I took a week long vacation so I could build a piece of furniture. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Yes, I have some tools. Yes, I’ve built a quick and dirty workbench out of 2x4s. But I’ve never been to a hardwood lumber yard, or spent over $100 on a saw blade… until now.
I’ve always wanted to make a real piece of furniture. I’ve fancied myself an artist/maker/engineer for most of my life. At work, I get to make a lot of virtual things—different user experiences for the 100s of thousands of salespeople that use our software everyday.
But that’s different. You can’t touch those with your hand, or smell them. They all fit into the size of a computer screen—none of them are human scale.
So I marked off my vacation week on the calendar, and got ready to build something. My wife had been talking about a new dining buffet and hutch for a while now. So I started searching around for plans. Lucky for me, ana-white.com had this beautiful design for a “shanty sideboard and hutch”. “Shanty” sounded like something I could pull off. Let’s do this!
To be fair, I started looking at designs a few weeks before my vacation. And after finding the ana-white plans, I decided to use this as an opportunity to do something else I’ve always wanted to do: learn SketchUp. Sketchupforwoodworkers.com is an amazing site. It can take you from SketchUp newbie to proficient furniture designer in just a few hours.
At first, I used it to reproduce Ana’s exact design. But soon after, I started to change things up—I made the sideboard deeper, the doors bigger, and altered the construction slightly in order to get a more uniform top for the sideboard. It was exciting, but familiar (I’ve been using computers my whole life). I felt like, “man I’m really making a lot of progress and I haven’t even started my make-ation”.
And, having just switched over to a Surface Book a few months ago, I got my first rush of having the right tool for the job, when it came to design. I pretty quickly became adept at switching from keyboard to touchpad to touchscreen, really moving around SketchUp and feeling like I could work inside the design itself. It made me heady with power—a mini taste of minority report.
In addition, before starting, I ordered a number of key items to make my work go more smoothly. I had been doing a LOT of reading online about woodworking and decided that I needed:
- A new Forrester 10” blade for my miter saw
- A new Freud 7 1/4” blade for my Skil saw
- Klingspor sanding discs for my orbital sander
- A few more Irwin clamps
- A Kreg jig for making pocket holes
And I knew I’d make use of a lot of the tools I already have:
- Craftsman 10” miter saw
- DeWalt contractor’s table saw
- An old Legend Skil saw from my father-in-law
- DeWalt cordless drills (along with a beautiful set of new bits that my wife bought me)
- Porter Cable Router
- Hitachi brad nailer
The night before my vacation started, I was so excited I could hardly sleep. The first thing I did when I woke up was to head over to Home Depot to buy a piece of plywood for a completely different build. What?! That’s right, I convinced myself that before starting on the buffet+hutch I would need to first build myself a miter saw stand. So that’s what I did:
And boy am I glad that I did. It gave me a chance to use all of my tools, many of which I hadn’t touched in months or years. It got me into the woodworking mindset, but on a project where mistakes were expected and allowed. It only took me a day or so to put together and ended up being extremely useful throughout my primary build (the dining sideboard).
At this point, I was feeling like I could make anything! But I was stuck without any lumber—my friend-with-a-pickup wasn’t free for another two days. But it was Fourth of July weekend, and there were parties to be enjoyed and drinks to be drunk. I’m so lucky to live in a little all-American beach town that takes the Fourth to heart.
After all the celebrations, I was ready to get down to business. On Tuesday morning, my friend Bob stopped by with his new pickup and we went to the local lumber yard. I thought I knew exactly what I was getting—red oak all the way. But minutes before I headed out, my wife asked if I was sure about red oak. Nope. I wasn’t. To be honest I’ve never cared for oak furniture. The only reason I was getting it was because it was one of the few choices of “real wood” (i.e. not pine) that I could find easily. And all my reading pointed to oak as “the woodworker’s wood”. But then I remembered—I’m allowed to have an opinion. And I don’t like the look of oak.
In the midst of confusion and revelation, my friend showed up and off we went. I was at a loss for what I was going to buy. But I had faith.
At the lumber yard, we looked over a handful of hardwood plywood options—much of the sideboard would be made of plywood covered with hardwood veneer, along with several solid wood frames for the sides and front. The birch plywood looked the nicest, so I went for it and loaded up three sheets into the truck. Next, all I had to do was find some solid birch boards for the front and sides. Surely they have birch. That’s a common sounding wood, isn’t it?
Nope. The closest thing they had was some green-looking poplar, and pine. But there was no turning back from hardwood now. So I left with just the plywood, and a fully unjustified trust that I’d be able to figure it out.
I went home, unloaded the plywood, and started calling around to other lumber stores. “Do you have birch 1x4s?” Nope. Nope. Nope. “Do you know anyone who might?” “Try Downe and Reader in Stoughton”. Jackpot! It’s an hour away, but at least there’s hope.
