Aim for Perfection

Working with Duncan I get to experience something amazing. Something I really don’t ever get to see. Something almost no one I know practices… patience, mindfulness, being present, and really putting himself into his work. It has been amazing working alongside Duncan.

As Duncan worked steadily on the cherry console table I helped with some more small parts of it like making and installing the drawers and sanding. I was really nervous working on Duncan’s project for a client. When I work on a project for myself and I mess up I just have to deal with it and it’s okay. But helping Duncan make something that someone expects to be very high quality and they are going to pay really good money for it changes everything. I felt like I couldn’t mess up, there was no margin for error. Duncan, however, gave me small, manageable tasks that weren’t critical. He also had such a great attitude towards this, he told me on several occasions that, “It’s not a big deal, if it doesn’t work we can just cut a few more pieces and redo it.” This took a lot of pressure off and felt good. Thank goodness I didn’t make any really big mistakes, although, of course, there were a few.


Making drawers for console table


Installed drawer slides and drawers into table


Front of table with front panels put on drawers


Duncan giving the front of the shelf a curve

One of my favorite moments so far was watching Duncan build the bottom shelf for the table. Originally Duncan had designed the bottom shelf to have small curves on each end. Once he had most of the table put together he decided that design was too clunky for it. So he redesigned it. When he presented the new ideas to the clients they didn’t like it. They had completely opposite views; the husband thought it looked to rustic and the wife thought it looked too modern. After spending some time with them working through different options they finally came to a decision. The shelf would now have a concave curve on the front edge and all the other edges would be straight.

I watched Duncan trace a curve on a nice piece of cherry plywood and cut it out. To cover up the plywood edge a thin strip of cherry wood would get glued on. Duncan found a piece and bent it along the curve. To me it looked like the strip fit pretty well along the cut. Duncan, however, knew it could fit better. In that moment, watching him sand down a bump here and a bump there, I realized something, a master doesn’t necessarily get things perfect the first time around but they have enough patience to keep going, to continue refining it. In so many things that I do I often tell myself, “It’s good enough.” I say this long before it’s actually good enough; I give up too soon. Duncan knows that neither he, nor anyone, can ever make anything truly perfect but I’ve heard him say several times that, “If you don’t aim for perfection you have no chance of ever getting close.” There are many differences between a beginner and a master and this to me is one of them. Once you learn how to properly use the tools it becomes a matter of taking your work to that refined level that defines mastery.

Finally Duncan, with a little help from me, finished the table. It looks amazing; it is beautiful and elegant. All that’s left is to have the top and shelf lacquered and the base oiled.


Duncan’s cherry console table all finished

“The Master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried.” – Stephen McCranie


Back at Duncan’s

My two-month internship ended with Doug Adams and I’m now going back to Duncan MacMaster’s for one more month long internship. This will be my last internship while I am in school.

My first day back at Duncan’s was relaxing and short. It was just before Thanksgiving break so we spent the time catching up and discussing the upcoming projects. I told him all the things I had done and learned at Doug’s. Then Duncan showed me the projects he will be doing and the things I will get to help him with. One the biggest project I will be helping with is a console table made out of cherry for a local costumer who wants it before Christmas. Another project is a small Japanese style altar table for another local customer.

The first project Duncan gave me when I came in the next week was to work on the Japanese style alter table. Duncan had already started and mostly finished the little table. The top is a beautiful, old, odd shaped piece of wood the clients had found years ago. They wanted Duncan to make a Japanese alter table out of it for them. Duncan designed a square base to hold the beautiful piece of wood. He cut the top two inches or so off the base so an inner box could be attached allowing the top to slide on and off if needed.

The first step was to drill pilot holes in the top of the base where it would eventually be screwed onto the tabletop. I started by measuring and marking where the holes should go and set up a fence on the drill press so the piece would stay in place while drilling. Using a countersink drill bit I drilled the holes.


Drilled pilot holes


Inner box for alter table table base

Next I measured and cut the pieces for the inner box. Before gluing them up I double checked to make sure they all fit properly inside the top of the base. Then I glued the pieces together and one again made sure they fit properly into the base. After that I glued the inner box to the top of the base, clamped them, and set it aside to dry. The box that I glued inside the top of the base will slip into the bottom of the base and eventually be held on with wooden pegs.


Inner box glued and clamped into Japanese alter table base

Meanwhile, Duncan had started the cherry console table. He had the top finished and the pieces for the legs, aprons, and drawer fronts cut. He had also partially cut the mortises in the legs using the table saw. This assured that the mortises would be perfectly straight and clean. But, due to the saw blade being round there was a little wood near the bottom of the mortise that didn’t get cut. My next assigned job was to finish the mortises and get them fully cleaned out. First I used the drill press to clean out as much as possible. This was fairly quick and easy because I only needed to make a few holes before I reached the point where the table saw had already cut. One I got to that point I could pop out the inner pieces of wood.


