think I’ll organize and discuss the general classes of repair types (for example: remake the part, reface the surface with a thin veneer, etc.), but that will take some time to do. Anyway, thanks for reading. Please leave a comment if you’ve got one, share this post, and consider a paid subscription.

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