The Art of Self-interrogation


If I ever have a motto painted above the door of my shop, it will be: If you have to ask the question, then you know the answer.

Today I glued up a large tabletop – almost 8’ long – out of four boards. When I get into panels this large, I use a biscuit joiner, Domino or doweling jig to keep the boards aligned during glue-up.

Everything went swimmingly until the clamps went on. Apparently I had knocked the fence of my Domino while cutting the joints and hadn’t noticed. The boards in the middle seam were out by 1/32”.

With a large tabletop, that misalignment will equal an extra hour or more of hard handplaning in reverse-grain white maple.

As soon as I wiped away the glue I asked myself: Do I need to redo that joint?

The question was the only answer I needed. This evening I will rip the panel in two and try again.

When I was a beginning woodworker I used to wrestle with problems like this. I’d fool myself into thinking I could overcome the error. Or I’d put off the decision – then get up at 2 a.m., go down to the shop and examine the work in my underwear. (And I wonder why we are never invited to our neighborhood BBQ’s?)

Now I just make the decision and plow forward, even it’s the hard road.

And I sleep a lot better, too.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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37 Responses to The Art of Self-interrogation

  1. Tektōn Guild says:

    I was just asking myself if I need to modify the lid on my Dutch tool chest. The lid isn’t opening exactly as I had hoped after installing the hinges. I was thinking about putting it off, but I think you just answered my question. Time to take her back apart… I believe a thank you is in order.

    • john says:

      Ha! Me too except it is on the Baby Anarchist Tool chest. The chest is a bit out of square and after the hinges were installed it was a little more out so I am remaking the battens to fit perfectly and not protrude on the ends.

  2. Yup – That’s called hard earned experience. The harder it’s been to obtain, the less the doubt whether it’s good enough or not. The shades of grey disappear and bring black and white closer together, in the sense that you know from experience what works and what doesn’t. Clarity.

    This by the way, is also how stubborn grumpy old men come to exist. Stubborn because they know the difference, and grumpy because the young won’t listen!

  3. Alex A. says:

    I wish I had used biscuits when I glued up the top for my dining table last year. Even though I was working in small sections it would have made the entire process less stressful.

  4. And what is good, Phaedrus,
    And what is not good—
    Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

  5. Archer Yates says:

    You might want to take a look at the Jessem dowel jig I added an extra bar and plug so I gould change from each side of facing boards to the dowels and plugs will be spot on in registration for a perfect match. I also bought dowels from Jessem ,straight grained Canadian hard maple. They are slightly oversize so when you do your dry fit, don’t use them all because its a real pain to get them apart. Ever since I first read James Kernov writings about the strength of dowels I have used them. The Cabnietmakers note Book 1978. My copy was a 1982 edition. The issue with dowels is it requires exactness in using them. JessEM is the first doweling jig that is very precise. JessEm is a small company and they work on “Canadian Time”, but their products have been excellent. I have had issues with a biscuit joiner before an Ely . I sold it and now have gone back to dowels. Archer Yates 12291 Red Fox Way Broomfield,CO 80021 Recently moved from Asheville,NC and sold most of my machinery before the move. I kept my INCA 10inch jointer and Planner combo but are trying to set my shop up to look like an 18th century woodworking shop. I keep my Powematic mortiser and Festool TS75EQ hidden in the back for just in case.:)


  6. tsstahl says:

    ” down to the shop and examine the work in my underwear.”

    My laundry room is right next to my inside shop. One morning I was starting a load of laundry after showering. I figured I’d fiddle with the project on the bench while waiting for… whatever. After about 20 minutes I realized the bathrobe was thrown over the foosball table and I was standing in my skivvies planing some nasty end grain for far too long.

    Now I don’t feel so much like a neanderthal lost in time. 🙂

  7. Robert Lindh says:

    Did the same with a 6 ft. long dining table for my son…only it was over the finish…got up form bed …. to re-evaluate it and ended up nearly all night stripping it and refinishing. Hell of a night!!!

  8. pfollansbee says:

    good judgement is the result of experience, and experience is the result of poor judgement.
    And I hate maple.

  9. Eric R says:

    I have actually gone out there, underwear and all, in the middle of the night to check on important glue ups or to see how the finish is drying.
    Comforting to know one of the big-shots has the same affliction…

    Thanks Chris.

