“And God saw every thing that he had made, and, lo, he realized that It was not so good. He had missed a few things. And it was the morning of the sixth day.” We all know that’s not really how the story of creation from the book of Genesis goes. Of course it ends with “and God saw that it was good” which is why God gets to be God. But it is not how things always unfold for human beings who want to create something.
I think when you are a kid, it’s called a “do-over”. It’s when you make an error, but get to step back and choose again with impunity. No consequences. In real life however, it’s pretty hard to do things over. That’s why it took me sixteen years to fix something that I should have tackled long ago. Sixteen years is a long time to stare at something and feel dissatisfied with the work of your own hands.
I had wanted to make an heirloom project, a labour of love. One of those endeavours that you don’t do for money because money will never capture the time, detail and attention you sink into a project. Hence, I chose the hard route. I wanted to make a piece of furniture that would reflect my own heritage, and would also embody some of those wonderful traditional joints that are almost never done anymore. Full dovetails cut by hand. Full lap joints and mortise and tenons on the doors. Upper cabinet doors with separate panes of glass rather than false muntins laid over a single sheet, and stuck in place with silicone. I wanted solid wood construction and no plywood. I wanted the real deal.
My maternal grandfather was Irish. He dodged having to run the family hosiery shop, by hopping on a cattle boat bound for Canada and a bit more adventure than selling stockings. And so I made an Irish dish dresser as a project to be featured in a woodworking magazine. It’s not a dresser for clothing. It was called a dresser because it had some useful surfaces for storing things, for laying out food, and for dressing game. In a small home where the hearth was everything, a dish dresser was the one piece of adjacent furniture where families gathered in the evenings to reprise their day.
Because the Irish were mostly labourers, their functional household items left behind almost no imprint in the world of furniture. Their pieces tended to be vernacular, humble and hand-made from pine which added to their charm. Furniture was simply nailed together and often later knocked apart to repurpose the wood as necessary.
Perhaps most common, the Irish kitchen table - narrow, and about six feet long. Underneath was a pot board, a wooden runner for storage. Upon its surface you would eat your daily bread, and at your Irish wake, you would be laid out on the same table while the neighbours gathered round to toast your memory.
A dish dresser however, is distinctly decorative, with playful celtic hearts and other patterns cut out on the frieze. I was intrigued. I wanted to make something of that genre, personalized. Any successful woodworking project must accomplish three things. It must be well proportioned, well crafted, and have a fine finish. You can do the first two, and yet fail in the third, and that is what happened to me.
Everything of course, took way too much time. The dovetails were a job on their own. The doors were a job on their own. Everything had to be fitted. It was big and unwieldy, it took a lot of sanding and planing. And so it was that on the evening before the camera crew was to arrive, I was still trying to get everything finished. I am a graphic artist, and have never yet missed a deadline so I strapped on my helmet and buckled in. This one was going to be an all-nighter for sure. Unfortunately, after all the design and assembly work, I still had the problem of a finish, and the clock was ticking. So I laid on a coat of latex paint, a faux milk paint in a colour I happened to have on hand, as the stores were all closed. I liberally empoyed the services of a hair drier until sunrise. When the camera crew left the next day, I went to bed.
There was only one problem. The cabinet should have taken as much consideration in the finishing as in the building. I surveyed my piece. It looked very BLUE. I was not so happy. And so as if to make things worse, I recoated the paint afterwards with black. It was a huge mistake to paint something that large, black. That was sixteen years ago. It’s been sitting in the basement ever since, too big to throw out or give away, and somehow too dour to put out on display. Swallowing my pride to go back and fix that was a big deal, primarily becuase I knew just what a beast of a job it would be to strip away all that old paint, to sand carefully and start over.
I did the job in about the course of three weeks. That’s a lot of nit-picking and painstaking work. And a lot of man-hours. It is fitting that I did it myself, rather than leave someone else to clean up my mess. Rectifying my own error was simply the right thing to do.
One thing about furniture with raised panels and moulding details - they are made to show off. Hence, I repainted the cabinet white. White is a colour which can live in any space. It blends with the moulding in the house, and it shows off the pleasing shadow lines of the design that you cannot see with a dark colour. I hope you don’t ever have a do-over like mine. It was truly painful. The only consolation, if you have ever had to go back and fix something, chances are you have become better at whatever it was you did badly in the first place. Keep that in your hat. Unless you are superhuman, you will not escape do-overs. They are part of the growing pains of life.
There was some satisfaction to finally fixing what had irked me for so long. I don’t know if I would call it joy, there was too much sting in the process. I finally feel that I have done justice to my original intent. Happily, I had taken some shots before assembly to showcase some of the joinery. Seeing something put together, you cannot think back to the place where a piece of furniture is a big wooden puzzle where everything is made to fit. Modern methods have mostly given way to what is easiest, which in the interests of time, will tack something together to the minimal of standards. That is one reason why it is instructive and worthwhile to construct something with full-blown structural integrity before all of that traditional knowledge is lost forever.
There is only one of these in the world which makes it special. I hope that my kids understand that. I hope they fight over who will get it. I am now happy to pass it on, a labour of love. And, more than that, love doubled down to make sure it is as well crafted as it should be. It reminds me of some advice from master woodworker Gary Rogowski. The things you do with your hands will live on after you. So, do good work. What you leave behind, is evidence.
My Grandfather Samuel Edward Clarke from Belfast, who settled in Parkside, Saskatchewan.
The long aduous. and very MESSY stripping of old black paint.
Some in-process shots to show the complexity of putting things together well with proper classic joinery.