My Grandma West spent a large part of her life observing my grandfather, Joe, and my uncle, Tom, at work – either on a house or in the shop. Both were skilled woodworkers, among other things, but each had a different way of looking at the craft.
“Joe could look at a staircase or some other project and knew exactly how everything should go together,” she told me once. “Tom could look at the same project and knew exactly how everything could go wrong.”
When the two worked together, it was a struggle at times.
Though my DNA doesn’t indicate it, I inherited exactly equal parts of Grandad and Uncle Tom. The Grandad chain of DNA is the “hell yes we can build this just let me get my toolbelt” polymer that puts my feet on the floor every morning at 6:30 a.m. The Uncle Tom part of the double helix is what makes me draw out every angled joint in full size to see how everything intersects before I’ll pick up a tool heavier than a pencil.
Most times, it’s a good combination of traits. Grandad offers the “go fever,” while Uncle Tom keeps me out of trouble.
But other days, I’m immobilized. I can see everything that might go wrong with an operation. But then I wonder: Can I really see *everything*? Could I be missing something obvious? And then I go back over all my drawings and the cutlist. Twice. Thanks, Uncle Tom.
Meanwhile, Grandad is tapping his foot. He would be done and onto the next task.
This week, both men are working in my shop. I had an oak seat to saddle, and it was a riddle. The seat is made up of two boards. On one of the boards, the grain is mild. On the other board, the grain has a wild grain reversal right at the seat’s pommel.
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I draw it out and try to figure out how the scorp should move. But I don’t know what’s going on inside the glue joint between the two boards. So I set the seat aside to think about it some more. Perhaps I should cut the seat apart? Get a look at the grain inside? And then glue the boards back together?
Grandad rolls his eyes, and scrounges for a Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookie in the kitchen.
That’s when I know I need to listen to another deceased woodworker, Joseph Moxon.
“Therefore you muſt examine the Temper of your Stuff, by eaſy Trials, how the Plane will work upon it, and ſet your Iron accordingly,” Moxon wrote in his chapter on fore planes.
This is one of the most important sentences in Moxon. And I think about it every day: “Easy Trials.”
I step up to the chair’s seat with a scorp and take the lightest cuts possible across the grain of the seat at various angles. I remove about 1/64” of material with each pass, but I can clearly see a difference in how the wood cuts as I adjust the tool’s angle.
It doesn’t look like I am accomplishing anything. But I am finding out everything that can go wrong. I adjust the tool and take off a 1/32” of material. Then I bear down harder and take 1/16”.
I find the rhythm that allows me to take heavier and heavier cuts. And I have a good roadmap of the work ahead thanks to my earlier “easy trials.”
And I am alone in the shop. With the work.
— Christopher Schwarz