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.

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Making drawers for console table

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Installed drawer slides and drawers into table

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Front of table with front panels put on drawers

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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.

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Duncan’s cherry console table all finished

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

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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.

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Drilled pilot holes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Table base glued up and clamped

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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 4 – Bottoms Up

This was my last week with Doug; I had many projects to finish up so the pressure was on. The thing I most wanted to finish was my table. I had my mortise and tenon joints finished and the base for my table all glued up. What I still needed to finish my tabletop and attach everything together.

I started by sanding the top and bottom of my table. It took a really long time to get off all the extra glue because I put so much on while gluing the boards for my top together. Once both sides were smooth I set it aside to work on getting my base ready to support it.

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Making corner braces

Doug had me make corner braces for extra support. I did this by cutting a board into triangles. I cut each one separately and slowly until it would approximately fit. Then I cut the tip off the triangles making a 90-degree angle. This should then fit snugly into the corner and around the leg, but I didn’t do the best job of making the 90-degree angles and some have big gaps between the leg and the brace. It doesn’t matter that much and won’t effect the strength. Each brace would get screwed onto the table base in three places. I measured and marked where the screws would go, one in the middle and two on each side.

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Drilled holes into the corner braces to prevent splitting while screwing them on

Then I drilled pilot holes in both the braces and the base. Maple is really dense and the grain can’t move out of the way for a screw so if you don’t drill a pilot hole it will split and crack. Next Doug helped me screw them together. At first I didn’t have very good control on how fast I drilled the screws in but after being scolded several times by Doug that I was going way to fast near the end I finally figured out how to press the trigger lightly and go slow.

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Base with corner braces

I only had a few steps left before my base was all done so to bring it one step closer I put two or three coats of finish on it throughout the course of a day.

In between the coats of finish I worked on my tabletop. On the table saw I cut it to it’s proper dimension. Then I wanted to chamfer the bottom edge. The first step was to take a sliding t-bevel and measure the angle I wanted and then draw it on the tabletop. Doug had me look at to make sure it was what I wanted. It took a few tries positioning it but I finally got it looking just the way I wanted.

Then I set up the table saw to cut it; I positioned the blade at an angle using the sliding t-bevel to make it the exact angle I wanted. Then I set the blade height. Doug wanted to do the first one to show me how and to make sure everything would go okay. After he ran it through he set it to the side to for me to look at and make sure I liked it; I did. Then he left me to cut the rest. In order to cut the right angle on the right edge I needed to have the bottom of the tabletop up. Doug had cut it properly but after looking it I got disoriented and forgot to flip it back over. I cut two sides before I realized. This was a total bummer. We looked at it and brainstormed all the options I had to salvage it. One option was to flip it over and have the bottom become the top and just recut the edge Doug had cut. I had spent so much time picking and laying out the boards just right to make the top look good that I really didn’t like this option; the bottom looked hideous and there was no way I was going to look at it for forever. The option I decided to go with was to square off the two edges I messed up and start all over with them. This meant my tabletop would be smaller and the overhang would be less. It wouldn’t look as good as my original dimensions but it would still fit on and look okay. So I began to recut and this time around I was a lot more conscious. Doug thought this process would only take 20 to 30 minutes to finish but instead it took all day. I felt a little bummed but Doug and his wife, Sandy, gave me words of encouragement to help me see it in a positive way. Sandy told me it was better this way because every mistake is a lesson I otherwise wouldn’t have lear ned. Doug told me my table won’t be as I designed it but when I bring it home I will fall in love with it and forget about my mistakes – I shouldn’t bring home any bad feelings just a lot of experience. They both told me exactly what I needed to hear.

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Chamfered table top

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Making grooves with a router for table top fasteners

When the finish on the base was completely dry Doug showed me how to make grooves with a router on the inside of the aprons that table top fasteners would fit in. One end of the fastener fits in the groove at the inside top of the apron and the other end gets screwed onto the tabletop. This pulls them together reducing its independent expansion and contraction. Doug made three grooves then I made three grooves.

Finally I was ready to do the final steps to finish the base. I sanded it smooth with a 400 grit sandpaper then buffed it with a special Duffy-like mix that Doug makes using some sort of abrasive powder and mineral oil. It essentially acts as really fine sandpaper while oiling it at the same time; this gives it a nice glossy sheen to it as well as making it so soft and smooth. I also did this to the top when it was dry too.

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Screwing the table base to the top with table top fasteners

Now I had a finished base and a finished top and the very last step was to screw them together. I laid the top upside down on a table then put the base upside down on top of that. I lined it up as best as I could; I measured the distance between the legs and the edge of the top trying to get them as even. Then I grabbed the table top fasteners and put them in the grooves pulling them out just a tiny bit. Next I drilled the pilot holes making sure not to go through the other side, and then I finally put the screws in. Tada! It was finished.  It looked nice.

