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My favorite drafting instructor in design school was a histrionic misfit known as Wild Bill. He didn’t pull any punches and tried his best to prepare us for the real world. When we came to descriptive geometry, he let us know that by the end of the quarter at least a third of us would no longer be design majors; we’d have to switch to photography or fine arts if we didn’t get it. His favorite dramatic device when he caught someone making a mistake was to refer to a scene in Repo Man. “Smoking boots!” he would shout, “you’re nothing but a pair of smoking boots!”

It’s a powerful image, and there have been many times in the years since when what seemed like a good plan somehow went horribly wrong. One of the differences between woodworking and science fiction is that there can be a significant time lag between “Give me the keys” and vaporization of everything except your Red Wings. If you read the Woodworking magazine weblog, you’re probably familiar with the saga of the Chinese stool that has been going on since last spring.

The stool looks simple enough, and in many ways it is; three legs connected by three stretchers support a round seat. We have an antique example that we dissected with a dead blow hammer, and the construction isn’t quite as simple as it seems. The center of the stretcher assembly is the center of the triangle between them and that causes the stretchers to twist a few degrees where they meet the legs. It’s a fun project because you can’t rely on any of the usual things you use for reference. Nothing is square, the only things certain are an imaginary plumb line through the center and an imaginary circle about 9 inches off the ground.

You can’t hold one part against another to get a length until all the joints are cut. But you have to know the length to cut the joints. Like the stretcher to leg joint, I’m a little twisted and I think figuring out how to do stuff like this is fun. I came up with a plan and made one stool to be sure I had the procedure down. It was a little sloppier than I wanted it to be, but it went together and it’s a marvelous piece of engineering work. There needs to be some wiggle room for it all to fit together, but there’s a point where all the parts interlock into a strong structure.

I started in on the second stool, shooting photos as I went for the upcoming magazine article. And in the midst of it, I made a fatal error. Instead of transferring a layout mark from the bottom of the assembled stretchers to the top, I flipped the assembly over. Three angled through mortises and three compound angled tenons later I tried to dry fit the stool. Like all great bonehead moves it took a while to figure out what was wrong. The stretchers fit together nicely. The legs fit into the seat, and the ends of the stretchers fit the legs. Six of the seven parts would fit, but there isn’t a hammer big enough in Ohio or China to make the whole thing fit together.

This also happened at the classic time to discover a mistake, Friday afternoon. At two o’clock I was telling myself I’d have the stool together by 3:30 or 4 and I’d get home early. At five o’clock I realized something wasn’t right and at quarter to six I knew what it was and headed for home in disgust. The only solution was to remake all the stretchers. At least I’d only ruined the smallest parts this time, not the seat or the legs.

Remaking the stretchers when I got back to work on Tuesday wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I thought it would be over the weekend. They say that if you learn something by reading it or hearing it you need to have it repeated six or seven times for it to sink in, but the things you learn by making a mistake stick with you right away. In woodworking there is always something new to be learned.

I know that you, the reader never do things like this, but perhaps you have a good goof up story about a friend, neighbor or coworker. You can share it by leaving a comment.

–Bob Lang

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Showing 11 comments
  • Barquester

    I don’t have prints, but what the heck, The Chinese guy probably did’t either. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how that all would go together without so much slop to be unusable. But when I saw your bottom photo (above) it all makes sense.

  • Merlin

    The stool is awesome it looks great. I think about how many nights it would take lying in bed trying to get this all to come together if there had not been an old stool to get pattern from. My grandpa told me at an early age the guy that never made a mistake never did anything on his own. It seems like I always need some campfire kindling anyway.
    Keep up the good work
    Merlin Vought

  • Bob Lang


    It might be a little stronger to angle the mortise, but I’m following the example of the antique we took apart. I don’t think it makes enough difference to worry about, and that would move the outside of the mortise off the center of the leg which just wouldn’t look right to me.

  • Glen

    I LOVE this design and your honesty. Thanks. I don’t feel so bad.

    I made a four-legged stool this summer, and when I asked someone about adding splines to my mortise & tenon legs going into the seat, they told me to make sure I put the spline across the grain. And so I did… across the grain of the leg, but with the grain of the seat on 3 out of 4 legs.

    Oh, well.

  • Chris Friesen

    I’m looking at the angled tenons and thinking that you now have short-grain bits in your tenon.

    Wouldn’t it be stronger to keep the tenon straight and angle the mortise through the leg?

  • Dave Ball


    What a great story and lesson learned. I think we have all been there in life (woodworking or otherwise). The IT story cracked me up.

    We have an old (1914) 2-flat. I just replaced the 2 story back porch on. I changed the stairs from 2 stringers 1 landing to 3 stringers 2 landing to reclaim about 50 sq ft of 1st floor floor space. You don’t want to know how many tries it took to fit all of that together. It still bugs me that the step’s rises are noticeably different on 1 of the 3 stringers when you walk up them.

    At least you can’t really see it, and at least it wasn’t furniture….

  • Mike Lingenfelter

    I don’t have a good goof story to tell. Although I have had plenty of goofs in the shop.

    Your story about Wild Bill reminded me of my Calculus teacher in college, he had lots of funny sayings. My favorite was "Don’t stick a bean up your nose".


  • Eric Paisley

    There is this guy I know who’s a big Chris Schwarz fan. He’s got that stupid tee shirt that says, "May the Schwarz be with you" and everything.

    Anyway, tee shirt guy was building the Stickley plant stand from one of the Woodworking magazine articles. (Yeah, he buys anything Schwarz slaps his endorsement on. It’s pathetic.) So he’s cutting that middle stretcher, taking the measurement from the cut list and not from the actual piece dry fit together.

    Well, guess what – the shoulders of that stretcher were like 1/2" short on each side. Apparently he had fallen from the pure Schwarz faith and didn’t read the article carefully. I a fit of delusion he tried making the tusk tenon work anyway. I wont even begin to describe how stupid it looked but you cant talk sense into those Schwarz-ites.

    After coming back to reality, and realizing how stupid the final piece looked, well…the obscenity that he screamed is still hanging in orbit still. I was thankful that the elementary school down the street was out for Labor Day. … I mean, this guy was thankful.

  • Bruce Jackson

    IT? You should try accounting / finance! Some of the stuff I’ve worked on were doozies. In fact, one number is seared in my memory – from more than 23 years ago – $129,852. I served a 450-bed hospital for four years as a cost accountant. That number was the difference between book and Medicaid (sum-of-years-digits) equipment depreciation. Yep, that was my bogie and I had the analysis project dumped on me Friday afternoon, just as I was about to check out early for the weekend (hell, I wasn’t the perfect employee of the world). Due 8:00 Monday a.m.

    Ever wonder why many accountants are bald? I lost a skank of hair that weekend.

  • Jeremy

    I can’t bring myself to comment on any woodworking errors after that post. Any mistakes I’ve made would sound really amateur in comparison to this. I mean, given the complexity of the problem, I think we’d all hate you if you HADN’T made any errors!

  • Torch02

    I’ve found that in IT, trying to fix something late Friday afternoon invariably leads to "Huh. I’ve never seen that error before…" I guess it happens in more than just IT.

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