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.

What I Bring to the Table – Part 1 – Well Begun is Half Done

I finally started my table. Doug had me start by taking my scale drawing home and making an actual size drawing of it on a large piece of paper. When I got home I realized I didn’t have any proper equipment for drawing so I improvised. I had a sewing measuring tape, a 12in ruler and a piece of paper with a 90-degree angle. It took longer and was a little more difficult to do than if I had the proper equipment but I got the job done. The point of that exercise was to see how the proportions looked in the actual size. Doug and I both agreed that the legs looked long and would either need to be shortened or have a cross bar or shelf added.

The next step was to pick out the type of wood I wanted to make my table out of. Doug showed me the different kinds of wood he had available that I could use and I chose maple.

Doug then grabbed me a few pieces of paper and had me make an exact cut list using the lengths and widths from my design. With that I made an actual cut list by adding on a little extra to the lengths and widths. Then I sorted through his large stash of maple to pick out boards I could use based on that cut list.


Cut List

After I had all the boards picked out Doug taught me how to calculate the approximate board footage. One board foot is equal to 1ft x 1ft x 1in. The process of calculating it took me far to long to do. It was pretty embarrassing how ridiculously slow and poor my math skills were. Doug kept trying to make me feel better by saying it’s just not something I’ve done before and the more I do it the faster I’ll get but really, this was some pretty basic math and I had a total brain fart. All he had me do was take the length and width of the boards and figure out approximately how many square feet each one was, I was even able to round to make it easier. Then multiply that by the thickness of the board. My brain just didn’t want to work that day and it took me 30 minutes to figure it all out.

Doug and I discussed the importance of being able to calculate the approximate board footage of something. He says he uses on occasion to figure out how much wood to order or how much wood will cost. It may not be used on a daily basis but it is definitely worthwhile to know. There are phone apps that can calculate it but it’s important to know how to do it without relying on technology. There are many methods for calculating this but Doug’s way is a rough estimate that will get you in the ballpark quickly… if you get used to it and don’t have a brain fart like I did.

Once all that was done it was time to s4s (surface 4 sides). This means getting all four sides smooth, straight, and square.  This was accomplished by using a jointer, a planer, a table saw, and a chop saw.

Doug told me not to put the boards for the table legs through the planer because the grain was all over the place but I forgot and ran it through accidentally. This was a big mistake. The ends of the boards chipped off in huge chunks. Another mistake I made was that I had already cut them to length; I should have waited and that way I would have given myself room for mistakes like this. The only way to fix it was to cut the ends off. This actually worked out for the better in the long run because we did think they were long and looked funny. By cutting them it made the proportions better. But next time I know better… I hope.

I made another mistake that day. For my tabletop I was going to need to cut one long board into four separate pieces that would then be glued together to make one big 18in x 18in piece. I wanted all four pieces to be the same size. I measured the width of the board and calculated how much I would need to cut off of each. Doug told me to only cut two to size and leave the other two for the outside pieces so I could put clamps on then to glue up without worrying about denting them, then cut it later. But again I forgot. I cut three before Doug realized and scolded me. Again, it was not a catastrophic mistake; it just meant I would have to put an extra piece of wood on one side to protect my tabletop from the clamps. It just adds an extra step to a time sensitive task.

I know there’s a saying, “Well begun is half done”. In this case, I didn’t have all that great of a beginning, but hopefully it will pick up and get better. Keep reading to find out.

A Week of Many Projects


Helping Doug and his wife Sandy create a display for their booth

Last week was a bit shorter than usual. Over the weekend Doug had attended an artisan craft fair where he sold his work at a booth. He asked me to come help him at the booth because he thought his wife had to be somewhere else. It turned out that she was able to stay so there wasn’t much need for me. I stood with them at the booth for a short while anyway. Unfortunately no sales took place during the time I was there; I was really looking forward to seeing a transaction happen. Doug put a lot of work into the fair by preparing the items and spending the entire weekend selling them. He did really well overall and got second place for his beautiful display. So he decided to take Monday off to rest, which meant I got Monday off too. Well, sort of…

For my day off, Doug gave me the task of designing a small table that I will be building. I had an idea of what I wanted the table to look like so I started playing around with sketches. I designed a nightstand.

The next day I brought my design in to show Doug. He gave me a few ideas and standards that would make my table better proportioned and stable. He then showed me how to make a scale drawing with an architects ruler then had me make a scale drawing of my table for homework.


Scale Drawing of nightstand

I worked on a lot of different projects over the week. I worked a bit more on the trays, I helped build some quick cabinets for Doug to transport and display some of his products, I changed the table saw blade to a dado blade, and I milled the boarders for table runners.


Quick cabinet for storage and display of products


Changing the table saw blade


Putting on a dado blade

The dado grooves I made for the table runner boarders this time didn’t work out so well. I had made them before, the same exact things made the same exact way but this time something really wasn’t working out. The board was lifting up and not cutting as deep as it needed to be and was just awful. Doug thought it might be his blade becoming dull so he decided to give it a try himself. It worked perfectly. So the conclusion was it was something I was doing wrong. However, from watching Doug do it I realized that he was putting pressure on the board right above the blade and he had me keep my hand at a distance. I pointed this out and he said it was better for me to be on the safe side. Doug is an very experienced woodworker and therefore the line between safe and unsafe is quite different from where mine is as a beginner.  This just means I need to find alternative ways to get the job done well and yet maintain that level of safety. I got the done, not the best job but they’ll do. Next time I’ll just have to play around with the process and find something that works for me. I’m still baffled as to how I managed to make them the first time without messing up though.

I did a lot of odd jobs this week but it is always a learning experience especially because I’m starting from the beginning. I have very little experience with woodworking and tools and most of the experience I have is recent so every bit I do is important. No matter how big or small, simple or complicated, brief or repetitive the task, it is training my muscles and my mind for this kind of work.