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Perfection Is Only Marginally Tolerable
By Jack Hutchison (Woodworker’s Club of Houston)
The wonder of fine craftsmanship is truly appreciated by those who understand the skills required to achieve the results of the effort, e.g. a striving for the perfection that is reflected in the work, and an attitude of settling for nothing but one’s best efforts. After all, perfection is only marginally tolerable. Henry Royce thought so too.
"In all his designs Sir Henry Royce demonstrated an attention to detail never previously seen in the automotive and aeronautical worlds. His motto was his engineering standard – ‘Whatever is rightly done – however humble – is noble.’ ‘Rightly done’ are the key words in Rolls Royce production and there are many fine examples of his determination to strive for perfection."*
Whenever I’m out in the shop puttering around on a woodworking project those thoughts often come to mind when things just don’t look quite right. So, the right thing to do is to immediately correct the problem by rejecting the piece, or by effecting remedial action.
Aside from safety issues, there are a large number of things that can go wrong when working on your project. I’ve compiled a list of some of these woodworker’s sins, and a couple of helpful tips that may improve your work habits and results.
Any gourmet chef will tell you that the secret to fine food is first-rate ingredients. Same thing with woodworking. First off, you cannot achieve superior results with inferior materials and tools. It pays to acquire the best you can afford without taking any unnecessary shortcuts. (Yes, I use a nail gun for throwaway cabinetry, but the bulk of my work is fine furniture, which is largely free of metal fasteners.). However, I don’t consider the use of jigs as unnecessary shortcuts, as I use them all the time as they can dramatically improve results while offering safer practice. I also see little sense in buying jigs that you can make yourself with minimal effort and cost. I have numerous homemade jigs, as I prefer applying my hard earned dollars to those tools that I cannot readily make.
I always try to maintain all my equipment in excellent condition with proper maintenance and alignment, and sharp blades. For many years I survived and built some magnificent pieces of cabinetry including a museum reproduction of a walnut Chippendale High Boy using the barest minimum of a Craftsman radial arm saw, and a Craftsman router. I still use that venerable saw, but I now own a couple of Porter Cable routers, a Dewalt 610, along with the old Craftsman router, and a host of other power and hand tools. I now have a well-equipped shop as I have been accumulating tools as I felt a need for them over the years.
Almost all my stock is hand selected as I harvest most of my lumber from local trees that are being removed as part of societies "progress". I supervise the sawing operation that is optimized for quarter-sawn yield, and dry it to equilibrium moisture content. I now have an enviable inventory of several thousand board feet of well-seasoned stock of various species. I call them Urban Exotics. Whenever I see a nice tree, I can envision the project that I will make from it.
Anyway, I digress. So heal you sinners:
Poor & Out of Square Construction – Always use scraps for test cuts until you get it right. You can test your miter cuts by cutting a 45-degree miter then reversing one section and butting them together. A perfect fit will suffice. Same for the bevel cut.
When assembling a cabinet it is not always possible to measure corner to corner as a zillion clamps may be in the way. Precut the plywood back to finish size and temporarily install it to hold the carcase square until the glue sets. In lieu of this use a large carpenter’s square to check the assembly. Corner clamps also work wonders.
Saw burn marks - Your saw is improperly aligned with the fence, the blade may be heeling, the blade may in desperate need of sharpening, or the stock may have shifted off axis during the cut. Tune the tool, have the blade sharpened or replaced, and use a feather board. Feed at a uniform rate but not too slow. I use a 50-tooth combination blade with excellent results with just about anything.
Router chatter or burn marks - You may have an inconsistent feed rate, or warped stock. Use a feather board on your router table, and use a smooth, steady feed rate with a sharp bit. Nothing wrong with using warped lumber provided you use proper treatment in the milling process. Often the best looking stock has tendency to warp. This is why commercial shops reject it, and the craftsman worships it.
Tear out – Use a sacrificial backer board, or zero clearance insert. Sand or scrape versus planening. Use sharp bits or blades, and don’t forget the wood filler.
Gaps, checks, knots, etc. - Wood filler, wood filler, and more wood filler. If you can see the wood filler in your final project after finishing, you need to improve your machining techniques. I also use two-part quickset epoxy to fill and repair. Mixed with a little sawdust it looks just like wood. How about that?
Machine markings – Every machine leaves telltale markings on stock that must be removed by machine or hand sanding or scraping, unless, of course you are doing carpentry, not cabinet making. If you don’t remove this sin prior to finishing, I can guarantee that stain will amplify the artifacts, and the clear coat will magnify them even more.
I normally start with 80 grit on a belt or drum sander, then change to 80 grit on a random orbit sander, then progress to 120 or 150 grit on a finishing sander. I don’t go any finer than this with sanding as I believe any sanding with finer grits is wasted effort if one cannot see the sanding scratches with the naked eye. For final abrasive I use 0000 steel wool to rub out the first coats of stain or clear coat to eliminate the dust nubs. This is equivalent to sanding with -200 grit, and leaves a glassy smooth surface ready for final clear coat. I don’t use water based finishing materials as they are incompatible with steel wool, they raise the grain, and I believe the coatings are inferior to solvent-based coatings. I will also final sand many pieces prior to assembly as this is often easier and does a much better job.
