Real-work Repair

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I’m sure you’ve heard this: What separates a good woodworker from a great one is his or her ability to hide mistakes.

Which is complete and utter crap in my opinion.

The really fantastic woodworkers I have worked with don’t make many mistakes at all. What they do encounter – like all of us – are times when the material fails. A weak spot in the grain breaks off or a tool encounters something unexpected in the wood.

These problems do require repair, and that is a good skill to have.

While there have been books and articles written about repairing woodwork, I’ve found them lacking. Usually the “mistake” was created by the person writing the article. So it usually requires a simple and straightforward fix.

And that is rare in the world of woodworking.

So here is a real-world repair I had to make last night on the campaign chest I’m building. After about 160 dovetails in the case and drawers, I was assembling the final joint when a corner of one of the tails disintegrated.

The joint was perfect enough. The wood was unexpectedly weak because of a resin pocket in the pine.

The bad news was that the part that crumbled went missing into the shavings. The good news is that I wouldn’t have wanted to use it anyway.

Step. 1. Stabilize the existing wood. I cut away anything that seemed loose or could be crumbled away with my thumb.

Step 2. Make a surface for joinery. Using a chisel, I cut the wounded wood until it was a regular rabbet. I measured the width of the rabbet at both its wide and narrow ends.

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Step 3. Make a patch. Using the drawer’s pin board as a template, I drew in the shape of the patch I needed on a piece of scrap pine. Then I sawed out the patch and smoothed the part with a block plane.

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Step 4. I glued up the drawer without the patch. Then I glued the patched in place, driving it in with a mallet. Finally I sawed and planed the patch flush. Right before I finish the piece I’ll draw in some grain lines to imitate the pitch – probably with a sharp permanent marker (orange ink).

— Christopher Schwarz

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About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to Real-work Repair

  1. I couldn’t disagree more with your first statement. Everyone makes mistakes. Krenov made mistakes. Maloof made mistakes. David Marks makes mistakes. You make mistakes, and so do I. Your blog reaches an audience that includes woodworkers of all skill levels. Repairing mistakes and damage invisibly IS the true measure of a true craftsman. Learning how to step back and assess the mistake you just made (and repair them) is crucial. Just my two cents.

    • tsstahl says:

      Are you sure you didn’t get hung up on verbiage? I just read, twice, what you and Chris wrote and they are in agreement.

      For the record, I agree, too!

  2. daltxguy says:

    Not ‘hide’ mistakes, but to recover from them without loss of integrity. And if that’s not possible, to have the honesty and patience to start over again or to change the design or method of work if necessary.
    And that was a nice recovery, even without getting out the crayons.

  3. robert725 says:

    Wow. I have to disagree with that blanket statement about not making mistakes. No less than Tage Frid discussed fixing mistakes in his books. That fix you just made – very similar to one that he described.

  4. robert725 says:

    Oh, also nice job on the fix. By my definition that rates your skills as a craftsman very highly.

    • johnwalkowiak says:

      I agree with the above comments. There is an old Chinese proverb that says: Show me a man who doesn’t do anything wrong (make mistakes) and I will show you a man who doesn’t do anything.

  5. Jack Palmer says:

    I think you’d have to define “many mistakes” because no matter how good you are ,mistake are a part of the craft. Hopefully we all strive to be better craftsman, and crafts women., but having worked for nearly forty years with wood ,show me someone who doesn’t make mistakes and I’ll show you a liar. But….. Very nice fix- works for me.

  6. Woodmolds says:

    If you don’t make any mistakes, you’re not doing any work!

  7. capie001 says:

    Chris, seems that you may have to explain the diffs between any and many.
    Very well done!
    Cheers

    • tsstahl says:

      Oh, that’s easy, ‘any’ is the feminine form, and ‘many’ is the masculine form. With regards to mistakes that is.
      *rim shot*

  8. Dave says:

    Very nice repair. These type of tips also are very handy for refurbishing antiques.

  9. redtractors1 says:

    Nice repair on your chest, Chris.

  10. gburbank says:

    Sometimes it’s the grey matter between the ears that fails us. Sometimes it’s a slip of the tool, or taking that one last shaving that was one too many. And yes, sometimes the material itself fails. Faced with this disaster, there are often dozens of ways to recover the project. Repair, remake, splice, dutchman, filler, magic marker; choosing the “best” one has to fit the circumstances. Making the decision and executing the solution efficiently to fit the particulars of the project are the hallmark of a great craftsman. Nice fix, by the way. They say there was only one perfect craftsman, and they nailed him to a cross.

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