I wish I were a better sawyer. Sometimes I wish I could pull off a nice French polish. But mostly, I wish I could stick to the script.
When I teach people how to make a chair, tool chest, workbench or anything, really, I find myself presenting it as a series of ritualistic steps. I do this, I suppose, because it’s how I approach many small tasks in the workshop.
If I follow every step to the letter, I end up with a beautiful furniture component. If I don’t, then it’s “Klaatu! Barada!… mumble mumble.” And the next thing you know the Army of the Dead shows up, and the project is hacked to pieces.
Sam Rami references aside, I am a strict ritualist when it comes to small tasks in the workshop. To me, they are not constricting. They are like singing old hymns in church. Everything you need for a transcendental experience is right there on the page. Just follow the notes.
When I glue up a chair, I have a ritual. Every part has been numbered in the same way since I built my first chair 17 years ago. Every leg points to its mortise. Every tool is laid out the same way since back when I barely had a beard.
When I assemble a dovetailed case, I have even more complex rituals for marking, clamping and checking for square.
(Side note: These rituals aren’t static. They are improved upon little by little until I get the same results every time. And I’m always open to altering them if I can find [and then test] a better way.)
These rituals didn’t come from a book. Or from a teacher. Instead, they came from grief after a failed operation. So I sat down and figured out what steps would prevent that failure from ever happening again. They are my own private religion.
And they sometimes put me in my own private hell. Today I was laminating some wide boards of Southern yellow pine face to face. I have a ritual for that, which I first created when I built my $175 Workbench in 2001.
There are many parts to this ritual (stand up, sit down, kiss yourself). But the most important parts are:
- Clamp. Check both sides of the joint for gaps. Walk away for 5 minutes. Retighten the clamps all to the same pressure.
- Let the assembly sit in the clamps for a minimum of five hours. Overnight is better.
Today as I removed the assembly from the clamps, I realized I had forgotten an important part of the ritual – checking both sides of the joint for gaps. I turned the component over, and it was a mess. I asked myself: Can I live with this?
And that triggered another ritual: “If I ask myself a question, then I already know the answer.”
I set the crap part aside to be salvaged in some way. And I went down to the basement to get more yellow pine.
— Christopher Schwarz