Rockin’…and the Bright Side of Failure

93 94 95 96 9799 98 100102103In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been taking this whole process very personally. To say that it has its triumphs and defeats is to describe my experience mildly. Here’s what’s been happening…

You’ll recall I had a joint alignment problem I was waiting to consult with Mark about. Well, I did, and as usual, he put things in perspective and helped me figure out a solution. To the left is an image of the joint after I cut it on the router and before I chiseled it past its point of fitting properly. Currently, one side fits well and the other…doesn’t. The side that fits well is shown below. While I waited to talk with Mark I forged ahead with other things. I added extra laminations to the rockers in the approximate spots where the legs will meet them. I will sculpt them down once the leg is attached so the joint is faired and smooth, as opposed to the leg and rocker meeting at a blunt, perpendicular connection. This went fairly smoothly (no pun intended). While the glue was drying I started sanding my frame pieces. I now know each side of the frame will need to be glued up for me to know exactly where the seat meets them, and once they are glued up, sanding will be slightly more awkward, so I did a first pass with eighty-grit before moving forward.











I used the random-orbital sander as well as sanding by hand with a flat block with sandpaper glued to it.

This helps flatten out any uneven edges left over from the belt sander or band saw and makes sure I don’t just continue t104o sand down any lower grooves. The block rides along the high parts and smooths everything down to one level.

Then I glued up the armrest/front frame connection (above). This was a flush fit with a lot of glue surface-area that won’t ever be in tension, so I didn’t need to use all that much pressure to clamp it together.

With the extra rocker laminations now dry, I was able to cut the rockers down to width. I did this by running them over the jointer until I had one flat side, and then running the other side through the table saw…carefully. That weird, brush-looking thing on the table saw is a featherboard. I pushed my hip into it as I ran the rocker through the saw and it, in turn, kept the rocker pushed against the fence tighter than I might be able to do by hand. I had to run the rocker through the saw slowly to make sure I was keeping the curved pieces as flat as possible on the table, and as a result, they came through with some burn marks (kind of like my soul in the upcoming paragraphs…stay tuned!), but I sanded these out by hand afterwards.106107







I finally met with Mark about my seat joint. I explained that I felt like my options were to either cut a quarter inch off on either side, effectively removing my mistake and starting over with a slightly narrower seat, or to repair the joint with an extra wedge of wood. Mark agreed these were two viable options but proposed a third option that is so crazy it just might work.

Rather than shrink my seat down a little–which I widened after the mock-ups felt a little narrow–and risk losing some comfort, I am going to cut the one side off that I screwed up, and actually glue a new strip back on!

109110Honestly, I am OK with repairs being apparent (which you’ll see very shortly is lucky for me!) as long as they are done well. If a piece of furniture lives its life with its user, gradually accumulating associations with experiences and memories over time, then why shouldn’t it also do this during its life with its maker?

All was plotting along swimmingly…and then the tornado hit…I unclamped the armrest/front frame glue up–now dry–and ran off back to work an event for my job for the next day and a half. When I came back yesterday to get back to work in the shop, I realized that one of the leg-frame tenon joints had opened slightly!


This makes no sense. It has been glued up for weeks now. There was only a little tension on this joint while this piece was being glued to the armrest, and you would think if it was able to open like this with a little pressure, it would also be able to close back up with a little pressure, and yet it doesn’t. It took John Vehko and I both putting clamping pressure on it at the same time to get the joint to close back up a little bit. Since it seems to have opened slowly overnight, I left it clamped together last night to see if it will also close slowly overnight. Even if it does, I will have to put a dowel pin through it to secure the joint, which will be visible, as there’s no way I’m getting it open again to add glue, and then closed again. Good thing I’m OK with repairs showing, eh? This will be an obvious one!

