In a world of shapes and possibilities, square is often underrated.
As a building component, square is about as safe as it gets. Two sides standing perfectly perpendicular, and a top and bottom perfectly flat and horizontal. You are building a simple box. There are reasons why this matters. If you think of these as building blocks for bigger and better things, you can add boxes together in a series. To do so, they must all fit together and that is why square is important. Few things in life are stand-alone. Stand-alone things tend to be wonky because they have not undergone the necessary discipline of having to fit into any bigger plan.
I already know this, but sometimes life hands you a repeat lesson. I made a wall unit last year. One of the basic components was an upper shelf bookcase. It’s a face frame, a back, combined with the usual shelves and trim. Pretty basic. The only thing is that it is possible to screw up the basics, and one of the basics is making sure everything goes together square. The layman’s check, is to measure the diagonals. If the distance of the two diagonals matches, then the unit is square. Time to firm up the clamps.
And therein lies the rub. Clamping pressure. It is possible to squeeze too tightly, and this is what I did. Clamps are a great tool. They act as a third hand, an aid that keeps everything firm and together while installing fasteners and waiting for glue to set. The only thing is that if you crank the clamps too tightly, things may bow or rack, and will stay that way. When you take the clamps off, you will find your unit is a little wonky and cannot be fixed. Not square. This is bad news.
You can try your best to work your way around it, but really, the ONLY thing you can do is cut up your mistake for firewood and start over. It is a painful lesson, and the lesson is: do not grasp too tightly. It’s where burn piles come from.
It reminds me of that age-old aphorism to grasp the nettle boldly, a metaphor meaning to take hold of a situation firmly so as to manage it. In the case of a nettle, grasping it tightly will actually stop you from being prickled. It is romantic advice perhaps, but it does not apply to woodworking.
There is such a thing as firmly enough, but not more. It means you have to assess what is the proper level of managing. Some things need to be in tight control, others less. Some things need a gentle touch lest they be bruised or otherwise ruined. Of course this makes me think of kids. If you have raised a few you will have got it wrong here and there. Those are the stories your kids will feed back to you when they are grown, telling you pointedly about mistakes you made in parenting.
And that’s the thing. Life is a back and forth, give and take arrangement. You have to be willing to take a bit of correction. Gentle feedback taken in a timely manner can stop you from costly redos. And then of course, there are the things which are ruined by overhanding, and cannot be saved at all. It’s advice for the prudent. Consider how firmly you have to grasp a thing. Some will require a firm grip, others not. Hopefully your balancing act will not come with too much trial and error and God willing, you will still have time for a redo if you really need to lose a battle in order to win the war.
Square is a good starting point if you ever want to be more than a stand-alone. Square is the due diligence that means you are willing to be measured against a recognized standard. Square also means you are are listening to feedback early one, before it is too late. Most mistakes come with small clues upfront that spell out looming disaster, if you are truly listening. Feedback in woodworking comes when something feels off, or when there is a funny squeak from a machine, or when feeding wood into a machine puts you off balance and feeling compromised. Feedback is the thing that most often saves you from disaster. The basics of square take you away from lofty aspirations that are disconnected from reality. They set you in line with a concrete universe for your own good. The sign of a true amateur, is someone whose lofty ambitions dismiss the need for basic prudence.
Square is the basis of a good building and the most surprising thing in life is how often we must be reminded of such basics. The most subtle consideration is the thing you had better not overlook or you will have to learn wisdom the hard way.