How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life

“Success is moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm”

— Winston Churchill

prototype entrepreneurship woodworking
Chair Prototype in Progress

Have you ever heard the business maxim “fail fast, fail cheap”?  The reason to fail fast and cheap is to quickly find out what doesn’t work and accelerate your journey to success while doing it at the lowest cost possible.  One of the ways we do that in woodworking is by prototyping.  Premium hardwoods are expensive.  You don’t want to build the first in a set of dining room chairs, for example, and find out your measurements are off or the design isn’t quite right.  All the more reason to do some prototyping first.  This maxim of fail fast and fail cheap applies in woodworking, entrepreneurship as well as life, which we’ll delve into below.

Fail Fast in Woodworking

One of my first projects for Traughber Design was to design and build a cat bed for our favorite pet, Ralph the Woodworking Cat (see post about the life of Ralph here).  The pet industry in the United States is a multi-billion dollar per year industry and given how much people love their pets, I figured a hand-made pet bed in black walnut would be a sure fire seller.  I was actually worried there would be so many orders once the piece was posted on the Internet that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with production.  Silly me.  Guess how many orders we received for that piece?  Zero!  That was a valuable lesson in failing fast for a couple of reasons.  One is that I should have prototyped the design in pine first before going final with black walnut.  Pine is about a fourth the cost of black walnut.  I ended up making two of these beds out of black walnut and could have made just one.  But the other lesson we learned was to finish the piece quickly and get it on the website to get user feedback.  That part I think we did well.  In this case, we learned there was not a market for this type of work and quickly moved on to more lucrative projects.  Lessons learned:  make it fast using a prototype and solicit feedback early from the market.

Fail Fast in Entrepreneurship

I came up with an idea a few years ago for a consumer product that had wide application.  Anyone could use it.  I cobbled together some parts from around the house and started testing it.  Given the nature of the product, I could test it once every 24 hours.  I’d test it, modify it, test it, modify it, etc.  I was failing fast (and cheap) because I could run through the entire cycle in a day.  The grand plan was to market it via a company called Quirky, which solicits products like this then does all the marketing for the entrepreneur.  Unfortunately, Quirky went bankrupt!  The product is currently  on the shelf due to time constraints with our other projects, but we learned a lot in the process of testing and did not have to invest a lot of resources.  We may resurrect the product in the future and try to market it ourselves.  Lessons learned:  do rapid prototyping with inexpensive components.

Fail Fast in Life

At one point in my life I accepted what was considered a promotion, even though I was very reluctant because of the nature of the work.  I did the job for a few months and realized I didn’t want to do that type of work for the next unknown number of years and was not following my calling.  I developed a transition plan, then discussed it with my boss who was very amenable to the change when I explained how the switch back to my old job would benefit the organization.  I had to put aside my pride, because the change might have been perceived by some to be a demotion, but that was definitely the wrong job for me.  By pulling the plug after only a few months, I was failing fast which is a good thing.  Lesson learned:  don’t wait to pull the plug if you know your job is not a good fit.  Move on.

Fail Cheap in Woodworking

I’m currently working on a commission for four dining room chairs in cherry and decided to build a prototype in pine for two reasons.  One reason was to test the form, fit and function with the client, but the other reason relates more to failing cheap.  This reason was to go through the build process and identify any manufacturing problems.  I had modified the joinery plan from using biscuits to mortise & tenon joinery since that’s one of Traughber Design’s hallmarks and we have a Festool Domino (see blog post #2 on tools).  The Domino cuts joints amazingly precise and quickly.  Sure enough we ran into a problem in attaching the leg braces underneath the seat (see picture at top of this post) and were able to resolve it by changing where the joints were placed.  We would not have uncovered that issue until we were cutting into very expensive cherry if we had not prototyped.  As it was, we were using very inexpensive scrap pine 2 x 4s which were laying around the wood shop.  Lesson learned:  fail cheap by building inexpensive prototypes.

Fail Cheap in Entrepreneurship

We’re very happy with our current Traughber Design website, but started out with another provider when we first launched on the Internet.  The other website was free to set up, and there was a nominal cost to post each of our woodworking pieces online.  Sales, however, were disappointing and the more we worked with that site’s community, the more we realized it really wasn’t a good fit for a custom woodworking business.  Fortunately, we were only out a few bucks and we failed cheap.  In addition, we established a beachhead on the Internet for very little cost and learned a lot.  We decided to create a website with more functionality like this one that can grow with the business.  WordPress is a very widely used open-source software with thousands of plugins available.  Our web host, SiteGround, has industry-leading uptime rates, and first-rate tech support (click here if you are looking for a web host)  Lesson learned:  try to do many low-cost experiments to see what works well then pick the winners.