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Finished table

I had a lot of ups and downs throughout this process and I made plenty of mistakes, but as Sandy stated earlier, they were all important lessons. From beginning to end I learned so much. I managed to finish my table on my last day, and although some parts didn’t go smoothly my table worked out. When I bring my table home I am not only bringing my table I am bringing home lessons, experience, knowledge, perseverance, hard work, the product of my creativity and the work of my own hands. Overall, I am proud of myself and the hard work I put into this. I am grateful to Doug for all his time, knowledge, patience, help, and allowing me into his space; I couldn’t have done it without that.

What I Bring to the Table – Part 3 – Don’t Give Me Any Lip

My tabletop is all glued up and my mortises are almost done. Next it was time to make the tenons on the aprons that would go all the way around the table under the top. The tenoned aprons add extra strength and support to the table making it more rigid and sturdy. I had already squared and cut the boards, and the dimensions for the tenons had been pre defined in order to mark the mortises.

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Using tenoning jig to make tenons on my table aprons

I used the table saw with a tenoning jig (the same device I used to make the slip feather joints for the wooden trays). Doug helped me set the blade to the right height and the fence to the right distance from the blade. I clamped the boards in one at a time and ran each side of each end through the saw slowly.

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Little flappy pieces on each side of the tenon

This left little flappy pieces on each side of the tenon. To cut those off I set the blade just below the tenon and used a miter gauge to push the board through (I was cross cutting the wood with the width of the board greater than the length making this a dangerous maneuver without using the miter gauge to hold the board in place).

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Using a miter gauge to cut flaps off tenon

We made one tenon then used it to test the miters to make sure they would fit. All but one fit. One would need to be made bigger due to the mortise being a bit on the wide side.

Also using the miter gauge I cut little indents into each side of the tenons and then used the band saw to cut from the end to the indents making the tenons smaller all around than the apron.

Once all the tenons were made it was time to clean out the mortises all the way. I decided which tenons would go in what mortises then marked them with letters to keep track of them. One at a time I chiseled out the excess wood on the inside of the mortises checking often how the matching tenon fit.

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Cutting miter joints on the ends of my tenons

Doug had me make the tenons such that they would come together in a miter joint inside the mortise. This would give an extra gluing surface making the whole joint stronger. The tenons were longer than the depth of the mortises so once I had them all fitting so the tenon would hit the bottom of the mortise it was time to cut the miters. I did this one small cut at a time. I starting long then cut the miters down slowly checking them in the mortise each time until the shoulder of the apron fit flush against the leg.

One of my mortis joints was a little tight and after testing the tenon I tried to pull them apart. I rocked them back and forth and pulled and pulled but they wouldn’t budge. So with all of my weight over the mortise I held it down with one hand and with the other hand I pulled on the tenon with all my strength. Then WHAM, the tenon yanked free and slammed right into my face. For a split second I witnessed my body’s automatic fight or flight response take hold. Adrenaline kicked in and my muscles tensed; I was ready to attack whatever hurt me. Finally I came to my senses and realized my pain was self inflicted and there was no external threat. I was then able to calm down and asses the damage… my lip was swollen and sore, it had been cut on the inside as well as bleeding from a gash above my upper lip. I checked my teeth; they were still there and intact. Doug had gone inside his house a little while ago so I grabbed a tissue and headed in to tell him. His wife got me some ice and some gel to put on it. I left a little early that day to go home and nurse my wound. I was just really grateful that I had hit myself in the face with a piece of wood instead of misplacing my hand near a saw. The damage was minimal and would heal. This was just a lesson on how it is so important to pay attention to what you’re doing, where you’re body is, what the dangers are, and how to make it safe.

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My swollen and split lip

Though my lip was still sore and swollen I went to the shop the next day and finished my mortise and tenons. And when they were all done I got to have a fulfilling moment when doing a dry fit of my table base. Doug helped me do this to make sure everything went together tightly with no gaps and aligned properly. I got to step back and look at the product of all my hard work so far. I still have a lot more to do but my table was taking form; it was becoming real and tangible.

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Using a ruler and a clamp to make an arch in my aprons

I wanted to give the bottoms of my aprons and arch, so after making sure everything went together well Doug showed me a brilliant, easy way to make a perfect arch. He took a long ruler and put it in a clamp set to a shorter length than the ruler. This made a perfect, even arch which I was able to trace onto each apron. Then I took the aprons over to the band saw the cut as accurately as possible without touching the line I drew. Then I used the orbital sander to smooth the arches out and sand all the surfaces of the legs and the aprons.

Finally everything for the base was finished and ready to glue up. I did one last dry fit which I struggled with a bit on my own. To me everything seemed to fit well so I got Doug to help me glue it all up. This was stressful! I guess it didn’t fit as well as I thought because every joint we put together Doug commented on how it wasn’t fitting well. Then we checked that everything was square and measured the distance between the legs. The distance between the top of the legs and the bottom was off, so for some we clamped them closer and for others we stuck pieces of wood in between to push them apart. When we were finished Doug said, “That was not an easy glue up. It wasn’t the hardest I’ve done but it wasn’t easy.” Next time I will make sure to check my dry fit better so I can fix any problems before putting on the glue when there is no longer time to fix anything.