Failure never feels good. I don’t think anyone actually likes failure, and I will go back in to the shop today and feel angry at this whole situation. Of this I am one hundred percent certain. However, this failure also helps to reveal one of my greatest triumphs. When I saw the failed joint and showed John and he actually didn’t know how to fix it (he knows how to fix everything!) I was horrified. I called Mark in a panic, in the middle of his work day. He not only answered, but also took a few minutes from the install he was working on for his own business to talk to me about my problem and help me come up with a plan to solve it. It is in moments like that one, when I was on the phone with Mark, that I am overwhelmed with the incredible support I have around me and the way that life seems to be working out. I moved to Austin “for fun for the summer” eleven years ago. I screwed around working at a coffee shop for a few years and I have often felt that if I had just gotten serious a little sooner, that maybe I would have life figured out by now, or maybe I’d be a huge success already, or know exactly what I want. But after talking with Mark on the phone, I was overcome with happiness as I realized that I have somehow managed to put myself in the position of having a role model and mentor whom I admire so much and who cares about what I’m doing enough to interrupt his own work to talk to me and help me see that everything is OK and that this process is good and every part of it matters. I am realizing that I am working on something right now that I care about enough that it keeps me awake at night and brings me to tears of both joy and sadness. I have this kind of amazing support in other areas of my life that move me this much too, but since this is a blog about my chair, and since I’m already probably grossing you out, I’ll keep it about the chair. This realization wouldn’t happen without failure and the people who step up for me in the face of it. I know for certain, right now, that I am doing something very right as my life is exactly as it should be.

Postcards from the Edge








I actually haven’t seen this movie, but I think I’m going to watch it tonight. A 1990 comedy/drama sounds like just the ticket. Phew! It has been a big few days! Good and bad things have happened. I cut the end of the armrests to match the angle of the front frame so they connect smoothly. I did this by angling the blade on the miter saw. Once the two chair parts lined up, I cut the joint, which is a floating tenon, so I had to cut mortises in both pieces that were being connected.77

The School of Architecture has an incredible shop. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned that before. It is maintained by John Vehko, a former naval machinist turned educator. John is a cranky man with a big heart and an incredible mind for how to figure things out. 78 Often, I’ll know what I want an outcome to be, but just not be sure how to get there, and John tells me six different ways to do it after thinking about it for five seconds. It’s incredible. Anyway, the point of this digression is to say that the shop has a really cool horizontal mortiser, which makes life good. It allows you to set the height, depth, and width of your mortise really really easily. If you look at the photo above, the lever on the left slides the table from side to side to cut the width and the lever on the right slides the spinning bit in and out to cut the mortise to depth. I clamped boards on either side and on top of the frame piece to keep it in place and so the second piece gets cut at exactly the same angle. I first made a full-depth cut on one end of the mortise, then another full-depth cut on the other side. Then I made shallow passes in between the two holes to cut out the rest of it. I did it this way so the shavings and sawdust had somewhere to go, as opposed to tightening up inside the uncut mortise and burning from the friction.



Then I repeated on the other frame piece, then I went through the same process on the armrests. With both mortises cut, I now had the size information I needed to cut the tenons, which I did on the planer and the table saw and then sanded the corners and trimmed down the length until they fit snugly and held together the frame and armrest!

82They close up flush, but I wanted you to see the “inner workings” (below). 84

Tenons don’t have to float; they can actually just be part of one of the boards, but I wanted to be able to test out the alignment of the pieces before I cut the joint and not having a tenon sticking out from one end from the get-go allowed me to do this.

With three sides of each frame complete (the fourth being the rockers), it was time to notch in the seat. The back connection is literally a notch where the back of the seat sits inside (below), and the front connection is more of a lap joint, where each of the two pieces sort of grabs the other one.85 To cut the back notch, I created a jig for the router. The jig is essentially a guide that only allows the router bit to go where I wanted it to, and stops the router from moving beyond the joint, essentially by clamping or screwing other boards in the way. The fence rides along the boards sitting on top of the chair frame and then there are additional boards on top of those that act as a barrier. The spinning bit cuts the notch and you move the router within the selected area to be cut by hand.86

Since the router bit is round and the notches are square, they have to be chiseled out afterwards to square the corners. There seems to be a lot of this incongruity in joinery: round cuts, square joints. The good thing is that you wind up cutting the joint a little too small with the router and then adjusting little by little until it’s the right size to fit the piece that goes into it. Too small is always better than too big. You can’t put material back. 87Well, in some cases you can, but let’s not worry about that right now. In general, too small > too big.

Oh wait, did I say let’s not worry about that now? I think I jinxed myself by saying that. I wrote that yesterday and I should have known better, I mean been more superstitious. I repeated a similar process on the actual seat, where it will grab the legs–routing out a smaller chunk so I could chisel it to size afterwards–only I made the mistake of checking it against the leg/frame without the leg being connected to the armrest and back frame. As a result, the frame piece fits onto the seat, but now doesn’t fit perfectly into the armrest. I am mad. In hindsight, I should have glued up the frame first, and then cut the notches for the seat…in hindsight. So, now I’m left with a dilemma, do I slightly adjust the way the three frame pieces connect to one another or try to repair the joint that is off? Given that the frame pieces all fit together really well at this point, I’m inclined to try to repair the joint, but I will need a professional consultation before proceeding. I don’t meet with Mark until Tuesday, so I will get John’s opinion tomorrow and work on something else in the meantime. Stay tuned…


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Back to the Grind

Thank God this isn’t a post about coffee. As it is I can barely stand the mawkish inanity. If you come up with a better title, please comment.

