Thursday, July 22, 2010

Square and true

When I first started woodworking many years ago, I was more interested in the final product than the process of making it. All the measuring, and marking, and cutting--why, those were just annoying obstacles that got in the way of finishing whatever it was I was working on. Hurry, hurry, that was me.

So I practiced my skills accordingly...and it showed. I figured that if something was not exactly square when I cut it, well I could fudge it in the end. But that turned out not to be true. The reality is that if you don't cut the parts of a joint square and true to begin with, then it won't be that way when you put it together, not matter how much "carpenterial persuasion"* you apply to it. It won't be square and true ever.

Woodworking, it turns out, is more like baking than cooking. You know about the difference between those, don't you? Generally speaking, people who enjoy making foodstuffs are either good at one or the other, but not both. This is because they require entirely different approaches to the problem. A cook has a general idea of a dish--this protein, that acid, this thickener, these spices--and tastes and adjusts quantities accordingly. A baker, on the other hand, must work with precise ingredients in precise measurements, or she will end up with a flat cake or dry brownies. Details count when you're a baker. Details are everything.

Woodworking is like baking in that it is about the details up front. And anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a detail person. But there's no wiggle room in this. It still remains that if you don't cut something square at the beginning, it will not be square at the end.

I can't tell you how long it took me to learn this, but I finally did, somewhere along the way. But to make a square cut, you must first have cutting machines that are in square. And in order to to have machines that are thus, you must have measuring tools which are themselves precisely square. So I have very good measuring tools, like the Starrett combination square in the top photo.** 

And I use it to I check my fences:

And my blades:

All of this takes time, and sometimes I cuss a lot because a fence or blade is ornery and refuses to cooperate. But I stay with it, because it just won't work if I don't. That is the plain fact of the matter in this business. 

My cake will be flat in the end if I don't pay attention to the details at the beginning.

And you know the amazing part? Somewhere in the process of learning to make a final product that isn't lopsided and doesn't wobble, I learned to slow down and take simple joy in making a cut that is square and true. It is, in fact, most satisfying.

*A hammer and lots of glue.

**By the way, don't be tempted to believe that measuring tools are a good place to cut corners on costs. The shocking news is that many cheap measuring tools are not actually square, or they slip and won't stay in place. My little 6" Starrett square costs $80 new, but then, I didn't buy it new, did I? It has a little rust on the handle, but that doesn't affect a thing...Even so, you can bet your turquoise earrings that I don't misplace my measuring tools.

Here's what I know about the Starrett: It is a precision instrument, and when I make a micro adjustment and turn the little wheel thingy to clamp it down, it stays there--which is more than I can say for the inexpensive combination square I picked up some years ago at Big Box Hardware.


  1. Beautiful. I always admire people who love their craft. To be conscious, aware, and careful is my ideal approach to life. And yet, too often, I am just muddling through. Thanks for starting my day with a reminder to pay attention.

  2. A lovely piece, Susan, and it cuts right to the essential truth of life in general. Sounds to me like you're writing a book that'll really shine!

  3. Melissa--I know what you mean about muddling through. It's all too easy to slip into that mode.

    Susan--Thanks. How is your own book coming along?

  4. Susan, my favorite phrase? "You can bet your turquoise earrings". You had me hooked at that one.

  5. Cindy--And you'd look good in them!

  6. First off: hahaha to the bet your turquoise earrings. But really.

    Secondly, I love your cooking and baking analogy, and I could not agree more about the detail thing. Baking is the o.chem lab, and cooking is the biology lab. For the former, you might blow yourself up if you're not meticulous. The latter, you can just throw shit in a petri dish and something's bound to grow eventually.
    ---I do, however, think it's possible to be good at both, as long as you are aware of the differences and abide by them.

    Thanks for the entertaining read.


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