So many mistakes – A case for the “Groaner”

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“In every amateur boatbuilding shop there should be a “moaning chair”; this should be a comfortable seat from which the boat can be easily seen and which the builder can sit, smoke, chew, drink, or swear as the moment demands. Here he should rest often and think about his next job. The plans should be at hand and here he can lay out his work. By so doing he will often be able to see mistakes before they are serious and avoid the curse of all amateur boatbuilders: starting a job before figuring out what has to be done to get it right.”

Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction, by Howard Chapelle (1941) W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

It’s no secret that most of my work is manufactured to the designs of others more capable than myself.  I am generally content to follow directions, and focus my efforts toward improving my skills as a fabricator.  Occasionally however, I will try my hand at design, usually to emulate a design that I have found attractive or to accompany a piece that I have already made; sometimes for both reasons at once.

Such is the case with my current project, a file cabinet to match the bookcase that I made for our home office several years ago.  The bookcase was a published design that featured cherry rails and stiles and douglas fir infill panels. The piece has aged nicely, and since Kris asked for a new file cabinet, I decided to design/build one that would match the bookcase.

Now a bookcase and a file cabinet are both carcass construction and they have many elements in common.  The biggest difference is the mounting of drawer slides and the accommodation of moving loads in the file cabinet.  Specifically, you don’t want the whole thing to fall over when you open a drawer full of heavy paper.

Which brings us to the Groaner, my version of Chapelle’s “moaning chair”.  I call it the Groaner because it usually comes into use a bit after the fact.  Meaning, I have already made that mistake which I should have found by first sitting in the chair and studying my design.

When I started this project I had the best intentions of designing to detail on paper (pixels) and then executing a flawless concept directly into the finished product.  Unfortunately, my poorly disciplined mind occasionally glosses over difficult design details, subconsciously hoping that things will work out eventually.  They usually don’t. 

I started by cutting my hand selected cherry boards to precise dimensions and laying out marks to cut the mortises and tenons for the joinery.  As I was about to start cutting tenons, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of misgiving; that I didn’t know the outcome of what I was doing.  So, as is my usual practice when venturing into the unknown, I decided to build a mock-up made of relatively cheap construction lumber to find out where the demons lay.  Immediately, I started to find multiple errors and miscalculations,  normally a good thing in a mock-up.  However in this case, I had made the mistake of cutting my expensive stock to final dimensions and thus committing myself before I thoroughly knew what I was doing.

I spent the last half hour of the day just sitting in the Groaner, staring at the mock-up, contemplating alterations to the original design and how was I going to make it work with the already prepared stock.  It may be a bit late, but I think the time in the Groaner was well spent and perhaps with a little more time, I’ll have it worked out.  Stay tuned.

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