Fail Cheap in Life

One of my summer jobs during college was at a gas station in our home town.  The manager was great and my co-workers were great, too.  The pay was terrible, though.  I learned a lot about the value of time during that job.  For example, the previous summers I had painted houses which was pretty lucrative for a teenager.  Unfortunately, our crew had to disband which is why I got the gas station gig.  I didn’t make much that summer at the gas station, but I paid relatively little to “fail cheap” by not earning what I could have earned painting.  In the grand scheme of things, “wasting” 3 months that summer wasn’t a deal breaker, and I learned a key lesson in valuing my time.  Lesson learned:  take risks in life, just not expensive ones.

You know how you always see or hear that saying “failure is not an option”.  Maybe it should be “failure is mandatory.”  If you’re not failing, it doesn’t seem to me you are trying anything worthwhile.

An Ode to Ralph the Woodworking Cat (2000-2016): R.I.P.

Ralph the Cat and Friend
Ralph the Woodworking Cat and Friend

On Tuesday, my little woodworking helper went to the great wood shop in the sky.  I’m thankful for the time we spent together, in part, because he was such a great mentor and taught me a lot about entrepreneurship, woodworking, and life.  Here are a few things I learned from Ralph the Woodworking Cat.

 

You can accomplish just about anything you put your mind to.

Ralph the Woodworking Cat after tough clamping job
Ralph After Tough Wood Clamping Job

You see that picture to the left?  Ralph had a heck of a time tightening those clamps with his paws and teeth.  He just would not be denied because when it came to woodworking, Ralph was all about craftsmanship.  As you can see from the picture, he was exhausted after all that effort, but he would not quit until he had applied enough clamping pressure.  He was determined to have a solid joint.  His diligence was always a great inspiration to me.

 

Along those lines, when I was a junior officer, I was bound and determined to get my pilot’s license.  Back then, many of our Air Force bases had flying clubs.  These days, they’re mostly gone due to budget cuts.  But back in the day, my aero club had a handful of aircraft like Cessnas, Piper Warrior II’s, an Arrow, etc. and I loved to go out on a clear day and do some flying with my instructor.  One of the things I absolutely hated, though, was doing stalls.  Stalls are when you point the nose of the aircraft up until the plane starts shuddering because it is losing airspeed and enough air is not flowing over the wings for lift.  I knew, though, that I’d have to do stalls with the FAA examiner if I was going to get my license.  I agonized over it and decided I was going to do stalls over and over again until I was comfortable.  So that’s what I did.  I went out flying about 3 days every week and flew to a relatively desolate area where I could stall the plane over and over and over again.  It just took putting my mind to it, just like Ralph did with his wood glue up.

Don’t take “no” for an answer.

ralph the woodworking cat
Ralph Focused on the Goal: Chicken!

See this picture?  Guess what’s in the pan.  That’s right:  chicken.  Ralph would never take no when it came to chicken.  Sometimes he’d jump up on the counter when we weren’t looking.  Other times he’d push a trash can over and other times he’d wait until the trash bag was at the curb to open the bag with his claws.  He was going to get that chicken.  When he smelled chicken, he’d get this crazed look in his eyes and start to almost vibrate.  We need to be the same way when we have an important goal in mind:  get that crazed look and start to vibrate.

A pal of mine wrote his first book called The DevilDragon Pilot recently, but he had to get approval from some government organizations before he could publish it.  As we all know, the government is incredibly fast and efficient…   You can stop laughing now.  Anyway…the review process was supposed to take less than 30 days.  That’s right, it took over 8 months!!!  But the author refused to take “no” for an answer.  He called.  He E-mailed.  He called some more.  When asked to make changes, he turned them around in hours to put the ball back in the reviewers’ courts.  He submitted the book for review in January and finally, in November, the book is for sale.  Now that shows exerting will over friction, terrific grit, and not taking “no” for an answer.  We’ll release a blog post soon with an author interview.  Click here for interview #1 and here for interview #2.

