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The first lesson of handwork is this: Most things that you think are important are not important.

Most surfaces do not need to be true. Most edges do not need to be square. Most boards do not need to be four-squared (or even free of bark). Most dimensions – length, thickness, width – will only trip you up and cause you to make a mistake. Never add dimensions. Never subtract.

Instead, you should focus on form, close-fitting joints and fair surfaces. After achieving those three things, then you can satisfy your dial caliper.

When I first realized all this about handwork, it was a gift. I had been trying to get my hand tools to work like my machines.

Question: How should I set up a plane to give me a perfectly four-squared 3/4” board?

Answer: You never do.

Question: How can I quickly rip my case sides to 18-1/2” down from 20”?

Answer: Don’t.

Today is the third day of a class where we are building “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking. This is the day where I always hope that fatigue, heat and desperation will reveal the above lessons to the 11 students.

Sure, I’ve been trying to tell them this stuff since the git-go. But you cannot accept these ideas until you have an enormous tool chest’s carcase to square up so that it can receive some dovetailed skirting. So this afternoon I told the students to true up the carcase and the bottom. They went to work.

After a couple hours, one of them asked the most important question of the week:

Student “How wide is the lower skirt?”

Answer: “Six inches.”

Student: “Then the chest only has to be squared up in the bottom 6”, right?”


— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • danielergomez

    That is what I like about woodworking, looks matter. It needs to be right, but only where it needs to be right. That is where the skill of the woodwright comes into play, he or she knows what needs to be right. Very nice, thanks.

  • NormJ

    That’s the way I’ve always done wood working and I just thought I wasn’t any good 😉

  • kpinvt

    I once worked for Bombardier in Barre, VT while they were building new monorail cars for Walt Disney World. The section I worked in was responsible for hanging access panels on the outside of the cars. Our most important tools were an apron full of needlenose visegrips and a good eye. There were very precise measurements in the bluprints as to where the panels were to be mounted. We ususally ignored these instructions and hung the panels with the visegrips at points that looked good overall and then mounted them permantly.

  • Sean A

    I’ve heard you (and some others) say this before and I am sold on the concept. But as someone at the beginning of their woodworking arc, it is hard to know just where it matters. For example, dovetails: probably has to be ‘4 square’ at each end being joined right? If I don’t square/shoot the ends, will the layout marks be thrown off slightly and mess up the fit? Or gluing two boards, they’d have to fit flush, right? But “how flush is flush”?

    Any more exposition on this would be mucho appreciated.

  • renaissanceww

    Bravo! Ditto and all that

  • msiemsen

    If you lay the bottom skirt out off of the case the bottom 6″ doesn’t even have to be square. On the sea chest I just built the dovetailed bottom molding needed to fit a trapezoid.

  • Bill Lattanzio

    I have to tell you; I like it when my project ends up with a little ding on it, or the top overhang is larger in the front than in the back, or the finish is slightly uneven. It reminds me that I made it, and not a machine in a factory. Good article sir.

  • robert

    Sounds like what I heard about building wooden boats. Tolerances are what ever fits and works. -Built to the nearest boat-

  • abt

    Good. I thought I was just being lazy, (and cutting down time to next swig of beer) when I would simply flatten a wide board getting ready for the thickness planer instead of smoothing it too. I mean, it’s going to get smoother in the planer after all.

    On those rot strips (on my other types of case projects), I’d scallop the side toward the bottom if nailed so they can be easily pried off when damaged, or use screws, so they’d be easier to remove without damaging the rest of the case. I’m probably missing something in doing that.

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