Canadian Woodworking

Installation from HELL

Author: Don Wilkinson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: August 2007
Installation from hell
Installation from hell

I’m sure we have all had projects in which nothing has gone right. Often, those projects end up in the scrap heap or in the woodstove.

Last issue I spoke of “Projects from Hell”. I’m sure we have all had projects in which nothing has gone right. Often, those projects end up in the scrap heap or in the woodstove. Sometimes, in spite of all the problems, it is necessary to use the project anyway. Then, there it sits, lurking there, just waiting for you to accidentally glance over and notice it once again. It will haunt your every waking hour and cause you shame if ever you drop your guard and think about its myriad flaws.


And yet, it’s quite likely that you are the only person who would ever see the flaws and mistakes. In fact, you’re probably the one who will draw other people’s attention to them in the first place.

One such project of mine was something magnificent, a newborn beauty to behold. A creation that I could justly be proud of. That is, until it came time to install the thing!

At the time I was living in the Far North and owned a custom furniture shop. I was willing to take on any project that was brought to me, whether it be a full size carousel horse or a funeral urn for a lady’s husband. (Unfortunately, I made the lid a little too tight, and when she pried the lid off to disperse the ashes, they swirled in her face and covered her from head to toe in a gritty grey cloud. She wasn’t happy combing her husband out of her hair – but that’s another story).

One day the manager of a local electronics store brought over a set of blueprints and asked if I could put together a bid on supplying him with a series of display shelves, cupboards and a cash counter. The plans had been drawn up by the store’s national headquarters and were clearly the work of someone not even remotely familiar with woodworking, although the draftsman may have once seen a picture of a tree – from a distance. But that’s as close as he ever got to the building industry. Dimensions of various units were such that they would maximize wastage of material – panels that were one or two inches larger than the width or length of a standard sheet of plywood; solid wood edging precisely thick enough that I would have to plane more wood away than I would be left with; and custom arborite that would unerringly place a seam where it would be most obvious and likely to get damaged.

The culmination of his ineptness was a lovely, slant-topped cabinet that was a full two-and-a-half inches wider on the inside than it was on the outside. I looked it up and nowhere do the Laws of Physics cover such a possibility. One 16 foot cabinet needed to be placed between two concrete pillars and would be accessible from either direction by eight doors ranging along either side. The manager insisted, against my heartfelt urgings, that he would take all the dimensions necessary and fax them to me. Against my better judgment, I agreed. I prepared my bid with an extremely healthy profit built in to cover any further surprises, and to my utter astonishment it was accepted. After a few weeks of work, I announced that the units were complete and ready for inspection prior to pickup. It was at that point I was informed that I was to deliver, and then install the units myself. It was for situations exactly like that that I had so heavily padded my bid – which didn’t stop me from carefully explaining that delivery and installation would be extra. The client couldn’t really kick since he could readily see just how nice the units looked while sitting in my shop and not in his store.

Early Sunday morning, using a borrowed flat-bed truck with a mobile crane, I delivered the units. All went well and the store was beginning to look good until it came time to install the long unit. Using the crane, I carefully lifted the unit off the truck and lowered it safely to the carts I had specially made for it. Seven of us wheeled it into the store after first removing all of the door handles from the unit, as I had forgotten to consider the doorway’s width.

We carefully maneuvered the unit and slowly edged it between the pillars. It slid into place beautifully with barely a quarter inch to spare until it was in about six inches. And there it jammed solid. I measured the space and compared it to the measurements I had been faxed. Everything tallied on this side of the pillars. The other side was a different matter entirely. The posts had originally been poured with a slight twist to them and one side was a good ¾” narrower than the other.

While I was double-checking the measurements, the manager and assorted underlings unsuccessfully tried to bend, warp, and/or move the concrete pillars enough that the unit would slip into place. They had little luck so they sent for a sledge hammer and some cold chisels. It was at that point that I washed my hands of the whole job. Three hours of chiseling away 75-year-old concrete, some judicial slams of a 12 pound sledge hammer, six men jumping on the counter top and the removal of one end panel and the unit slid neatly into place with not a single door of the 16 aligned with any other. A few were never opened again.

The store’s grand opening was held five days later and the press and assorted dignitaries were invited. As was I, much to my surprise. I declined politely and demanded, in writing and duly notarized, the solemn promise that they would never, ever, reveal the identity of whomever it was that built that unit.

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