Glue squeeze-out – If you don’t get it, you are not applying enough and are starving the joint. You don’t need excessive Norm-like applications, but you should have a thin line of glue squeeze-out on every joint. If you attempt to wipe off or wash off wet glue, you will merely smear the stuff into the pores of the wood and this will adversely affect the staining process. Let the glue dry, or a least gel, then remove it with a sharp chisel, cabinet scraper, or sanding. I also use a pointed tip Exacto knife to get into those nooks and crannies.
Driving screws - I don’t know what I ever did before I bought my drill/driver. I use this tool almost every day. There were times when I developed blisters from using a screwdriver on flat head wood screws. I no longer use either. I use particleboard screws, which have a zinc-anodized coating of an attractive gold color and a non-slip Phillips head. They do not slip in the bit, particularly if a pilot hole is predrilled and a little paraffin is applied from a handy candle that I keep in my screw collection. The clutch setting on the drill/driver sets the proper depth.
I often use a pilot bit that can also drill a mortise for a plug. I saw the top of the plugs off flush with one of those Japanese saws that have no set to the teeth. I make my own face grain plugs that match the color and grain of the stock in use.
Runs in the finish – Oh the shame of it all. This is more embarrassing than a run in milady’s hose. Easily fixed. Throw those paintbrushes away. Wipe it on and do it right.
Over the years, I’ve achieved spectacular results by using Minwax stains, or aniline dyes, and Formby’s Tung Oil. But I don’t follow the directions that normally encourage the excessive use of material. As a chemical engineer with extensive urethane chemistry background, I understand the chemistry of coatings. I am a cheapskate and I resent wasting material. I also prefer making my own mistakes. .
I like using highly figured stock. So, there is a lot of effort in getting color and grain matching prior to cutting, and there is also lower yield from the lumber. Highly figured lumber requires more care in cutting, as it may tend to tear out more, and will also warp and wind. So, with all this effort so far, why blow it on a painted-on finish. Use a roller and be done with it already, or apply the perfect finish.
Next, the secrets of a spectacular finish.
If you want to fill the pores, now is the time. I use DAP wood filler. Yeah, that’s right, the cheap water base stuff from Home Depot. It works great and sands easily. Dilute it down with a little water to mayonnaise consistency and rub it on in circular motion with a small cotton pad covering an area of about 4"x 4" at a time with overlap. Don’t worry about how it looks for now, because it will look just awful. If you spend more than five minutes on a tabletop you are wasting your time. Let the filler dry, preferably overnight. You have now raised the grain on the stock and simultaneously filled the pores. Both of these are desirable. So far, so good. Sand using a random orbit sander with 80 grit to eliminate the last traces of machine marks, then progress to 120 grit on a finish sander. You will see the filler in the pores. This is the desired result. This filler takes a stain nicely. You can also dye the filler prior to application with a smidgeon of aniline dye. Striking results can be obtained with contrasting dye colors. You are now ready to stain or dye your piece. Dust is off.
Before opening the stain, mix it up thoroughly. Most stains contain a mixture of soluble dyes and insoluble pigments. The pigment tends to settle out, so keep them mixed during the application. To apply use a small pad of your old cast off tee shirt about 2"x 2". Dip the pad into the stain lightly and wipe it on thoroughly in circular motion, with final passes in the direction of the grain. Do no allow the stain to run. Less is more. This is a wipe on technique so you just rub it until it is uniform. Start at one end of the board and continue to the other. When you have completed a section, immediately go over it again with another coat starting at one edge and continuing to the other edge without stopping in the direction of the grain. You will notice that the figuring in the wood takes the stain at different rates with some areas absorbing more stain than others. This is due to the orientation of the wood fibers that contribute to wood figure and is a desirable result. Complete coverage of the entire piece using this technique. Let it dry overnight.
Now is the time to remove those glue traces and affect any last minute repairs. Then rub out the dried surface with 0000 steel wool in the direction of the grain only. When the wood offers little resistance to the rub out you know that you have completed it properly. You should now have a glassy smooth, satin surface. Dust off the piece and apply a second coat of stain by starting at one edge and continuing to the other without stopping. Allow drying overnight. Apply several coats of tung oil using the same wipe on technique. Each successive coat is easier to apply than the last. Change the pad if it begins to get a little gummy. You can apply several coats of tung oil the same day as it dries very quickly. Allow about two hours between coats. The more coats applied, the higher the gloss and durability. I use the high gloss Formby’s Tung Oil. When the project is finished, it should look like you can poke your finger into it. You have now achieved perfection. Apply a final coat of carnauba wax and buff out. Stand back and admire your work. But don’t gloat.
After all, perfection is only marginally tolerable.
* The Sir Henry Royce Foundation, Austria
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