Canadian Woodworking

Measuring up

Author: James Jackson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: June July 2020
Beginners journey
Beginners journey

Take a good look at this octagonal shelf I made for my eldest daughter a few years ago.
It’s not bad for a first try. The proportions are a bit off and I should have either made the dimensions smaller or used thicker wood, but overall it’s fine.

It’s when you really start to take a closer look at it that the bigger flaws become more obvious. Some of the segments are a fraction of an inch longer than others and some of the 22.5° angles at the cor­ners aren’t exactly 22.5 °.

That means there are some gaps where certain boards meet and the shelf isn’t completely square. The problems became even more obvious when I tried to install the middle shelf and it wouldn’t sit square.

I spent five minutes using a belt sander to make the shelf edge flush with the outer edge of the octagon.

And herein lies my No. 1 obstacle in becoming a truly success­ful woodworker —my lack of accuracy. Call it lazy, or maybe I feel rushed for time, but my overall attention to detail is probably the worst habit I have when it comes to working with my hands.
Whenever I tune into an episode of This Old House and I hear Tom Silva talking about how a measurement needs to be within 1/16th of an inch, my stomach turns into knots.

And when I pull out my tape measure to determine how long a piece of lumber is, my eyes just gloss over the smaller increments.
If it can’t be measured as a quarter inch, half an inch or three-quarters of an inch, I just assume I’ll be able to wedge, pound, shim, trim or force it later on. It’s much easier to round up or down, never mind the specifics. Maybe that’s a byproduct of my upbringing on the family farm, where things like fences or gates didn’t need to look particularly nice or elegant, they just needed to work.

Of course, this brute approach is just asking for trouble. Wasted wood, wasted time and frustration are all byproducts of not taking your time, measuring accurately and cutting carefully.

This inattention to detail is strangely out of character for me, as well. As a writer and newspaper reporter, I take my job seriously by ensuring the facts are correct.

Maybe since I’ve been doing that for more than a decade it just becomes second nature to me, the same way marking off the 1/16th mark on a tape measure is second nature to those who have been working wood for years.

Either way, the time has come for me to slow down, measure twice and take my time. It’s becoming clear that this is the real measure of a successful woodworker.

James Jackson - [email protected]

James is a woodworker, a freelance writer, a former newspaper reporter and father to two amazing girls.

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