Trouble Outside the Norm - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Trouble Outside the Norm

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Cabinetry is made of chunks of wood that are fairly standard in size. Most of your parts are going to be shorter than 48″ long. It’s rare that individual planks will be wider than 12″, or that your casework is going to be much deeper than 24″ or so.

And so most of our tools, workbenches and shops are set up to deal with parts and assemblies that fall into those ranges. What’s really amazing to me, however, is how things can fall apart when you step just a little outside those standard sizes.

This week I’m building a reproduction of an 18th-century dry sink that is based on a Connecticut piece. I drew up the plans after studying a lot of photos of the piece and its actual measurements. In my zeal to make my reproduction look spot-on, I glossed over some details that should have raised red flags as I was sketching.

1. Danger, Wide Load: The carcase of this dry sink is 50″ wide. That gave our table saw’s sliding table some fits, but I was able to work around its limitations. Where things got hairy was when I assembled the carcase. I needed some 50″ clamps to secure the sides to the bottom. But all our clamps only go to a shade more than 48″. Our shop’s band clamps have fallen into the same black hole as a set of long-missing bed bolts. So I drove the bottom into the dados in the side pieces and used cut nails to hold everything in place while the glue dried. Good thing the original used cut nails as well.

2. In Too Deep: The carcase is almost 27″ deep, which means the side panels were too wide for my 24″-wide workbench. So I had to work in stages: I planed as much as I could. Then I shifted the panel and planed the remainder. It was slow, but it worked.

3. Wood Too Wide:
The dry sink’s door requires panels that are 14″ wide. Even our massive machinery can only face-joint a 12″-wide piece. So those boards for the doors had to be processed with handplanes. It wasn’t a show-stopper, but it sure slowed me down.

4. Two Inches Too Long: Because the carcase is 50″ wide, many of the boards for the top and bottom were 49″ to 50″ long. Because the rough stock was 8′ long, there was no way to get two 50″-long pieces for the top from a 96″-long piece. As a result, I had to struggle not to waste too much wood.

The good news is that I’m going to adjust the construction drawings and cutting lists for the readers so they won’t stumble with these slightly oversized parts and assemblies. Shaving an inch or two will save a thousand headaches. The bad news is that I probably should spring for a few 52″-long clamps for the shop so this doesn’t happen again.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 19 comments
  • Alan


    I agree on your blog, with having readers expressing ideas, was just looking at the irony in the ‘sitch.

    Part of woodworking is being there, we all get to experience a given task with what we use and/or have been successful with in the past. The tools we select will often be different, yet we can achieve similar results. Being able to read about your experience is enjoyable, allows me as the reader (and others) to understand why you selected some of your choices…

    The reason I really like the idea of using the cut nails is that they grip really good for a while, but eventually do break down and start to loosen. Using them as a clamp for the glue works well, and the glue is what really holds the joint after it is dry. The traditional heads will add a nice touch to the overall piece.

    But I have to say, when I read in your latest blog entry and learned of your use of SYP for this project, I did kinda chuckle with your apparent luck with this entry. *lol*

    In the past I have seen you moisture check the lumber when using it, curious if you did that with this? At least if that cupped piece was from this project, I wasn’t clear if that was the case. But it seems there was someone offering you to trade Eastern White Pine in lieu of SYP recently. That could have made your day a lot more enjoyable! *g*

    Maybe you can trade that guy a trailer load of it! 🙂

  • Mark Wells

    This has been alluded to, but I’d like to say it explicitly. The tools and materials available impact how you design furniture. Sometimes I forget that.

    I think the Roubo workbench is a good example. If you are working mostly by hand, it seems easier to get a giant slab of wood to use for the top. Less sawing! For us, it’s hard to find a giant slab of wood, so we buy skinny boards (1.5") and try to simulate Roubo’s top, but it involves using a lot of machine time and a lot of glue.

    I think this is one reason Adam’s column is so enchanting. We forget the "why" until we try to do it their way.

    I’m not a big fan of Norm, but he does make good use of the tools and materials most prevalent in his era.


  • Narayan

    Well, I’ll share a strategy that I believe I previously shared with you, Chris.

    I was making a CD cabinet, about 6.75 feet tall, biscuited together. I knew not of clamps that size. And I was a student, so I wouldn’t have had the means to buy said clamps anyway.

    An overhanging beam from the roof, a car jack, and a couple of 2x4s for cauls… you get the picture.

    A highly recommended technique. I’m sure it’s illustrated in Diderot somwhere…

  • Christopher Schwarz


    The books I have indicate that dry sinks evolved from a simple bench that was used to hold buckets of water for cooking or washing. The bench became enclosed and had the splash added as it evolved. Essentially, it was a storage cupboard for liquids.

    As to the advice from the readers, I’m happy to have it posted here in the comments — sharing strategies is one of the reasons I run this blog. I will say that I still think cut nails were the best clamping solution for the piece at hand.


  • Alan

    You’ve received quite a bit of advice here Chris, from creating a makeshift workbench to a couple dozen ways to clamp large pieces in creative ways.

    I must say that from the little you’ve shown of the piece, it looks like you were able to recover from most of the short comings pretty effectively.

    Square nails are terrific in how they grip, they seem like as good of a solution as any, and since you were planning to use square nails anyway, the solution is perfect.

    Looking forward to seeing the finished dry sink. Was the primary use of a dry sink to prepare food before running water?

  • James Watriss

    I usually have ratchet straps kicking around from hauling things in with the truck, and I’ve used them for more things than my shopmates found plausible, let alone reasonable.

    Failing that, I also keep plenty of rope and 1/4" line kicking around. Tie a fixed loop in one end, and you have a great poor man’s band clamp. Just be sure to pad with cardboard or scraps… it’ll dent pine very easily.

