A Pile of Wood and a Plan
It all started with a pile of wood.
That, and a plan. Mine looked like this, envisioned as best I could using Adobe Illustrator to anticipate just how everything would go together.
A pile of wood and a plan is not far off of that other aphorism, a wing and a prayer. That’s because it is easy to picture something completed. What is not easy, is to anticipate the many things that can come into play as you roll out that plan towards completion. There are three things that make up for a good finished item and they are all important. First thing is a well-thought-out design which is necessary for all the obvious reasons. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t know what you are aiming for. Second thing is solid procedure. Just how you are going to put two-and-two together. Third thing is a good finish. Many projects have come to naught in the finishing stages. The very real fact is that you could botch a project with an amateurish finish. For that reason, it is most important to not get ahead of yourself. It ain’t over, until it’s over.
Tackling a big project means a few course corrects, and likely a few do-overs. It is always wise procedure when milling parts, to make a few extra so that you won’t have to try to replicate a tablesaw setup on down the road when you screw up a part in one of the million ways that can happen. Humans being what they are, it is also possible to add to the complications with your own unnecessary challenges. I wanted to make a wall unit using solid wood, which means, raw and unfinished. There is a reason you can buy pre-finished materials from the box store - ease and convenience. If you are willing to roll the dice and forego that, all bets are off. You will have to live with all the work you chose to add on in realtime.
Then there is well built. How something is constructed. Any structure comes together in one of three ways, a fastener, adhesives, or a woodworking joint like a dovetail. It is usual to perhaps have two out of three, but rare to have three out of three simply because it is overkill. Of course, I chose to make my unit using glue, fasteners, and joints. No need for fancy joints in that case, you don’t have to dovetail every corner. I used housing joints, whereby a component locks into a negative space that fits to it, like a puzzle. Housing joints shift the bearing weight onto the structure itself which is the optimal arrangement. The fasteners I used are also unusual, I chose to forego screws and went instead with something called Miller Dowels. They are angled and stepped dowels driven in at the joint with glue, then sawed off and sanded flush. There is something about solid wood construction, that is satisfying when it is just that, wood on wood. It is something akin to the old fashioned idea of pegging a joint.
There is also the matter of details, how a piece will resolve on its crown, transition points, and base. You don’t have to go fancy here - even an unembellished moulding is like wearing a tie to dinner. It gives a refined sense of completion that adds beauty to function. My mouldings are stacked. It means you combine some profiles by glueing them up in a wood sandwich. It gives you combinations unavailable at a box store. If you are aiming for rare and different, this is one small detail that will get you there. My mouldings feature rounded edges, because I planned to paint the units and I wanted soft transitions that would not chip easily.
Small details will also fall into one of either camps, traditional or modern. There can be nice things about both. You can also aim for a hybrid approach which is what I did. Clean lines, hidden European hinges and traditional face frames. The easiest door to fit is an overlay door. There are no tolerances to worry about and all is forgiving because the door simply overlaps the front. No fitting involved. I chose to challenge myself by making mine flush and inset. That means a very fine 1/16” gap around the doors as they meet the frames. It takes you through your paces and tries your patience, but it is a hallmark of quality when done well.
What you put on the back of a project also says a lot - it’s the place where poor quality is sneaked in because it can be hidden. If you buy a cabinet from a certain international box store which will go unnamed, you may find to your disappointment, that the backs are insubstantial - 1/8 inch and very flimsy. It is enough to make you weep. You can correct that on things you build yourself. My backs are solid wood, full 3/4 inch and ship lapped, with a decorative bead milled into the transition points. No 1/8 inch plywood for me, thanks.
The most challenging aspect of this project, time investment. I underestimated the amount of care required to paint raw wood on every single surface of this project. There are good reasons to use pre-finished sheet material from the store, all that time you will save. But - and it is a big but, you will have to live with inferior and cheap materials, usually MDF which is heavy, hard to glue, and lacking in tensile strength. I chose to take the challenge of real wood, but I paid the price.
I could go over a list of do-overs and course corrects, or I could choose to let them sit in the silent memory of God, and that is what I think I will do. I am just relieved to be done. There are many reasons to do a big project, it is primarily a way to measure yourself. Think of those who have planned and built cathedrals in the middle ages. When you see the plans, you realize that those who worked on them, knew that they would never see the finished piece. They would not live long enough. They had to eventually hand on their work to someone else in trust, who had the same vision. It is somehow a beautiful and apt metaphor for life itself. There is always a day we lay down our tools after doing the best we can to come up with a vision and to follow it. Oddly, doing so reminds you that you are not perfect and that life is not perfect, but in the end it is all OK once you cross that finish line.
Final words, custom is biting off a big chunk to chew on, but the pay-off in the end, is satisfaction like that of a mountain climber. You did something unusual that measured your capabilities and put them to the test. Better still, you get to live with the world you have created with your own hands. For those who build things, there is little as satisfying as surveying your craftsmanship like God did in the story of creation, and seeing that it is good. Maybe there is a bit of theology under the skin for anybody crazy enough to want to build anything hands-on. Taking part in creation is edifying. You learn things you will never learn any other way. It all begins with a pile of wood and a plan. So built with care. What you leave behind, is evidence.
Getting there was pretty messy.
recessed lighting up above for that calm night time feel.
Add some legs and glass doors to the prototype and you get a bonus cabinet for the dining room.
Shadow lines on a beaded edge... the power of a subtle design detail that was worth the extra time to execute.
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