Enjoy life

Ralph the woodworking cat enjoying smell of sawdust
Ralph Enjoying Smell of Sawdust

Ralph liked to work hard and play hard.  I think as he got older, “play hard” meant “nap”, but to each his own.  One of Ralph’s favorite things (and mine) was to enjoy the smell of fresh sawdust. Here you can see he is multitasking by both napping and smelling sawdust.

 

When we were stationed in Europe, our neighbors would disappear for a month at a time taking something called a “vacation.”  We wondered how you could possibly take an entire month on these things called “vacations.” You see, my fellow Servicemembers and I were slaving away and losing some of our 30 days of annual leave every year.  Talk about different cultures!  But you know, our neighbors seemed happier and spent much more time together as a family.  I think the Europeans are on to something.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us.  Sometimes we just need to stop, look around, and enjoy the scent of fresh sawdust.  Or the feel of a finely tuned plane in our hands.  Or the feel of a hand running over a nicely cured oil and urethane varnish.

Ralph, this one was for you.  We’ll miss you.

Entrepreneurship and Woodworking are Like Yoga: Alignment and Holding the Asana (Pose)

cat woodworking entrepreneurship yoga
Ralph the Cat Helping Mrs Woodworker with Yoga

I had the good fortune to start a yoga class last month and was amazed how stiff I was!  After the initial pain of learning the various poses (called asanas) started to wear off, my classmates and I started to see some increased flexibility.  In addition, the daily practice of yoga began to reveal striking parallels with entrepreneurship and woodworking such as alignment and building strength.

Alignment

One of the things our yoga instructor (Thierry Chiapello, see his blog here) emphasizes to us over and over again is alignment.  He is always correcting our alignment and asking us what our body is telling us.  He stresses that our practice on our own is more important than class.  Our practice is where we really begin to listen to what is going on and to develop our muscle memory.  If we just go to class and don’t practice on our own, we won’t be in tune with what is going on.

Just as we need to work on our alignment in yoga, and entrepreneur needs to be aligned with their mission and goals.  There are not enough hours in the day for an entrepreneur to get everything done which makes it imperative to have clearly defined goals and to make sure that some time is devoted every day to doing something toward those goals.  As we wrote about in our post on Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, there are several methods to creating this alignment.  If an entrepreneur is doing something that doesn’t relate to one of those goals, then it’s probably time to evaluate why that task is even being done in the first place.  The entrepreneur’s activity needs to be aligned with the entrepreneur’s goals, just as we strive for alignment in yoga.

turned wood bowl in poplar
Bowl in Poplar

The same goes for woodworking.  If I want to be an expert bowl turner on the lathe then I need to turn many, many bowls and work on my technique in orienting the gouge to the work piece as it spins.  It sounds simple, but doing this well takes many hours.  The craftsman needs to align his/her activity with the goal of turning a fine wooden bowl.

Holding the Pose and Building Strength

Why do we hold our poses so long in the variant of yoga we are studying, Iyengar Yoga (read more on this method here)?  We do it in order to build strength.  There is a very popular (sarcasm here) pose we do called Warrior II which makes our thighs burn very quickly.  The purpose of holding poses like Warrior for so long is to build strength.  Our instructor continues to talk about an ethereal condition we will reach eventually where we are experiencing effortless effort (I am definitely not there yet). We may not have achieved effortless effort yet, but we have built strength over the past several weeks.

Entrepreneurship can also build strength by building capacity.  Stephen Covey called it “sharpening the saw” in his book the Habits of Highly Effective People (overview here).  Sometimes the entrepreneur and craftsman needs to step away from the daily “doing” and train on a skill or task to build that strength before going back to doing.  For more on sharpening the saw, read our post on Teaching a Man to Fish.

At Traughber Design one way we sharpened the saw and built strength this year was to take time out for a WordPress class to learn how to set up a website/blog.  This twelve session class was amazing and revealed many more capabilities than we thought possible.  Our first website was on Etsy, which was very user friendly, but limited in capability.  By taking time out to study WordPress we’ve increased our functionality tremendously, just as we do in Iyengar yoga by holding our asanas.