So I called them and spoke to a friendly enough fellow who did his best not to ridicule me when I asked if he carried birch 1x4s. “I assume you want 3/4 inch milled boards. Yes we have plenty of 4/4 birch stock. Come on down and pick out your boards and we can mill them for you and have them ready by 11a tomorrow.” I had a lot to learn about wood. And tomorrow’s already Wednesday (half way into my make-ation). But, I’m on a mission now to build a birch hutch. No quitting. No turning back. So I stopped stressing about how long things would take and embraced the experience. Seems like a great chance to learn something new.
And it was. An hour drive later, I found myself in hardwood lumber heaven. I was in a warehouse that seemed to stretch for a mile, filled with wood from around the world: Bubinga, African Mahogany, Zebrawood, Maple slabs, Alder, Rosewood, and of course… Birch.
Lesson 1: hardwood thickness is measured in 1/4s of an inch (not in the traditional 1×4, 2×4 dimensions of lumber you find at Home Depot). So a 1 inch thick piece of birch is known as 4/4 birch (and is actually a true 1-inch thick). A 2 inch thick piece would be known as 8/4 birch, and so on. Lesson 2: hardwood widths are not standard. They are determined by the width of the tree the board was cut from. You bring your tape measure with you (which luckily I had), and you measure the boards and pick the ones you want. Lesson 3: Hardwood is not priced in linear feet. It’s priced in a unit of volume known as board feet, where 1 board foot is the volume of a 1” thick (4/4) board that’s 12” wide and 12” long. So 12 feet of 10” wide 4/4 birch would be 10 board feet. And the same length and width of 8/4 birch would be 20 board feet.
The final piece of the puzzle was milling the wood. In the pictures you can see that the boards are very rough. And on top of that, my plans called for 3/4” thick boards, and these were 1” thick. Luckily this lumber yard also offers milling services. Tell them the thickness you’re looking for, and they’ll plane the boards down to size for you, making them beautifully smooth in the process. They’ll even put one straight edge down a side of each board to make it easier for you to cut straight small pieces from each board when you get back home.
Now I was armed with all the knowledge I needed to drop a bunch of money on nice hardwood that I really had no business working with. But that’s one of the key points of any meaningful project—taking a leap of faith and working outside your comfort zone.
Back home, I shared my adventure with my wife and daughters, and they graciously feigned enthusiasm. There wasn’t a ton I could do without those boards, but at least I could start to rip the plywood down to proper width pieces.
I fell asleep that night and dreamt of wood and gave thanks to the unfathomable forests of the world.
The next morning I laid plans with my wife, both for some “final” tweaks to the plans for the buffet and for a family adventure that day. After I picked up my freshly milled boards, I’d meet up with her, her step-dad, and the kids for lunch by the ocean. Beautiful. Lucky.
I left the boards in the car while we ate and spent the day at the harbor. When I got back, I noticed that one or two of my beautifully milled, flat boards were starting to bow. Maybe it’s because they were in a 95 degree car all day. Or maybe they would have bowed anyway. Who knows? (Actually, if you know, please tell me). But by the time I got them back home, I had way less usable wood that I though I did. Challenge. Frustration. Anger. Pain. A desire for things to be different than they are (I want straight boards, not bowed).
But I got past it (mostly), and started cutting these boards on the table saw. At first with horrible precision and lots of burnt edges. But soon practice brought more control, more accuracy, and less char. Each mess (a burnt edge, a not-straight cut, a warped board) caused me stress and discomfort. Made me want to avoid the discomfort. Made me ask why I’m doing this. And caused me to consider quitting. A pause reminded me that doing anything you don’t already know how to do is uncomfortable. The discomfort itself is not good or bad. It’s just not “normal”. Not mundane. Not something we’ve already acclimated to. Like all things, the discomfort is a mirror that reflects our perceptions, judgement, and attitude. Heavy? Interesting? Curious? Burdensome? Those carry emotion, want, like, and dislike. The actual discomfort itself is emotionless.
So I continued. And gained slightly more control. And produced slightly better cuts. And left slightly less char. And that’s what we call learning. And that was part of the experience too.
As I cut, some pieces of boards became less warped and I saved them. And some remained horribly twisted, and I discarded them. If I had a planer (or a handplane and lots more time), I could have saved them, but I don’t. And when I let go of the need to have everything work out perfectly (perfect cost, perfect timing, perfect appearance), then I found my flow again. Constraints are beautiful. Over-constraint is paralyzing.
Thursday morning. Fresh start. Time to get right to it and begin assembling one of the sides of the buffet. No problem. My plans are precise, down to the 1/8th of an inch. Let me just check in with my lovely wife on one minor detail—the trim that will go around the top and bottom of the sideboard.
Until now, I had considered the trim an afterthought. Let’s just figure out the rough dimensions of the trim, leave room for it, and then later on we can go to the magical moulding shop (that exists, right?) But my wife didn’t let me off the hook that easily, and rightfully so. “This is not an agile software project. You can’t easily refactor furniture after it’s built.” And she’s right. You can’t. (She’s often right, especially about things I should be slowing down on, and double especially about constructing physical objects, given her mechanical engineering degree).
