Begin at the Bottom (or Back)

nicholson_corner_guard_IMG_2666

Even on my final project – pre-worm-food – I’m sure I’ll remind myself to “begin at the bottom or the back.”

What does that mean? Basically, whenever I perform an operation that will be repeated, I start by working the least-visible area. In a blanket chest, that means dovetailing the least-visible back corner first. When fitting drawers, I begin with the bottom drawer (which is the hardest to see when you are standing before the finished item). When installing hardware, I begin with the hinge, plate or pull that is hardest to see.

This should be obvious to everyone all the time. But when I teach classes and observe other woodworkers, almost all of them begin instead with the most visible joint, drawer, hinge etc.

nicholson_campaign_chest_june_2019_IMG_2674-(1)

Today I started installing all the strapwork and corner guards on this Nicholson three-tiered campaign chest. And I remembered to begin by first chopping out the mortises that will eventually face the wall. That allowed me to warm up and work out any details of my chopping and fitting process.

As luck would have it, these mortises (which no one else will see) also happened to be my most-perfect ones.

So drat. But still, always begin work at the bottom or back.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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17 Responses to Begin at the Bottom (or Back)

  1. Andrew Clayton says:

    That is some fine advice. Thanks

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  2. charlesinsea says:

    Are those torx drive screws in the back?

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  3. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack says:

    “Drat”? Really? In a hundred or two hundred years, when woodworking historians examine your campaign chest, they will be really impressed that you did such great work where no one would see it.

    Like

  4. Michael Brady says:

    Very handsome piece there, Mr. Schwarz,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Matthew Holbrook says:

    When you hand plane, do you first work on the back edges of the drawer and once you are warmed up you have your finest hand plane skills applied to truing the front edges of the drawer ?

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    • Yes. The drawer front (the visible part) is the last to be fit. So I plane up the drawer so it slides in easily – except the drawer front. Then I take my sweet time fitting the front with a consistent reveal.

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  6. Pascal Teste says:

    I too always start with the least visible areas. It’s reassuring to see that a professional like you proceeds in the same manner. Your campaign chest looks superb! Hopefully you will show us a few pics of it completed with the strap work installed. Thank you for sharing, it’s inspiring to see a nice pieces like that.

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  7. Daniel Williamson says:

    A couple of hours ago I didn’t do that on a piece I was working on. Totally flubbed it up. In a rage at myself I walked away. Went back after playing with my dog for a while and did the back parts. Got them right. Moved on to the newly remade front. Yes, it was that bad, and I’m not proud. The front went smoothly after that.

    Must.remind.myself.to.do.this.

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  8. Bruno Luecking says:

    Good advice! #wasfrontnowback is not always really an option….

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  9. Jack Ervin says:

    I see one thing wrong with the surface. When the hardware is removed the tear-out of the chisel marks will be visible.

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  10. Chris, your opening line reminded me of a story that was posted on rec.woodworking a long time ago. I’ve subsequently copied it to my website:
    http://www.woodwrecker.com/woodworking/woodstories.shtml#Masterpiece

    Like

  11. Chris Bame says:

    Great looking chest! Glad that Torx screw thing was clarified!!

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    • Mike says:

      torx screws are great and honestly an improvement over brass slotted screws in nearly every objective way. i guess slotted brass screws look nicer but that is subjective and for the rear of a non-period piece I would choose function over form, personally.

      Like

  12. Steve Dixon says:

    Chris 1. How has the 20 degree slanted vice on your Nicholson bench worked out? eve 2. How do you like the Knock-down bench in PWW after some time of use?

    3. I have considered extending my front face board left and m moving my leg vise 90 degrees. Have everactually used such a misfit? Thanks St

    Like

    • Hey Steve,

      No complaints on the Nicholson, its angled leg vise or the knockdown variant. Haven’t heard any significant complaints from others. Next change to the angled leg vise will be to add a Crisscross, which might not work so well.

      On your third question, many people have done what you suggest – many old workbenches have a vise set up like that with a horizontal chop and a parallel guide. I’ve not done it so I can’t speak to it.

      Like

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