Gotta run.  Those asanas are calling…

Woodworking Glue Technique, a Metaphor for Life

woodworking glue up
Spreading the Glue

A woodworking glue up can go wrong in so many ways, but some solid preparation will keep one out of trouble.  One of the consequences of poor planning can be sections of a work piece hardening before you are ready to complete the glue up.  Another consequence can be having to sand away globs of glue after all the glue has hardened.  Yet another consequence can be something called “white haze” which won’t show up until you apply your finish and it is too late.  All of these issues can be eliminated with proper glue technique.  Sounds kind of like life, doesn’t it?  With a little preparation and wise living, we can make things a lot easier.  Let’s explore in more depth, Dear Reader…

Make the complex simple

It’s very important to think through how the glue up is going to be done before starting to apply the glue (Titebond III, available at Lowes is my go-to glue), because once it starts setting up, there is no going back.  I was working on a kitchen cabinet project a while back that had 38 tenons.  I was working as fast as I could to coat every surface with glue using a small brush along with coating every surface on the tenons.  Multiply this times 38 and that was just a bridge too far.  By the time I got to the last joint and had to adjust the first joint, the glue had set pretty well and I had a heck of a time adjusting the first joint.  Next time, I’ll break the job into smaller, more manageable pieces.  The same goes in life.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, we’re preparing to move to a smaller house.  It’s daunting to think of all the things that have to be done to prepare the house for sale.  But sitting down with Mrs Woodworker to write everything down that needed to be done and then breaking the projects up into small pieces made things much more executable.  We essentially split the house into three parts (each floor being a part), then went room by room until we were done.  Tiling the basement was probably the hardest part, but with the four of us working together and doing it in pieces, we were able to knock it out.

Take the time to do things the right way

Another element of proper glue technique is making sure every surface is coated well and that maximum clamping pressure is applied across the entire joint.  This will give you a rock solid bond.  After the clamps are applied, wait 20 minutes for the glue to begin setting.  Then take a dull chisel to scrape away the now-gooey (technical term) glue, and wipe off any excess with a wet rag.  I’ve experimented with the timing on this and 20 minutes seems to work best.  If improper technique is used, you may end up doing a lot of sanding of hardened glue.  If you try to wipe the glue with a wet rag right away, the glue will be absorbed into the wood fibers and create the white haze I talked about earlier.  You may not notice it immediately in a light colored wood, like maple or cherry, but after the finish is applied you will definitely see the haze.

How many times in life do we rush into something knowing that we should take a step back and be more deliberate?  One of the great things about military training is we are very deliberate.  As a cadet, we knew when we went on one of our summer field training events after sophomore year that we would have to execute something called “The 54 Commands“.  This consisted of ordering a flight (a couple dozen cadets or more) through a series of difficult commands over a large parade field.  The flight had to be positioned and moved perfectly in order to pass the steely-eyed gaze of our instructors.  The only way to prepare was to practice, practice, and practice (see our post on grit) some more back at our home bases before we went to training.  The cadets from our detachment did very well that summer because we had taken the time to do things the right way.

Make sure you are in alignment (also see our post about yoga and alignment)

Another element of proper glue technique is making sure the piece is oriented so the glue flows along the joint and not in rivulets along the joint.  This not only makes it easier to clear the glue, but exposes less of the wood grain to the glue which causes white haze.

In one of my earlier assignments I was the commander of a military recruiting squadron.  When I took over the squadron it was the second-to-last squadron in the country (out of 27 at that time).  The leadership team and I got together and decided that since we were in a competitive business (recruiting) we might as well go for broke and set a vision of being #1.  It seemed preposterous at the time, but that vision helped us align our people and resources.  After 1 year, we were #7 then after 2 years we were #1.  That would not have happened if everything and everyone had not been in alignment, just as our woodwork needs to be aligned for a proper glue up.

Just as in woodworking glue ups, we need to make the complex simple, do things the right way, and make sure we are in alignment.  The next time you are approaching a wood glue up, I hope you consider these existential questions ; )

 

Entrepreneurship Takes Grit

mahogany jewelry chest
Mahogany Jewelry Chest

See that mahogany jewelry chest in the picture?  Guess how long it took to finish?  My current self would crank out a project like that pretty quickly, but my old self took almost 20 years to finish it!  I started the piece when I was in high school Industrial Arts class and finally finished it  in order to give it to our daughter several years ago.  Was that a gritty performance on my part?  Absolutely not!  That just goes to show you that grit can be developed over time and that’s one of the main takeaways in Angela Duckworth’s great new book called Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  I’ll share some of Duckworth’s terrific lessons on grit and how they apply to entrepreneurship and woodworking.