    Failing THAT, handscrews clamped onto the edges of the bottom could have provided auxiliary clamping spots.

    Failing THAT, and lacking the bolts to tie together the K-body clamps, I would have reversed the heads, making them into Daisy-chainable clamps. Carcase upside-down, fixed heads flop over each end. Clamping heads hook around each other from the back side of each clamping bar, and pull. Very much a not-optimal situation, but at this point, I’ve failed 3 times over to put something together with ratchet straps, rope, and auxiliary clamps.

    Failing THAT, I’d glue blocks to the edges of the bottom, close to the ends, and lay a piece of scrap across the end as a clamping caul. Cut off the blocks and plane afterwards. I’ve used something similar on really wide miter joints on a blanket chest… 2×4, ripped at a 45, glued across the grain, to provide a clamping surface. Ugly way to do a glue up, but it worked.

    Alternate version, make small blocks with sandpaper glued to one edge, to keep around for things like this. Clamp those small blocks in place, on the edges of the bottom, clamping across the width of the bottom. Make sure the blocks were long enough not to dent the wood. Use with the long caul across the end, and clamp it to the blocks. Again, this is non-optimal, but temporary and functional.


    Too wide? I seem to recall a post you did a while back about a trestle bench… Your trestles weren’t wide enough to handle 50"?

  • Larry Feasel

    Buy 4 or so Jorgy pipe clamp fixtures, then buy black iron pipe at the BORG in 5′, 6′ and 8′ lengths, and interchange the pipe length as needed, no need to buy special 52" clamps.

  • Narayan

    Chris, you know as well as I do that as soon as you get some 52" clamps in the shop you’re going to have a project 55" wide.

  • Stephen Bachner

    Did anyone get the Norm pun?

  • Christopher Schwarz


    I’ve hooked clamps together like that before. And you’re right, it works great. I was nailing the sucker together anyway….


  • David

    Chris – There’s a quick way to get more clamping capacity out of your parallel clamps without having to buy longer clamps, shift to pipe clamps, or find the missing band clamps. Just put two Bessey clamps together – and use them so that the jaws are pretty close to parallel with the bottom of the case side. I do this all the time, as my Besseys are usually too short for big case pieces. One top jaw goes on the workpiece, and the other top jaw goes on top of the bottom jaw of the first clamp about halfway across the piece. The bottom jaw on the second clamp goes on the other side of the workpiece. Works like a champ, and no additional purchases needed.

  • Barry Johnson

    I’m surprised you wouldn’t keep various lengths of 3/4" black pipe around to use with pipe clamps for situations just like this. More flexible and much cheaper than having 20 different sizes of parrallel clamps.

    To make a temporary "BIG" bench I will often just throw a piece of plywood of adequate size on top the bench and secure it with clamps on the end.

    I also don’t have a sliding table on TS(imagine most don’t)but I do have a circ saw and a shop built cutting jig and a Festool TS55. As woodworkers we should know when to take the wood to the tool or the tool to the wood.

    I can often get pine in 10′ or longer lengths from my local lumber yard. Lumber selection is just another gotcha that you learn to work around with experience to minimize waste. Worth noting, but not changing the article over.

    I say print the originals and the make the modified versions available online with the gotchas as a side bar in the article. If this was an original piece I’d be all for the modifications, but with a reproduction lets be true to form.

    My 2d,

    Barry Johnson

  • Noel

    I’m sorry, but when did buying more clamps become "bad news?" Isn’t that how we keep score?

  • Christopher Schwarz


    When we have time to do a prototype, we always do build it more than once. However, with this current deadline (days) and the the fact that the changes are minor, we’ll adjust it only on the construction drawing.

    I’ll also offer the original as-built drawing here on the blog for those people who have a yen (like I do) for exact reproductions.


  • Paul Kierstead

    As a matter of interest, will you rebuild it to the smaller specifications?

  • Christopher Schwarz


    I have no way of knowing how pieces were dimensioned then.

    We can guess, based on the tools and materials, that the sizes of the raw material would dictate some dimensions. You wouldn’t rip an 1" off an 8′ tabletop, for example, unless you had to. You’d probably live with it 1" wider if possible.

    Also, many of the problems of standard dimensions are dictated by machinery and modern processes. You have a lot more freedom to violate the rules with hand tools.


  • Doug Fulkerson


    So how do you think the original builder came up with the dimensions for the 18th century piece? Is it because it was a less standardized time? Was the builder exceptionally large so he had an extra large workbench and tools? Did people custom order that kind of stuff back then?

    Now you’ve got me wondering. Did a customer show up in an 18th century shop and say "I need a ________", or did they buy whatever was laying around? Obviously, the rich and famous commissioned things, but what about the middling sort and the poor?


  • Luke Townsley

    Hand tools don’t necessarily solve the problem of cutting two 50" pieces out of a single 96" piece or of having a workbench top narrower than the work.

    However, hand planes do indeed solve the problem quite handily of jointing stuff that doesn’t fit through the planer.

    When I was growing up, Dad had a 12" planer. We simply had no way or idea of how to flatten anything wider than that other than to get bigger machinery. Unfortunately for us, it was a recurring problem. Hand planes (combined with a decent workbench) do indeed solve that problem quite handily thereby negating the need for a $60,000 wide belt sander.

    Also, this is a handy argument. When you wife protests that $400 is a lot to spend for a little hand plane, you can tell her that the next best alternative is a $60,000 wide belt sander with a $5,000 dust collection system, a $10,000 3 phase hookup, along with a $10,000 building to put it in.

  • Gary Roberts

    Hmmm, doesn’t all of this speak to the advantages of hand tools? You design the piece to what looks good, not to fit the available machinery. Or, if you are an advocate of the Wives Against Schwarz school, you buy newer and bigger machinery…

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