In Shop Blog, Techniques

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One of my favorite movies as a teen-ager had a scene where a 1940s-era G-man goes to a mystic for help in becoming a superhero. The G-man shows the mystic , named Sombra , a photo of a caped hero and asks for a magic word to become like him.

Without hesitation, Sombra says: “I suggest you dye your underwear and learn to live within your limitations.” And that, dear reader, is exactly how I felt late last week as I was finishing up the first prototype for the next issue of Woodworking Magazine.

The project is a classic American trestle table with traditional joinery. And despite the fact that there was nothing “new” about any aspect of this project, it kicked my butt up one side of the shop and down the other. Fitting the through-tenons in the base took more fussing and fitting than was acceptable, and I still had to patch one side of a joint despite a careful fit. The breadboard ends on the top fit perfectly when dry-fit, but after they were pegged, they each moved off the shoulder line enough that I disassembled the whole end and started over.

Those mistakes seemed unavoidable. And then there were the ones where I was overcome by hubris , the worst shop mistakes possible. I got a little cocky when I drawbored the center of one breadboard in an effort to get a seamless joint line. After all my success at drawboring the base (made of Southern yellow pine) I used the same heavy offset in the black cherry top.

That’s when the entire breadboard end piece exploded in my hands (I, however, had made an extra breadboard for test cuts, which saved me).

And when I completed the two-board top using some locally cut 18″-wide boards that had been drying in my basement, I used a smoothing plane alone to finish the top. No sandpaper. It looked good until I put the first coat of varnish on. Groan. Out with the sandpaper to blend the toolmarks and remove some localized tear-out.

The point here is that even the simplest operations can be a challenge when you change one fact. In this project, it was the scale of everything. It’s one thing to fit a cabinet-scale wedged through-tenon. It’s quite another when the tenon is 1″ thick, 3-1/2″ wide and 3″ long. Same goes with the breadboard and the top itself. Fitting a tenon’s shoulder that’s 3″ across is easy compared to a breadboard shoulder that’s 30″ across. There is a lot less room for error.

But with the table complete, I took stock of the project and have concluded that this trestle table and its joinery are an outstanding lesson in traditional joints. It teaches one of the most important and forgotten joinery techniques around , wedging. I’ve wedged hundreds of through-tenons, but that’s because I’ve been deeply into chairmaking for a couple years now, and a single chair can have 25 to 30 wedged joints (depending on how nuts you are; I am fairly nuts).

And now that the first table is complete, I know exactly how to modify our stock techniques to make assembly really easy.

Or maybe I should just go to Kroger tonight and get some black vegetable dye for my underwear. It could be the hubris talking.

Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 2 comments
  • John Clifford

    A little humility goes a long way. Life has a way of knocking us down a few pegs when we need it. Thanks for your candor. Maybe we’ll learn from your mistakes, a prefered method for me 😉
    John Clifford.

  • Javier

    It’s refreshing to hear the honest mishaps of an experienced
    WW. It helps us newbie wood butchers know that it’s a never ending learning process (always learning from our many mistakes.)

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