I’ve totally been neglecting the backrest and it was time to get to it. First, I bent a thin piece of wood over the board to create a shallow arc. I traced the arc and then made relief cuts up to the line of the arc with the bandsaw. I did this because the depth of the board might cause the blade to bind up otherwise. The relief cuts provide–you guessed it–relief to the tension on the blade. I then cut along the arc. I did this to both boards and then glued them up.







When the glue was dry I started grinding down the backrest, just like I did to the seat, which I worked on a little more too. I alternated between grinding, sanding, and scraping, and the curve of the backrest officially began to take shape.















The grinder is pretty intense and creates swirl-shaped scratches, and the sander and scraper started smoothing them down. While this is all work I need to do, I did it this week and not later on because I’ve been avoiding final-checking the frame so I can start cutting the joinery. Something was off measurement-wise and I couldn’t figure out what. Eventually I had to bite the bullet…aaaaaaand I figured it out…aaaaaaand it was pretty bad. Somehow my full-scale drawing from which I made my frame template pieces had the armrest about four inches shorter than on my mock-up! Seriously! I’ll give you a second. It’s a lot to process. Mind you, the mock-up is pretty comfortable and this is the information I need to follow most closely.

What this meant was that the seat wasn’t fitting in the frame as I’d planned and the armrest/seat relationship wasn’t as I’d planned. AND, it meant that if I adjusted anything to fix this, it either changed the length of the armrest or the angle of the backrest, you know, no big deal.

71I took apart my mock-up, thinking perhaps that changing the angle of the backrest might be the lesser of the two evils, but it wasn’t. It was very evil and I was totally freaking out. At this point, everything I did went terribly. The drill battery died, I stripped out a few screws, I made a small tear in my pants bigger, a board banged my knee really hard. I would have left the shop but I was waiting to talk to Mark and so I stayed on the crazy train until he came and talked me off the ledge. 72He is a calm presence and I’ve been grateful for this many times. After I explained the issue, which I’d been mulling over for over three hours, in about thirty seconds he suggested putting the mock-up back to how it was supposed to be, and then trying shortening the armrests. I did, and it wasn’t so bad. So, this is what I did next. I shortened the armrests an inch and a half. I recut the mortises and thinned the armrests down, and it really didn’t affect much at all, but it did solve my problem. The frame still isn’t exactly as I planned, but it’s much, much better. I am now finally able to move forward finishing up the armrest joints.

The rest of the week will be spent cutting the mortises and tenons on the other ends of the armrests and cutting the lap and dado joints that will hold the seat in place. I may lose sleep over this, so bear with me.



Dancing with Myself

I am realizing I need a day or two between what happens in the shop and posting about it. I need time to digest and figure out what it actually means in the grand scheme of things. If I came right home and wrote about my experiences, I think I might just seem mad all the time, or overly emotional about things. Most days in the shop involve feelings of starting anew, optimism, utter defeat, twinges of hope, resolve, triumph, despair, the list goes on. It’s all too jumbled up right when I leave, a tumbleweed.
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I tried clamping up all the pieces I have, which is great, because I’m able to see that it wilI, in fact, be a chair when all is said and done. However, this turned out not to be the best system for holding everything together. Any time I tried to adjust anything, the whole thing fell apart. In fact, one of the joints completely popped open. Now, this seems really odd since wood glue is really, really strong. Remember that one joint I took apart at the very end of the glue up when I realized it just wasn’t working? Well, it seems that even though I wiped out as much glue as I could, it wasn’t enough, and when I glued up the joint for real, the glue didn’t want to stick to itself. Needless to say, this wasn’t a great day. I walked away from the joint and decided to sharpen my scrapers instead. This is done by rubbing the sides back and forth on a whetstone until they’re really flat, then rubbing the top side on the stone to create a sharp right angle, and then creating a bur by passing a steel dowel over the top at an angle (not pictured). This went well, and I left feeling slightly less defeated.