So we started researching trim. And my eyes quickly glazed over. There are hundreds of trim profiles, thousands even. Some millwork shops go so far as to say, “sketch us what you want, and we can make it for you.” Paralyzed by choice. But I need it in birch, and I need it at a reasonable price, and I’d like it relatively soon. Back to reality. Even if you find a profile you like, it’s not cost-effective to have a shop custom mill a small batch for you in birch (and no shops seem to carry stock birch millwork). Saved by constraints. But our research turned up one reasonable thing we could do: make our own trim. I have a router. I had rigged up a router table the other day because I thought I’d need it, but I didn’t, but turns out I really did. And there are lots of router bits available to create all kinds of amazing trim.
So we shopped for bits, found a few we might like, and most importantly, agreed on the critical dimensions of the trim. Now I could assemble the sides. Not quite pure agile, but we definitely found the minimum path that could unblock the project.
I haven’t yet mentioned finishing (i.e. painting or staining or varnishing, or distressing, or…). Another “minor detail” that actually requires major thought and real skill. Birch, apparently, is hard to stain. Who knew? (Apparently lots of people on the internet knew, but I forgot to ask them). In hindsight, maple might’ve been a better choice for this piece. But damn the torpedoes! I picked up a few small cans of Old Masters stain and have created a few samples. Eventually we’ll pick out a finish.
And when we do, this buffet will be ready, because I’ve sanded the crap out of it. Each exposed edge gets an 80 grit, 120 grit, and 180 grit sanding (and some would say that’s not a full progression, and I should have more steps in between). At this point, I have a new appreciation for every piece of furniture I see. And I’m not even halfway through this project.
While stain samples are drying and being viewed inside under varying light conditions, with one eye open, then the other, then both, against a wall, beside a chair, next to a table, and against an old buffet that won’t even be in the room anymore, I’m planning my next move. The big one.
It’s time to actually put two piece of wood together! Are you as shocked as I am that this hasn’t happened yet? But it turns out that joining wood is actually only a small part of the experience known as woodworking.
So I dry fit the pieces together that make up each side. Perfect (ish). And I get the bottly of wood glue and my trusty clamps. A ton of glue, some slip-sliding of wood, and 8 clamps later, and my sides are glued up. Now the plan calls for some finishing nails as well. I’m drunk with power now, wield the nail gun and fire. Shit! I just needlessly put a nail hole into an exposed portion of one side piece. Luckily I caught myself before I banged out several more. I remembered that there will be trim covering two large portions of each side. Why not make sure my nail holes go underneath that trim. Brilliant! (But where were you 5 minutes ago when I had that itchy trigger finger?)
Buffet sides glued, nailed (mostly inconspicuously), clamped, and drying. Hell of a day!
It’s Friday and I’m nearing the end of my make-ation with nothing to show for it except a few clamped up sides. In what world was I thinking that a week was enough time to build this thing? But, no worries, I see expert makers mis-estimate effort every day at work. Beginner or expert, we’re all optimists about our ability to get shit done before we start.
I am adamant that I will not end the week without something that has a top and can stand on its own. Time to join together more wood! By this point in the project (and especially thanks to my pre-project miter table), I’ve learned that a tape measure is only useful for rough measurements. The best real-world measuring device is your wood itself (I mean your “lumber”, not your “wood”… you know what I mean. Don’t even get me started on caulk).
Back to business. If you trust that your tape measure will accurately tell you where to cut, then your trusting that your tape measure itself is accurate, that your previous measurements are accurate, that your prior cuts are consistent, and that the thickness of your wood is consistent. Turns out that you should trust none of those. But it’s okay. You can just decide to start by cutting one critical piece (in my case, the top of the buffet), and then use that to mark cuts on other pieces (like the lower shelf).
Long story short, mark some cuts, make some cuts, drill some pocket holes, carefully screw the sides to the top, carefully screw the bottom shelf to the sides, and voila!
You’ve got a completely un-square box with four sides. Mother @#^$ God*#^$ Son of a @&^(!
So many likely root causes: unsteady saw while cutting the plywood. A miter saw that’s not perfectly square (in spite of tediously squaring that blade). A mis-measurement somewhere. Who knows? But the point is … I gotta fix it. Right now (who knows why, but I got into a panic). So I took out the power sander and started taking down the width of one of the sides. After a bit, I put a scrap of wood up to simulate what the moulding would look like. Ugh… I’ve made it worse, not better.
Pause (This is training for life, self. Self, when you feel that anxious panicky need to fix things right now, that’s a signal that you should stop and not fix things right now). And with the pause came clarity. I could unscrew one of the sides from the top, back it up until it’s square, and re-attach it to the top. Sure I’ll have to trim the top back a bit to be flush with the side’s new position, and yes the overall cabinet will be 1/2 an inch shorter than the plan. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. ^$&# ‘em.
So now this beautiful, gigantic, smooth-sanded, albino open-sided box sits atop my makeshift assembly table/table saw infeed table. And in it’s nail-holed, slightly cracked, too-narrow, unfinished sort of way, it’s perfect.
Intuitively creating something you may need, without knowing exactly why, when, or how you’ll need it.
Moving effortlessly through life is really difficult. Better to stumble through it with ease.