  10. I know exactly what you mean. Redoing the work is nearly always a better solution than trying to salvage a botched job. I’ve also found that I’m far more sanguine about my mistakes than I used to be – which results in making fewer mistakes. The whole process becomes more enjoyable with every hour of experience under my belt.

    • ejcampbell says:

      A hearty second! Mistakes used to devastate me; now I just mentally add in the time needed to fix them right and get on with it. Also agree that with more experience and confidence the process becomes more enjoyable. Thanks for the insights.

  11. Sounds like something I’d do . . . Table top looks good though.

    Sent from my iPad

  12. momist says:

    Biscuits? Dowels? Hmm, what would Roubo have used? Ah, plough plane and loose tongue. I’ve done that, and it doesn’t take too long. You can rely on your plough (plow).

  13. kendewitt608 says:

    Thanks Chris, I also had the problem with a DeWalt biscuit joiner that had a fall. after a long time I gave up the fight and made a new set of doors.

  14. treg4057 says:

    Woodworking boxers could be the next big thing!

  15. heidtwd says:

    Put your Sawstop in bypass if you’re going to rip that soon after gluing.

    • No need with the new programming.

      • admiralbumblebee says:

        Could you elaborate more please? I don’t own a sawstop, but I’m interested. I can’t seem to find info on any new programming in that regard.

        • You should call SawStop. At some point they reconfigured their machines so they don’t go off when encountering pockets of glue. I was told this by a SawStop rep, but I don’t have the specific details.

          I can say that I’ve sawn through pockets of wet glue and never had a misfire.

  16. Rachael Boyd says:

    I have had the same thing happen before. so wanting to stay old school I started using tongue and grove plane and it fixed it just fine. as far as the underwear thing I can’t do that as my shop is in a different building. but in the summer I do work in a bikini and flip flops.

  17. The question you might have asked is if you are safe glueing more than two pieces of wood at the same time on a project where alignment mattered.

    I had a gig years ago where I had to make that decision, and the failure rate burned the answer into my brain.

    • Nah. Four boards is usually no problem for me.

      But that’s me. You are right that some people should limit themselves to two until they gain confidence.

  18. You must have tough neighbors. Mine are pretty laid back. I don’t even have to wear underwear at their BBQs.

  19. skywalker011 says:

    Thats the best post i’ve seen from you in a while. That taught me more than i’ve learned in a very long time. Moving forward with a greater sense of knowledge! Thank you.

  20. ejcampbell says:

    I just finished re-reading your first book, Workbenches, and I had read p 112 twice through because it resonated with me so strongly. That thought has rescued a few projects over the years since first reading it and I have never regretted taking the extra time to go back and make something right. It’s a message that bears repeating.

  21. Paul Knapp says:

    I’ve built more boardroom tables than I care to remember. We used to always cut a 1/4″ slot with a router on each board, stopping well short of the ends. Then, we’d insert a 1/4″ MDF spline and glue them up. The result was perfectly flat a table top that required almost no work to flush the joints. The problem with Dominos or Lamellos, or what ever type of joiner tool you choose, is the weight of the tool is on the wrong side of the cut. With a large platten router, most of the weight is over top of the board and this keeps the cut perfectly dimensioned to the top, board after board.

  22. abtuser says:

    This came up in an email conversation once, and ripping panel on the seam was the agreed upon choice. I was using a TS 75.

  23. In order that people remember them I am notorious for rather pompous saying such as ” The fault lies not in making the mistake but in not knowing how to correct it.”

  24. skilledno says:

    Yes, if you think you’ve f****d it up you probably have. Amazing how long it takes us as a species to cotton on.

  25. waltamb says:

    I suppose the mental heal professionals have a name for doing something, realizing it either is or could be wrong, but not stopping mid way to self correct.
    We all have had those moments.
    Onwards and Upwards…

  26. toolnut says:

    Yup. If I find myself asking the question its not because I don’t know what to do, it’s because I do and I’m trying to talk myself into an easier (and usually not the proper) solution. This goes for anything I do, not just woodworking.

    Hope you remember to get dressed when you get inspired in the new place.

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