Monday, February 21, 2011

Epic Fail!

One of the great things about going to school with young people is learning new slang. I love the dynamism of the English language and, though personally inclined toward writing grammatically correctly (perhaps stuffily so), I think it's cool that structure and meaning can morph into new forms that suddenly become hip and then just as suddenly date you as having grown up in the 60's. Like, who knew that "sick" could mean something good?

Anyway, I noticed that Melanya - a very talented young woman woodworker and boatbuilder - would say "Fail!" or, once in awhile, "Epic Fail!" in a mock-alarmed, tongue-in-cheek sort of way on the rare occasions that something didn't come out quite as perfectly as she'd intended. It struck me as an ideal expression - economical, slightly self-deprecating, and funny. I've adopted it and have had many occasions to use it lately.

Building the Shaker Table
For the past two weeks we have been mostly working on the Shaker style table I first introduced a couple of posts ago. It's an unassuming little thing, with a small drawer, a top and four legs. (As I learned this week, tables do NOT necessarily have to have four legs - I saw a picture of one with about 75 legs. And someone apparently made one with no legs - he hung it from the ceiling. But that's a story for another time.) You could probably buy something similar to our four-legged table at Pottery Barn for about a hundred bucks. If I paid myself the average hourly wage of a Chinese worker, my table is already worth a couple of hundred and the little step stool I made earlier must be twice that.

In any case, you wouldn't think such a quiet little thing would be so hard to build. I mean, screw four Ikea legs to a board and you've got yourself a pretty good table in under an hour. But our table not only has legs - it has about 16 other pieces that have to come together precisely in the right order and to such extreme tolerances that it's almost like, well, rocket science.

Nevertheless, by the end of last week I was feeling reasonably good about the whole thing. While I wasn't as far along in the process as most of the other students, I was at least in the game. My first encounter with the router table to make sliding dovetail joints (A.K.A. "French Dovetails") that attach the three aprons to the legs had gone smoothly, and I was quite proud of the fact that they slid together nicely, with just enough wiggle room for the thin layer of glue that would come later. I had hand-cut two half-blind, half-lap dovetails and two mortise-and-tenons to join the top and bottom blades to the front legs. I'd done more of the above for the two runners and the top kicker and, while they weren't exactly pretty, I felt as if each joint was a bit better than the last. The only issue I'd had was a mistake in calculating the length of the runners and top kicker, but I'd recalculated and cut a half inch off each before making the joints. Whew. All that remained was to cut the legs to length, taper them, fit it all together, do the big glue-up, and the carcase would be done. (No, that's not a misspelling of "carcass," though I have to admit I do feel almost dead by Friday afternoon. It's another of those Woodworking/Scrabble words that means the framework or basic structure - essentially, a box.)

I'd also - finally - managed to get the glue-up done on my step stool and it was getting close to ready for it's first coat of finish. I could hardly wait to see that quartersawn oak gleaming with 7 coats of Tim's Secret Sauce hand-rubbed varnish.

Epic Fail!
Valentine's Day starts cheerily enough, with sunshine and heart cookies all around. Jim Tolpin repeats his dovetail demo, this time cutting the whole thing so precisely and so quickly (maybe 5 minutes start to finish) that I am in awe. Each time I watch him I learn a little more - a slight adjustment of the saw blade, a refinement of the chisel position, a modification in the mark-up procedure. It is getting easier, but he says I need to practice 9,987 more before it will become automatic.

Tim lays out the next steps for the table - there are 11 of them, and finishing the carcase joinery (where I am) is number one. Still, I'm confident I should be able to get through most of them by the end of the week. Tim has spent some time over the weekend tweaking the big band saw, which was giving us all fits on Friday while we were resawing boards for the drawer sides. It turns out the cast iron table on the saw was out of adjustment due to a missing support underneath, but it is now fixed. Maintaining the power tools is a big deal - they are really a bunch of babies needing constant attention. "We think of metal as invariant," Tim says, "But it's really not. Even cast iron continues to adjust shape over time."

My table parts are on my work bench and I am anxious to do a test fit before sizing and tapering the legs. I have numbered all the parts and joints in pencil, but it is still confusing. Alex has named his with fruits and vegetables, which is easier to sort out and is a lot more fun - on the next project, I think I'll name mine after my friends. You gotta love these young people.

I get everything stacked in order and I'm pleased that the sliding dovetails still slide as I begin the assembly. It's awkward getting it together without breaking any of the delicate joints but at last it is standing, if a bit shakily, without being glued. With a bit of massaging, the corners are squared and everything lines up. All that's left is to insert the two runners and the top kicker and -- AAACK! They are half an inch too short - that half-inch I cut off Friday afternoon. WTF!*

"Fail! Epic Fail!" I groan. And suddenly feel considerably better.

There's nothing to do but cut new runners and kicker and redo the joinery. I decide to recut the bottom blade as well, since, on closer inspection, I realize I'm not so happy with my earlier effort. This time it goes faster, and I actually end up glad for the do-over. While it's hard to admit, I learned a lot from my mistake, and the end result is better.

By week's end, I've finished the carcase joinery, crosscut, trued, edge-jointed and glued-up the boards for the top, smoothed and bevelled the top with a series of hand planes, cut the board for the drawer front, and glued-up the carcase. I'm still behind the other students' progress, but still in the game.

Here is Mark's table (so far), on the left with the drawer front and pull, and mine (so far) on the right. Monday I'll build the drawer and figure out some sort of cute knob or pull.

Over the weekend I put six coats of Tim's Secret Sauce on my step stool, rubbed it out with ever-finer sandpaper (240 - 600 grit) and it now shines like a little oak jewel. One last coat of varnish and a couple of coats of Skidmore's Liquid Beeswax and it will actually be done.

Oh yeah...*WTF: Woodworking Total Failure

1 comment:

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