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My table base all glued up and clamped

There it was, my base all glued up. What an accomplishment! It wasn’t perfect and my table wasn’t finished but I am now so much closer. I had setbacks, frustrations, and an injury but I worked through them and will continue to do so. I now have only one more week left, let’s see if I can finish everything.

What I Bring to the Table – Part 2 – One by One

Now things start to get exciting with my table. It is time to make the mortise and tenons.

The first step was to mark out my mortises. I had to stay home one afternoon so Doug sent this home with me for homework. This time I was smart enough to bring measuring instruments home with me so I didn’t have the same problem as last time. He showed me how to do the first one and walked me through the measurements and how to accurately mark my mortise as he drew on one of the legs. When he was finished he erased all he had drawn so I could start fresh.

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Marking my mortises

When I got home I struggled for a moment with my brain to remember the dimensions Doug had so clearly laid out.  Slowly it came back. I started by picking out the worst looking ends (the ends with the most chip out) to be the top, and of those, the two worst sides of each board to be where my mortises would go; that way the most awful looking parts of the legs wouldn’t be seen.  The first one took the longest but once I had my first one marked out the others went quickly.  When I brought them in the next day, Doug said they weren’t perfect but they were good enough.

Next I drew a line down the center of my marked mortises that I would use as a guide to drill out as much as I could. Doug set up the drill press and warned me that the bit he put on wasn’t the best and may not work. He was right. The bit would clog right away and drilling would have taken forever so he put on a new bit. This one wasn’t ideal but at least it would work, however, it was pretty sloppy. No matter how hard I held the board down it would move and and the drill would migrate outside my mortise lines. I felt better that it happened for Doug too. I wasn’t able to drill out as much as I would have liked and that meant I would have to chisel out more by hand later.

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Drilling my mortises

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Chiseling my mortises

Once the drilling was finished it was time to hand chisel out the rest. This was tiring work. I remember making the mortises for the chest I made at Duncan’s and the pine was so easy to cut through, maple is so hard! I used a wooden mallet, mortising chisels made out of really hard steel for the heavy-duty stuff and Japanese chisels for smaller less hardcore work. I whacked and I whacked and I scraped and I scraped and one by one I got my mortises to an approximate finished stage; I would do the finishing touches on them once I had the tenons made.

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Mostly finished mortises

I inspected my work then turned to Doug and said, “I feel like this is the ugliest thing I have ever made.” To which he responded, “Welcome to working with maple.” We then had a discussion on how I felt I was doing and why. I haven’t really done this before so I didn’t really know what I was doing and every time I dug my chisel in I just hoped for the best. Doug kept reassuring me that they were fine mortises but because of that lack of experience and not knowing what I was doing I felt like it was just luck. It’s true that they didn’t look that great and a major reason why is because maple is hard to work with, the grain was convoluted, and the drilling didn’t go that well. But like I said, my mortises turned out all right. I wasn’t really putting myself down; I knew I was a beginner and that the more I do the more comfortable, confident, and knowledgeable I will become. If I keep going I won’t be able to pin it on luck, I’ll have experience and understanding to back me up.

I set my mortise joints aside and went to work on the table top for a break. My first task was to figure out which board I wanted where. This board here, that board there, flip them over, rearrange them, put them back. I tried every possible combination a couple of times before deciding on one of my earliest combinations – it always seems to work like that. Then I marked the boards so I could easily line them up later when gluing or if they got moved around.

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Ready to glue up the table top

Then it was time to do a dry fit to make sure everything would fit tight and flush. I lined my boards up and clamped them tight together. Good thing for the dry run, a couple of the edges weren’t completely flat and I had to run them through the jointer. Then I did another dry fit, this time they were perfect. Doug had something he needed to get done so he said if I was feeling brave I could attempt to do the glue up alone. I accepted the challenge and gathered the needed supplies. I had the clamps set up, the boards positioned, and the glue in hand, I was ready. On your marks, get set, GO! As fast as I could I squeezed and slathered glue on each edge, laid the boards flat, and matched them up. Then I put the final clamp on top and cranked them tight. The glue was slippery and the boards kept moving out of place. I would move them back into place and crank the clamps a little tighter only to have them move again. I just kept realigning them and cranking a little tighter until they were finally together. I used far more glue than I needed and it oozed and dripped from the joints. I grabbed a piece of paper and attempted to scrape all the excess off. Pretty soon I was covered in glue too. After I wiped my hands clean Doug came over to look at how I did. He congratulated me saying it was no easy feat to do glue up job alone.

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Tabletop glued and clamped

Slowly and steadily I’m working my way towards a complete table, though I still have quite a ways to go. My days are also split between working on my table and helping Doug. All in all things are going well and I’m excited!

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.

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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.