The next day, after the joint disaster, I sanded and filed out the inside of the mortise and all over the tenon much more thoroughly. I needed to basically recreate the porous surface for the glue to stick to. I re-glued the joint and it hasn’t fallen apart yet, but we’ve still got plenty of time! I told Igor about this episode and my frustration with being able to hold everything together and he suggested just looking at the situation differently, which helped. I need to look at the challenges of working on my own as one of the constraints of the project. It’s a parameter I need to find solutions to just like any other.

In response to this constraint I built kind of an armature that I could clamp the pieces to, and after plugging away at this for a few hours Mark pointed out that I actually didn’t need to be doing this at all. I was building this thing so I could figure out exactly where each piece was going to meet each other piece, and the truth is that I have already done all the planning and mock-ups for this exact reason. I already have all this information. Sooooo, there goes a few hours I can’t get back, but also a lesson learned to trust the work I’ve already done. Another reason I built the armature was to avoid having to wok on the armrest joints. This is one of those critical steps I really don’t want to screw up, so if I don’t do it, I can definitely avoid this problem.










I always wear ear protection in the shop. The dust collector alone is incredibly loud and it’s much more pleasant with the sound drowned out. When I’m not using a machine I also put music on inside my ear protectors. As a result, I often realize I’ve been dancing by myself to music only I can hear. I talked with my coworker David today about how I’ve been lying awake at night mulling over joinery, my process schedule, and these critical moments like moving ahead with the armrest joints. He made a bed last semester in a short amount of time and I know he’s familiar with the feelings of anxiety I’ve been having, understanding that each new move being made could explode the whole project. He pointed out that when he took Mark’s class he noticed that Mark would say everything he was doing out loud. Obviously he’s doing this because he is teaching people, but perhaps it’s also a system of checks and balances. So, today, in addition to dancing by myself I began talking to myself (more deliberately than usual). I forged ahead and cut the armrest joints, and they work!


I learned today that if I leave immediately after accomplishing something successfully, my outlook is much better. Success?…I’m out.

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D pulled me over and said “hide your gold. The girl is crafty like ice is cold.”

I’m not a thief, just conveniently both a lover of the Beastie Boys and a female craftsman (one of which I’m a veteran at). 38 Here’s what’s been happening on the ranch: I had a little repair work to do after those glue ups didn’t go exactly as planned. There are a few joints that don’t close up totally perfectly all the way through and so I filled those tiny gaps with a mixture of super glue and mahogany sawdust. 39A good woodworker will be able to spot this if she’s looking, but it’s pretty unlikely anyone else will notice this. Mark always says that being able to make repairs is also part of the craft and I’m learning more and more how large a part of the process it is (for me). This is not to say that there isn’t a point at which something should actually be done over again because it’s just not good enough, but that minor imperfections, which will always happen, can be toned down, hidden, or even played up depending on intention of the piece. I am also learning that superglue and sawdust look really gross when they dry on your finger.

After this, I moved on to the rockers, something I felt a little more confident about having done a couple successful mock ups a few weeks back. I cut 1/4″ strips on the table saw, kept them in the same order, spread glue in between each layer, and then bent them over this heavy-duty foam form. I started with the middle clamps and then worked my way out. I repeated with the second rocker.

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And I’m now back in unfamiliar territory. I began the process of trimming down the legs, being careful to leave them long so I can still adjust as necessary as I start to assemble all the separate pieces together. There are two pieces on the back frame and two pieces on the front frame, and the pairs didn’t line up exactly once they went through the band saw separately, so I then took them to the belt sander, clamped together, to make sure the separate pieces in each pair are the same size and shape. In doing these steps, I trimmed down the extra material on the tenons I glued in last week, and most of the joints are looking better than I had feared.

44 45 46It’s now actually possible –if I stand way back–to see the whole piece taking shape in elevation.  48

The Soul of Struggle

photo 1photo 2My cousin Naomi is in Argentina and sent me these photos she took of trees in Ushuaia where the winds average eighty miles per hour–forming many of the glaciers in the region–and the soil is just inches thick. The trees look windblown but frozen in space at the same time, almost like, well, someone took a photograph. Here, the trees speak directly of their environment. You would know it’s windy there without my having told you. It’s obvious from the character of the trees. There’s something creepily human about them, like tortured souls whose feet are bound to the ground and yet they perpetually try to escape. Wood with a soul, I’m sure.

