Chris Schwarz's Blog

Born to Fail at Woodworking

No matter how long I work in this craft, there are days when I feel incapable of doing anything correctly. Such as today.

Readers love to be reminded that even people who do this every day suffer regular failures. If you like to wallow in other people’s misery, this post is for you. (Also, it shows you how I deal with woodworking despair.)

For the last month I’ve been working on a new chair design. I’ve been sketching this chair for about a year to refine it to the point where I could build a prototype. That point came this winter. The result was OK, and I figured out exactly what I needed to change to improve it.

I altered the shape of the seat and the arms. I modified the number of spindles. I changed the chair’s back a bit. In early June I made another attempt to build it.

The undercarriage went together brilliantly. After that, everything went to pot.

When I assembled the arm bow and spindles, one of the back spindles pointed off at a weird angle, like my chair had visited mafia headquarters and wouldn’t talk. I still have no idea how this happened, but I tried a variety of ways to remedy it or hide the error. No joy.

So I cut the spindles off the seat and started making a new armbow. The plan was to simply drill out the old spindles and install new ones – with no errors this time.

Usually, I love chances like this to do an operation over. Things almost always are much easier and faster the second time because you already made most (if not all) the possible mistakes.

But not this time. The second armbow was a design failure. I simply could not get it looking good enough to attach it to the seat. I put those parts aside and tried a third time. Nope. I think the third armbow looked the worst.

When I hit my head against the wall repeatedly in woodworking, I usually decide to take a break. So I stacked up all the failed chair parts in my storeroom and began thinking about a different and easier chair I need to build for a customer – and a case piece.

After a month or so, I’ll come back to the chair with fresh eyes and perhaps a different plan. Or I’ll wait until winter and use the chair as firewood in my new wood stove.

— Christopher Schwarz

17 thoughts on “Born to Fail at Woodworking

  1. Michael Kratky

    Chris, very much enjoyed your “speech” at the the recent Lie Nielsen open house lobster bake. As for chairs I’ve build everything except them but Peter Galbraith also got my attention at the event as did the Windsor Chair makers in Lincolnville, Maine just above the LN event, so its good to know from your experience that I can expect a lot of “adult language” building them.

  2. Eagle1

    You can always use the arms as fancy coat hangers and the spindles as dowls.

    By the way in reading your 2nd book on workbenches. I can give you one more argument for round dog holes even though. 1 word. Arches. Romans were obsessed with them, because they were one of strongest physical forms of engineering. Which is also why man hole covers are circles. So in the end round dog holes support more physical pressure. Now that begs the question has anyone tried an arched dog hole? with either the square end of the arch being used to support the piece of work or visa versa?

    Has anyone ever experimented with Arched Dog holes?

    1. michalofsky

      manhole covers are round so that the cover cannot fall into the manhole
      there is no strength required like an arch
      and with respect to the arch
      dont forget the flying butresses

  3. SATovey

    I love posts like this; the more the better!

    Not to wallow in other people’s misery, but to shove it in the faces of those hypocrites that go around bad mouthing everything people do without giving one iota of input on how to make it better, then calling it “constructive criticism”.

    As far as your failed assembly is concerned; it sounds like a classic case of O.D.N. – Over Design Neurosis ( I just made that up and am completely unqualified to do so ). A condition that affects the most educated, most experienced and most talented amongst us who, from time to time forget that: not everything that looks good on paper, works in real life.

    Being that it has to do with spindles on a chair, In all likelihood, you have a miscalculation or two regarding the angle of one or more of the spindles.

    But that is just a guess and the real problem is more likely that the wood in the seat has a Personal Protection Order against the wood in the spindles and the spindles must maintain a minimum of 10 yards distance from the seat. For wood; cooties are a real thing!

  4. KMacRae354

    That ‘pile of failure’ is beautiful. Screw it together and pass it off as avant-garde or ‘Chair Deconstructed’. This new true work of art could be worth 100 times the cost of a typical Captains, Windsor, Ladder Back or Adirondack chair.
    Now the debates over proper joinery and finishing techniques for the new artsy masterpiece can begin. 😉

  5. Sullivans Papa

    Thank you Chris,
    It is reassuring that you too have bad days. My skills nor my projects are no where near the level of yours nor probably most of your readers but I’ve found that sometimes putting a project away for awhile pays off handsomely. I’ve learned the hard way that forcing an end result (especially in wood) is ruinous and ends being something I regret for a long, long time.

  6. Spectro

    Typically after my second failure I’ll walk away, maybe cower away in embarrassment……but you bravely went for “the third time’s the charm” attempt…I applaud you for that.

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