Mortises cut on table saw and drilled on drill press

Next, Duncan handed me an assortment of Japanese chisels, each one allowing me to more easily work on different aspects of the mortise. I got the mortises cleaned out but detail work would need to be done once the tenons were finished and matched to the proper mortise to ensure as close to a perfect fit as possible.


Mortises cleaned out with Japanese chisels

Duncan got the tenons cut to proper size on the table saw and handed them to me to cut a miter joint on the end of each. I made certain to cut them all the correct way.

Once the mortises were finished Duncan was able to taper the legs and fit the tenons on. Duncan had to hand plane a few areas on the legs to make the apron fit flush against them.

Next we sanded the legs. Duncan had me hand sand the top of the legs in such a way to keep the angle sharp where the legs taper off; if a pad sander were used on that area that angle would have rounded.

The next step I helped Duncan with was gluing the mortise and tenons together. Duncan had cut grooves out of a lip on then underside of the tabletop where the legs would fit. With the tabletop flipped upside down Duncan put all the pieces in their place and we did a dry fit making sure everything fit perfectly.

I still find glue ups to be stressful. First of all when you put the glue on you have to go as fast as possible. I am still very slow at this part for some reason. I had glued only a few surfaces on two mortises in the same time it took Duncan to glue all the tenons and the other two mortises. And secondly, although we had everything fitting perfectly for the dry run once the glue was on and the clock was ticking the pieces suddenly didn’t want to fit together. One of the legs wouldn’t go on all the way so Duncan whacked it several times with a hammer. This produced one of the loudest sounds I had heard up close; my ears were ringing. This wasn’t working so Duncan grabbed a large clamp and cranked it until the leg finally popped into place. Then we took smaller clamps and quickly popped all the joints together putting clamps on and taking them off and readjusting them until all the pieces finally popped together. Once everything fit we took all the clamps off and reclamped it in such a way to pull the mortise joints in tight onto the tenons.


Table base glued up and clamped


The “boxes” I made to go in-between the drawers

Once the joints had dried we unclamped it and I moved onto my next task; I was to make boxes that would fill in the space around the drawers. Duncan had already cut the long pieces so I measured and marked the short pieces that were still needed and cut them to size. I did this slowly cutting a little off at a time to make sure all the pieces came out the same size. Then I measured and marked where the screws should go on the correct boards then I drilled the pilot holes. Next I glued and clamped the pieces making sure to make them flush with each other. Then using the same pilot holes I had already drilled into some of the boards I now used them to drill into the other boards they are now attached to. Then I screwed the pieces together and unclamped them. Then I checked that they fit properly on the underside of the table.

It’s been a really good first week back. It’s been interesting and fascinating to see the way Duncan designs and builds furniture. He thinks about all the aspects of the function of the piece of furniture and incorporates supports where needed. He makes furniture to last and he puts his very best into it.

From Start to Finish – Part 2

Over the past couple weeks I have been working on and off towards finishing the trays. A lot has been done since my part 1 post.

After we had all the sides cut to length and the miters made, the next step was to decide what type of handles the trays would have. Doug wanted some of his to have routed handles and some with cherry handles. I decided I would do the same.


Doug’s routed tray handles

We set up the router and Doug showed me how to make the handles. Instead of having my handles go only half way through the board I wanted them to go all the way through. Doug said that was usually done another way but since we had the router set up we could figure out how to make it happen with the router. Doug set up two boards on either side of the router spaced just wide enough for the tray side to fit. This would keep me safe and keep my board straight giving it a nice even cut. Doug tried it first to see how it would work. Then I did a few practice runs before starting on the real pieces. It worked!


Hand routing the inside of my handles

After that I used a handheld router to round the inside of my handles and then sanded them smooth.


Drilling holes to screw on the tray handles

Doug then designed the shape of the cherry handles and figured out their dimensions. With that information, I marked on the boards where to drill holes that would be used to screw the handles on. Then I used the drill press to drill the holes. I also used the drill press with a plug cutter bit to make plugs that would cover the screw and fill the hole.


Making wood plugs

Once the holes were finished it was time to put finish on the inside of the boards. The outside will get finished later. I really enjoyed this process. It was calming for me and all my attention was on what I was doing. I found that if I held the board up to the light while I as putting the finish on I could see the spots that I missed easily. This allowed me to get nice, even coats.

