“Whatever you do, don’t mess this up. Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess this up.”
These were the thoughts hurtling through my mind as I drilled and reamed the mortises for my first “chair-like” project—a pair of staked saw benches. I’m sure that everyone has felt the same during the critical stage of a build – the fear that the hard work on a project is about to be undone in one swift misjudged moment.
This story starts, as many woodworking anecdotes do, with a tool acquisition. In this case, it was a Disston D8 ripsaw made in 1900; my first really good handsaw. As a luthier I’d not had much need for full-sized handsaws, but as I started making more furniture I needed a pair of good handsaws and some solid sawbenches to saw at. Settling on the staked sawbenches from Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Design Book, I figured that the staked construction would be a useful introduction to building chairs and other legged pieces.
Now, if you’re used to flat work, or lutherie, the compound angles needed for chairmaking are enough to give you a fit of the vapours. Drilling the leg mortises through the bench top went smoothly enough, but reaming the mortises for the conical tenon, without inadvertently changing the leg angle, was a terrifying prospect. So there I was, holding my breath, gingerly rotating the brace and cautioning myself against any slight body movements that might impact on the angle. Predictably, the leg mortises were noticeably skew-whiff, like Bambi walking on ice.
I had two choices : scrap the benchtop and start again, or press on with an ungainly (but probably useable) sawbench. I had other projects waiting for me, so I decided to glue up the sawbench. And you know something? It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in the workshop, because it taught me not to be afraid of failure. We all want to produce our very best work, and no one likes to be reminded of the times when something didn’t go to plan. But sometimes accepting a significant error and continuing work can be beneficial for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we all know people who scrap a component as soon as it isn’t perfect. In fact, we’ve all been that person. But the problem with being that person is that by always starting over you never actually get to make anything, and your skill set progresses at a slower rate than if you kept building. Secondly, a well-designed and executed project will be functional. But how far can you test a form before it fails? Knowing where to find the boundary between what works and what doesn’t takes experience and some mistakes.
Knowing where to find the boundary between what works and what doesn’t takes experience and some mistakes.
Although the leg angles of my first sawbench were askew, once assembled, the bench was perfectly stable and useable, even if no one would ever say it was good looking. Shop projects are perfect for this risk taking. Often they use cheaper material than the fine furniture you have planned for the house, and if it all goes terribly wrong no one need know but you. So, yes, aspire to create your very best work every time you step up to the workbench, but don’t be afraid of failure, and don’t be too hasty to consign mistakes to the burn pile —they might still have a use.
And that sawbench? Despite its cattywampus legs it’s served me well for several years. I’ve used it to break down more rough boards than I can count. It’s been a finishing platform, an assembly table where I sit to eat my lunch, and at times, a stool for guitar playing. At my daughter’s second birthday party we even fetched it out of the shop to use as extra seating. It might not be the prettiest thing I’ve made, but it serves me well nearly every day I’m in the workshop. And you can’t ask for more than that.