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There is an old expression that has nothing to do with woodworking, but it has turned out to be one of the guiding principles in my work.

The expression goes something like this: “If you have to ask the question, then you already know the answer.”

I know that it sounds like some nonsense that a smooth-talking corporate trainer might spin to baffle you, but allow me to give you a real-world example of how useful it is in the shop.

As I was building the workbench shown on the cover of this issue it came time to attach the massive 230-pound top to the 100-pound base, and I was facing the task of drawboring the four massive joints.

This extra step was going to require a couple hours of work and serious heavy lifting. I was going to have to fit the base into the top, remove the base to bore the holes for the pegs and then fit it again and remove it again to mark and bore the offset holes in the tenons.

It was about 5 p.m., and it would be so much easier to just drop the top onto the base, let gravity hold everything together and call it a day. The question then flashed in my head: “Do I really need to drawbore the top?”

I’ve found that these questions of expediency are like the old cartoons where the character is getting competing advice from an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Questions such as these always come from the devil on the right shoulder of the cartoon cat (or woodworker).

For years I listened to and agonized over questions such as these. I debated them and tried to see both sides of the argument. However, eventually I realized that all these different questions were really just one question in disguise: Are you going to take a seemingly reasonable shortcut that will save you time now but cause regret later?

– Question: Should I strip the finish off my Morris chair project after the staining highlighted a couple small but disappointing toolmarks near the through-tenons?

– Question: Should I dovetail the rear joints in these drawers for my toolbox? No one will ever see them, and a lock-rabbet will be faster.

– Question: Do I really need to test this familiar joint before I glue it up?

– Question: Do I really need to check the jointer’s fence to make sure it’s still 90Ã?° to the bed?

In the case of the workbench, I actually asked the question out loud, and all of my fellow editors heard me and chimed in with advice. One editor said that gravity was more than enough to hold everything in place and that drawboring the top was likely an act of ridiculous excess.

The other editors were on the fence and so we assembled the bench and put it on its feet. The bench looked good all put together like that. It seemed rock solid, like I could park my old VW on it. I was ready to go home and have a beer.

Then one of the editors went up to the end of the bench and gave it several king-size hip checks. Something caught my eye. I looked closely at where the leg met the top and stretchers as the editor gave it a few more hip checks.

Though it was slight, the bench base was wracking with every shove. After years of planing on this bench, this wracking would become a problem. So I fetched my drawbore pins from my tool chest and got ready for a long evening. I had already wasted an hour testing out a question that I already knew the answer to.

As I drove home later that evening (ready for two beers), I wondered if this philosophy could become immobilizing for some. That is, every question could lead to a fussy downward spiral of extra work that resulted in nothing ever getting done. But I don’t think so. Every project is a series of operations, many of which are familiar and don’t generate these questions. But when we stumble into new territory, these questions are the angel on our left shoulder telling us to first slow down and figure things out.

And if we listen, then the next time we encounter the same problem there won’t be any questions , just action.

– Christopher Schwarz


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  • Mike

    • Question: Should I strip the finish off my Morris chair project after the staining highlighted a couple small but disappointing toolmarks near the through-tenons?
    Yes its a question of finish and personal satisfaction

    • Question: Should I dovetail the rear joints in these drawers for my toolbox? No one will ever see them, and a lock-rabbet will be faster.

    No The lock rebate is fine its a case of appropriateness.

    • Question: Do I really need to test this familiar joint before I glue it up?

    Is it really that familiar? If so then no.

    • Question: Do I really need to check the jointer’s fence to make sure it’s still 90° to the bed?

    Can’t answer that. My jointer has neither fence nor bed.

    The answers are never there already, It is indeed NWBS (New Age BS) It’s all a question of whats appropriate and available in terms of application and skill.
    Mike

  • .

    Sorry about that – I missed the link. I read "this issue" and since we’re on the PopWood blog, and the current issue has a workbench on the cover….

    All in good fun! Either way – keep up the fantastic work!

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Um, yes. I think the link above makes it obvious that is "recycled."

    Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    Chris

  • .

    OK Chris – Now you’re busted. Didn’t you use this essay a couple of years ago when you built the Roubo bench?

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