About halfway through putting on the second coat I went to move the can to a closer spot and it slipped right out of my hand. It landed upside down and half of what was in the can spilled out and rapidly spread into a good sized pool. I walked over to Doug with a very ashamed look and told him. He acted quickly. He grabbed some rags and sawdust. I wiped up as much as I could then Doug sprinkled sawdust around to soak up the rest. I wiped that up and we repeated the process. We got it cleaned up to the point that you could barely see where it spilled. I felt so bad and Doug told me a story to make me feel better of a time he spilled a gallon of finish. It made me feel a bit better but I took down the info of what kind of what type of finish it was and surprised him a few days later with a new can of finish.


Trays glued up using block and string method

When the finish was dry I finally got to glue the trays together. I did a few practice ones before making the three trays requested by Doug’s former customer. First I would put glue in dado joint then on the mitered edges then fit the pieces around the plywood panel making sure that the joints were tight and the inside of the corners lined up. Then I used a block and string method to hold the joints together and apply pressure while drying. I found that doing a dry run before gluing up avoided much difficulty. Every time I would skip the dry run and go right to gluing the pieces would never fit together and I would have to frantically try to manhandle (or should I say womanhandle) and hammer them together before the glue set. Once they were together I would lay the trays on a flat surface to make sure they didn’t rock at all.


Angled table saw blade

The next step was to make the cherry handles. Doug showed me where his cherry wood stash was located and we picked out the boards we would use. Then we ripped it on the table saw to get it the right width. Doug designed the handles to be tapered inward on all four sides. That could be accomplished for the long sides on the table saw. I never knew this but apparently the blade can be rotated in to cut at an angle. Doug explained how this maneuver could be unsafe and what I could do to stay safe. We started with the blade relatively upright and moved it in gradually until the amount of taper was just right.

After that, the outer edge of the board was rounded with a router. Then we moved to the chop saw to cut the remaining handles to the right length at a slight angle. To get a straight downward cut, because the board is tapered, Doug stacked a few pieces of veneer to prop up the low end.


Cherry handles cut to size


Doug’s finished cherry handles

Once the handles were cut to size it was time to sand them. I saw that Doug used the belt sander to sand off the sharp corners and round the side edges of the handles but must have missed what he did after that. I looked at the handles he had finished and went to the belt sander to finish the rest. I tried so hard to make mine look like his but I couldn’t. I tried and I tried but it just didn’t look as smooth and perfect as his. Finally I gave Doug a look of desperation and he came over with a kind of “did you really mess this up” expression on his face. I told him that I was using the belt sander and I just couldn’t get mine to look as good and smooth as his. He laughed and told me he got the handle to that point through a series of three stages. First he used to belt sander to get the basic shape then the orbital sander to smooth it out and round it further, and finally he hand sanded it a little to top it off. Ah ha! That’s how he got it so nice. I felt much more confident about my ability after that.

I quickly finished the rest of the handles on belt sander then moved on to the orbital sander. Doug told me it was a little awkward at first but he had gotten used to sanding rounded edges with the orbital sander so I gave it a try. It took a short bit to get used to but it wasn’t bad. My hand got tired pretty fast so I switched hands and kept going. Woodworking is helping me become ambidextrous; sometimes I need to use my non-dominant hand to do things and now it’s becoming more coordinated. However, it’s interesting that the technique I use is different for each hand. What works for one doesn’t work for the other, they each have a mind of their own (or a different brain hemisphere).I got the handles as close to done as I could with the orbital sander then set them aside to be hand sanded at a later time.


Doug showing me hot to make a slip feather joint

Next, Doug taught me how to make a slip feather joint. This is done by cutting a kerf into a miter joint and gluing a piece of wood into it. This adds extra strength to the joint. Guess which tool we used for this? Yep, the table saw; this is an amazing multipurpose tool. There is a special jig that a piece (in this case a tray) clamps into at a 45 degree angle. It fits into a track on the table saw so all a person needs to do it push it slowly forward and pull it back. I made two cuts on each corner; one near the top of the tray and one near the bottom of the tray. Then I glued the slip feathers that Doug made into the kerf cut.


Kerf cut for slip feathers


Making slip feather joints on the corners of the trays

When they were dry I used the band saw to cut the excess off. The goal is to get as close to the edge of the tray as possible without cutting into the tray. I tried my very best but my cuts were either far from the edge or I would accidentally cut into the tray. Neither was a big deal it just means I would need to sand more.

The last step I completed on the trays was to sand all the outside edges flat and smooth. Making sure the feathers were completely smooth and didn’t stick out.

I still haven’t finished the trays yet; there is just so much other stuff to do in the shop for Doug. I need to finish hand sanding the handles, put them on the trays, and put the finish on.

Stay tuned for more of my adventures in helping Doug, building a table, and finishing the trays.