A Lot of Hats to Wear

April 11, 2008
I was talking one day with Phil Lowe, the world’s finest furniture maker, about how many hats you had to wear in the shop. As a furniture maker there were so many different jobs you had to face for each project. It amazed us both how many jobs you had to pull off to be a furniture maker.

There was your design hat of course, deciding from whom you were stealing this day [the subject of many a discussion later]. You spent hours figuring how to make a piece look, its style, which details to include, which to let loose. Form, shape, proportion, symmetry, surprise, wood choices, inlay, hardware. A multitude of decisions just at the outset and all of them crucial to the success of your piece. Learning to think with a pencil here and notebook. A tight fitting hat but first on.

But tear it off soon enough to put on your baseball cap and head over to the lumber yard to sweet talk the yard man: “Got anything hid away? Seen any walnut with good figure?” Looking through piles of wood, hoping for a strike of gold, those figured and flitch sawn boards all from the same tree. Got your lumber finally after looking through a thousand board feet of wood? Well buster, put on your gloves and your lifting hat because that wood ain’t getting up or down or out to your shop all by itself. Lift with your legs, hoist to your shoulder, balance it like you could hold it up there all day, but a few minutes is enough. Carry all that wood to your shop. Find a place for it, let it settle in a bit, and start thinking again.

Because it’s back to the drawing board for more work. The working drawings, the working drawings! The cut list is the thing! Where does this piece fit and how does it fit into that? How big to make that mortise if that other mortise fits like so? And how to fit the shelf around the posts or do I make the drawers bigger as they descend or will it be Hambidge again rearing his dynamic head? So many things to consider and these are the bones, this is the skeleton of the piece, drawing out each joint full scale, looking, considering, weighing, deciding. Sometimes rushing over to the band saw to make up a full scale piece and setting it on the floor to look at it, hmm at it. This is an important engineering hat.

I’ll make the templates now, grab the templating hat. I need to see my shapes drawn onto the wood. Head over to the sheet good pile and grab something flat and start to draw, fair those curves, mark the start of the straight line, cut on the band saw, smooth with the spokeshave. Mark them, write their importance on them for posterity, drill a hole and hang them for later.

But once satisfied you have another hat to wear. Get out your wood sawyer hat and your crayon or piece of chalk. This was a crucial job. Where to cut, where to cut first, which board for which section? Do the legs come out of this section or this? Reading the wood to figure out where to slice to yield the best figure and grain. Lay these boards out here, or lay those over there. Stand those up for later, up tall and out of the way.

I rough mill all my stock and then let it sit. So I grab the noisy milling hat and my ear muffs and start up the jointer and the band saw and start making some noise. Ripping off slightly larger sections than what I’ll finally need, watching for boards that twist or boards that cup or boards that simply go boing. Hoping for no surprises but ready, always ready for the sign of the impatient kiln. Rough it all out, sticker it, got to sticker it and let it sit while I work on the drawer parts and the web frames. Fret over the drawings some more.

Then after a week or two of work, the day to begin is finally here. Or that’s how it feels. I can finally begin. Put on your ready hat and get going. Start milling up lumber like the micrometer was born in your back pocket. Get that stuff straight, square, and parallel, and cut to within a hair’s hair of right on the money. Stack my parts, shut off the noisy machines, and grab that precise hat, that joinery hat. Because now I’m focused on smaller parts, smaller numbers, smaller details. Precise measurements, mortises where they ought to be, parts numbered, parts renumbered, parts forgotten, parts remembered. Left is odd, right is even, I keep counting even when the numbers get impossibly large.

Then I’m fitting and trying and fitting and trying, shaping and planing. Stop to sharpen, god I hate to sharpen, god I love the results. The sharpening hat should be fast on and off. Back to work, sand a little with the sanding block. Read the grain right and this tear-out won’t happen. Sanding, my life spent sanding. The sanding hat is heavy. Feeling the curves, transforming the wildness of the tree into straight boards so you can turn them again into curves, luscious curves.

All ready then for the day of gluing. No problems here, no stress here. Practice once, practice twice, practice again and get all the clamps out this time. I am ready for the glue-up and then everything changes. Everything goes awry that went well before and the ticking of the glue clock is loud and ominous. Louder as the time grows longer, but you sweat and strain, break some tentative glue bonds, [god I hope that holds] press on. Time is tight when you’re gluing. This gluing hat fits too tightly. It has always fit too tightly. It’s good to take it off. Clean up the excess glue.

Next there’s hardware that’s like inlay. Inlay that’s like peanut brittle. Pulls to put on. Perfectly! The precise hat is out, checked thrice in the mirror. DO NOT SCREW THIS UP! The pulls to put on. Is there finishing still to do? Get out the painter’s cap, the mask, the gloves, the surgeon general’s report on how I’m killing brain cells here so I can feel the wood which actually is the resins which lay down like glass after it’s been broken and run over by a semi. So rubbing, I have to rub, I love to rub, I wear the rubbing hat and wear off my arms rubbing down the finish which rubs out a year of my life, rubbing to look like its passable as finish and I’m ready to stop.

But wait. You’re a furniture mover too. Get out the furniture moving hat. The one you wear when you look in the mirror and back up without banging into things or dropping the piece off the gate or hitting the doorway as you turn through a 270 degree door, who put this here? Who didn’t measure this? No problem, no problem at all. Just another hat. Pull off that hat and wipe your brow. Been a long couple of days or weeks or months. Lot of hats to wear in that time.

But that’s the thing. We have to know a hundred skills and wear many hats and you don’t get paid near enough for it and the time it takes is enormous, but the pay-off is that we get to do all these jobs. We get to wear all these hats. And that’s the fun of it.

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Published in: on April 11, 2008 at 9:48 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] The Northwest Woodworking Studio wrote an interesting post today on A Lot of Hats to WearHere’s a quick excerptBut tear it off soon enough to put on your baseball cap and head over to the lumber yard to sweet talk the yard man: “Got anything hid away?… […]


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