In Shop Blog, Techniques

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Whenever John Economaki of Bridge City Tools teaches classes about furniture design, he always asks his students a question that seems to have no good answer.

The question goes something like this: Would you rather have a piece of furniture with great lines but so-so craftsmanship, or a somewhat dumpy-looking project with perfect and crisp joinery throughout?

You’ll have to read to the bottom of this entry to find out how John’s students answer the question. Me? I’ve been struggling with the question all week.

I’m just now applying the first coat of color to a Gustav Stickley plant stand for the next issue of Woodworking Magazine, and I’ve been beating myself up all week over this piece and my workmanship on it.

The project itself is straightforward and is all familiar ground for me. Whenever I work on a project like this, I try to stretch myself by focusing on some detail to see if I can make it more refined and crisp than before.

For this project, I focused on the curves, and I went to great lengths to get the swoops just right on the aprons and stretchers. And for the most part, I was pleased with how they came out.

And that’s when the tenons for the top rails came and bit me on the hinder.

During the final assembly I clamped everything up, drove in the tusk tenons at the bottom of the plant stand and walked away for about eight hours. When I removed the clamps, everything looked good for about a half an hour. Then two of the tenons at the top of the plant stand began to separate at their shoulders. Each one opened up about .006″. I think the tusk tenons are pulling them apart. Something was a little bit off in the assembly and there wasn’t any good way to turn back.

So I spent an hour on Tuesday morning feeding white oak shavings from my jointer plane into these gaps in an effort to obscure them. After forcing the glue-covered shavings into the gaps with tweezers, things looked better. But they sure as heck weren’t “according to Hoyle.”

I have to have this project done by Monday, and I have an involved finishing schedule ahead, so I grabbed the stain today and went to work. As the color went on, two things happened: One, I could see my mistakes just as well. You can’t fill gaps with stain. Well, I sure can’t.

And second, I became smitten with the genius of Gustav Stickley, who designed this plant stand. As the color went on I began to see how the overall piece would begin to look. I stopped seeing the individual components.

So to answer John Economaki’s question, I think I prefer a project with beautiful lines to a project with perfect craftsmanship. I want both. Maybe next time.

– Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Here’s how John’s students answer the question: He told me that virtually everyone he’s taught says they would prefer the perfectly joined clunky one.

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