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The August 2000 issue of Popular Woodworking is one of my favorites. On the cover is a secretary that Troy Sexton built that was the result of a lot of hard work by the entire staff. We worked with Troy during almost an entire year to pull together the story about his excellent design.

So you can imagine my dismay when the magazine went out to subscribers, and my phone started ringing off the hook with angry readers on the other end of the line.

“Where,” they would ask, “is the story on wainscoting?”

It seems that as we were carefully massaging the story on the secretary we had messed up the cover. The top headline on the cover was “Wainscotting in a Weekend.” Only there was no story about wainscotting in the issue. We had removed it and then forgotten to change the cover.


It seems that we spend most of our days at the magazine making our own mistakes and cleaning up the mistakes of others. That is the job description that should be on my business card (if I had business cards , long story).

Some of my mistakes are mistakes of omission. For example, for the last 12 months I have been meaning to write a review of the shoulder plane kit produced by Legacy Toolworks. It’s a gorgeous kit and looks about 10 times better than the shoulder plane kit I’d built from Shepherd Tool years ago. But I overbooked myself this year and haven’t started the kit. And now Legacy has announced it is closing its doors. If I had been able to review the kit, perhaps that could have helped them.

Other mistakes are what we call in Arkansas: “Getting bit by the dumb-a**.” This is where you do something so stupid that the tale should begin with, “Hold my beer while I…¦.” Such as when I told 200,000 readers to run the router the wrong way to cut a rabbet on a door frame. I didn’t mean to do it, I just got turned around and never caught my error.

So it should come as no surprise that toolmakers also make mistakes. Most readers probably think that the tools that come into our shop have been carefully tested and tuned by the manufacturers to make sure they are perfect. Based on how many goofed-up tools I’ve seen in 13 years, I doubt that’s the case.

And in fact, I take it as a mark of the toolmakers’ honesty that they send us one right off the warehouse floor.

Here’s a small sample of some of the stuff we’ve seen:

DeWalt: The company makes good tools, but we had a jigsaw come into the shop where the blade clamping mechanism failed. It went click, click, and then the blade dropped out like a rotten tooth. When DeWalt introduced its first hybrid table saw, the first rip fence we got was twisted. So was the second. The third replacement was fine.

Delta: When Delta introduced its C-arm drum sander, we were all excited in the shop. We set it up, plugged it in and cranked the puppy up. It spun up and then spun down forever. The motor burned out after three seconds.

Harbor Freight: It might sound too easy to pick on this discount seller. But they sell tools and people buy them. So here goes: When we tested the company’s plunge router, the collet failed. The bit slipped out and flew out. That was one of the days that I wished we had some Depends in the first aid kit.

Black & Decker: Here’s every tool marketer’s worst nightmare. Black & Decker sent us its new cordless tape measure. Now let’s ignore for a moment the possibility that you do not need an electric tape measure. So Senior Editor David Thiel takes it out of the box in front of the entire staff and demonstrates how it works. The tape extends about a foot and then dies forever.

Metabo: Cordless drills aren’t supposed to shoot flames out the back are they?

Lobo: When we tested its edge sander the sheet metal base flexed like tin foil. You would turn the machine on, and the thing would do the twist like Chubby Checker.

Powermatic: Yes, even Powermatic. An early version of its benchtop mortiser had a flaw in the piece of metal that joined the motor to the arm mechanism. The gears on the interior stripped out. So when you pulled the arm, the motor never moved.

Tools for Working Wood: The Ray Iles mortising chisels are great, but one of my students at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking snapped the tip off one when working in poplar. I heard it from across the room. It turned out that a few of the tools had been made from A2 instead of D2. It did make for an amusing day as everyone crowded around the chisel like the victim of a car accident.

Lie-Nielsen Toolworks: I had a narrow iron shoulder plane that was an early production run. The bronze grip wouldn’t stay in place when you retracted the iron. When I turned the screw, the plane disassembled itself in my hands.

Veritas: An early version of the Veritas cabinet scraper (an adaptation of the No. 80) would clog after a few passes like Crystal Gayle’s shower’s drain. The company has since fixed that problem and the tool works great.

Stanley Tools: During a test of jack planes, we had a tool that simply would not function. It was like it was haunted. If you snugged up the frog screw to where you thought it should be, you couldn’t adjust the iron. If you loosened the frog screw so you could adjust the iron, the thing would chatter and shake like a Vega going 56 mph. We never figured that one out.

Wenzloff & Sons: While teaching a sawing class at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking, one student’s carcase saw was misbehaving. It was tearing out the shoulders of his tenons something fierce. At first I though it was user error. Turns out the saw was filed for rip when it was supposed to be crosscut.

Let me conclude by saying that mistakes slip out the door for every toolmaker (and magazine editor). We’ve never heard of any toolmaker with zero returns. The real test of a toolmaker (and editor) is how you deal with the mistakes when they occur.

We published the “Wainscotting in a Weekend” story in the following issue and have not made an error on the cover since that day. And almost all of the toolmakers above are known for cheerfully replacing any defective unit and then correcting the problem.

And that’s one of the reasons we’re all still in business.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 4 comments
  • Dave Anderson NH

    Merry Christmas Chris,

    Good Story!! I’ve sure made my share of bonehead errors while making tools and yes, some have made it out the door and into customer’s hands. Most mistakes happen while chugging along on autopilot or more often still, when rushing to meet a promised delivery date.

    From my experience dealing with quality control folks in my day job, it is well know that 100% inspection is statistically only 80% effective. Phrased anther way, after a while you see what you expect to see. Sort of highway hypnosis in a shop setting.

    You are indeed correct, we all mess up once in a while. The only viable response is to admit the error and make good in it as fast as possible.

    Best regards,

    Dave Anderson

  • Narayan

    All I want for Christmas is to know from what dark recesses of your brain you pull phrases like, "Crystal Gayle’s shower drain", Chris.

    It has been a stellar year for your publications. Congrats to you and everyone at PWW.

  • John Schreiber

    "and have not made an error on the cover since that day"

    That seems like tempting fate. Better check next month’s cover extra closely.

  • Luke Townsley

    Well Chris, my image of the impeccable Schwarz is forever shattered…

    Just kidding, of course.

    "The real test of a toolmaker (and editor) is how you deal with the mistakes when they occur." How true.

    If that is the worst goof of the year, we will call it a good one.

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