Churning, Crashing, Burning

Jad Abumrad talks about the early days of his now-rockin’ radio show Radiolab, speaking of the life-or-death feeling that comes with the creative process: that feeling that even if no one is paying attention to what you are doing (even if no one is reading your blog, for example), it is making or breaking your entire life in that moment. He describes it as the “radical uncertainty that you feel when you try to work without a template,” and recognizes “how crummy it feels to try to make something that’s new.”* Now, it doesn’t feel terrible all the time, but when it does, it’s important to recognize that it means that you are forging ahead. It feels terrible because you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re figuring it out and continuing despite your setbacks.

Perhaps I am deliberately looking for validation that my failures are OK, but I feel like this talk by Abumrad as well as another article on anxiety and creativity found me at just the right time (thanks to Shota Yamaguchi and Dave McClinton). For Kierkegaard, anxiety arises as a product of staring the abyss of possibility in the face. It is an abyss we can fall into and fail to climb out of, or it is an abyss we fall into and swim in. The “dizzying effect of freedom” and “boundlessness of one’s existence”** can be stifling or can be generative. I am reluctant to say that my anxiety is generative, as it feels stifling, but I have completed zero projects without generous doses of it, so it is surely a part of my being able to produce.

I begin with this lesson as I had a good, easy experience followed by a harrowing failure. Here’s what happened:

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With the help of this handy jig, I cut the mortises on the dado pack at 3/8″ thick. I had to turn the jig backwards in order for the boards fit centered over the blades, which required a little tinkering on John Vehko’s (our shop manager) part, and a little extra clamping for safety on my part. Remember when I had the pieces misaligned on my armrest mock-up? It’s OK–I do, and as a result I avoided this mistake this time. The mortise-cutting went smoothly and everything lines up perfectly. Small victory!












The next step was cutting tenons to the right thickness to hold the joint together and then figuring out how to hold together two pieces meeting end to end at an angle in order to glue them up.

29I planed down the tenons little by little until they squeezed right in to the mortises. Another success. Then I set to making jigs so that clamps would have two parallel planes to register to in order to hold the angled pieces together. I did this by measuring the angles of the pieces I want to join, and then cutting pieces for the jig at the complementary angle to make ninety degrees. The table saw blade tilts, which is very convenient. Once I wrapped my mind around how this needed to work, it went fairly easily.

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Given how logical this whole process is and how according to plan it went, it seems like the glue up should go just as well, right? Wrong. From here on out, things took a dark and twisted turn. Even though I checked and checked and checked again, the mortises weren’t totally square. It truly baffles me as to how this might have happened, but it did.








They were only a hair off, higher on one side than the other, but this is enough to mean that the joint won’t close up perfectly tightly. I was afraid if I cut them down on the miter saw again, they would still be off, since this is the tool I used to cut them in the first place, and I didn’t want to spend hours upon hours making jigs for the table saw since there are actually four different angles I would have to figure out, and I didn’t trust myself enough with a hand-plane to shave off just the right amount. So, I opted for a sanding block with 150-grit paper and I worked little by little to get the high side down.

36In the end, I somehow only made things worse (the image above with the square is after I put things further out of whack). I eventually had to suck it up and trim the mortises down again on the miter saw. This worked fine–not perfect–but better than it was before, and I just have to live with it. I wish I hadn’t wasted two hours attempting to fix things with a sanding block, but you live and learn, I guess. With everything more-or-less square, I did a test run on gluing the joint up with my new jigs and it went great, so I moved on to the real thing, which went horribly horribly wrong. The tenon was a little tight when it was dry, and once I applied glue inside the mortise, the wood swelled and I could barely get the tenon to go all the way in. I struggled and clamped and unclamped and squeezed and sweat and cursed, and finally, as the glue became less workable, I had to admit defeat and just take it apart. I was able to wipe the glue out. I moved on to a different joint with a looser tenon, which I thought would be better, but this time I wasn’t able to close the joint up all the way and I have no idea why and it was too late before I realized. I now have a small gap in a critical part of the chair that I will have to repair and hope that no one notices (though I suppose the cat is out of the bag!). I don’t have pictures because I was just too mad about it. This is life and death people! The end of the end! OK, so of course it’s not life and death, but it felt like it: the terrible jump into the abyss of possibility and the coming up for air only to find you’re still leagues under water.

I did what any reasonable woodworker would do. I went for some retail therapy and had a margarita.

I’m going back today with a clearer mind and a calmer demeanor, and hopefully this will amount to a full oxygen tank.

*Jad Abumrad, “Why ‘Gut Churn’ is an Essential Part of the Creative Porcess.” 99U. (accessed March 8, 2014).

**Maria Popova, “Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Creativity.” Brain Pickings. (accessed March 8, 2014).