First of all, why did Duckworth write this book?  In one of her early research projects as a psychologist, she was studying why cadets dropped out of their first year at West Point.  West Point used a number called the Whole Candidate Score to decide who was accepted and who wasn’t, but success in a cadet’s first year didn’t correlate to the WCS.  Both West Point and Duckworth wanted to know if there was a way to predict whether a cadet would succeed so West Point could admit the right people.  Duckworth developed something called The Grit Scale which did show a correlation between higher grit scores and success at West Point.  So what goes into being “gritty”, which is key to being a successful entrepreneur and woodworker?

Passion

Duckworth says one must have both passion and perseverance.  Passion, however, is not just some overwhelming love for a pursuit, it needs to be cultivated, which is something the Minimalists also talk about.  Many people say “follow your passion”, but sometimes someone may not know what their passion is.  In that case, they should try several things and see what excites them.  If they do know what their passion is, it needs to be cultivated and grown over time.  For example, I have a passion for woodworking, but I’ve cultivated it over time.  Did I always know how to do all of the techniques we’re currently using in Traughber Design?  Of course not, they had to be learned and developed.  In that course of learning and developing, we can learn to be even more passionate for our calling.  An example is that I enjoy performing certain tasks more in the wood shop now that I am more proficient.  I have more passion for doing that type of work.

Another element Duckworth discusses relative to passion is direction.  She gives the example of someone working out every day and not improving their performance.  It’s important to have goals and/or a coach.  As an entrepreneur, it’s important to have coaches or mentors, especially ones that are doing work relevant to your field.  I have woodworking mentors I turn to sometimes when I have a vexing problem and also mentors I turn to in learning the ins and outs of WordPress and blogging.  Mentors can be invaluable and help establish those goals and make sure the entrepreneur follows through.  We also need to align our work with our goals which we describe in more detail in the post about woodworking and yoga.

Perseverance

Another component of this entrepreneurial venture has been this blog which requires perseverance.  I like to write, but in order to make the blog go, I need to write consistently.  Remember, this is currently a part-time gig as we wrote about in the first blog post.  One might think that with over 1 billion Facebook users on the planet, that a blog would instantly achieve critical mass and millions of page views.  It doesn’t quite work that way.  Google runs a sophisticated algorithm 600 times per year that decides what does and does not pop up in the search rankings.  It is a real art and science to stay ahead of that algorithm, and most people don’t have that kind of time.  An entrepreneurial blogger is better off just focusing on fresh and good content that adds value.   If you listen to successful bloggers that have millions of page views, they are consistent in writing fresh posts.  To summarize that point:  write often and add value.  For example, I’m finding there is a big spike in readership immediately after a fresh post and a gradually increasing trend line.   The key is to write and post often.  But it’s not just about posting often.  It is about adding value.  When I’m thinking of posts, I’m thinking “what woodworking tips or philosophies help my readers?”

Perseverance also relates to something called the pivot in entrepreneurship.  An entrepreneur is unlikely to hit upon a million dollar idea and may have to be prepared to pivot to another idea down the road if the first one doesn’t work out.  For example, in woodworking I started out making some pieces on spec (or speculation) anticipating that they would sell.  I also did pieces on commission.  I found through trial and error that spec doesn’t work very well for our business and Traughber Design is focused almost exclusively on commission work now.  We pivoted from spec work to commissions.

There is so much more to talk about regarding grit, entrepreneurship, and woodworking, but I’ll hand off to Duckworth at this point.  I highly recommend reading her book and watching her TED talk which is available here.

Have a gritty day ; )

 

How to Make a Kitchen Cabinet Door: Flat Panel Construction

kitchen cabinet panel
Final Kitchen Cabinet Panel

These panels have been hot sellers recently, so I thought I’d blog the directions to you.  There is another variant using raised panels in the center, but we’ll save that post for another day.  I’ll describe the process for making flat panels which typically use plywood in the center which can be very economical.  The panel in the picture was custom made with 4″ wide red oak edges in order to attach the panel to a metal dishwasher door.  2″ wide edges are pretty standard these days for kitchen cabinets.  These panels are relatively easy to make once you’ve made one or two and I’ll share some lessons learned that will make it even easier for you.

rail and stile bit set
Rail and Stile Bit Set

First of all, it’s important to understand the terminology of these panels so you purchase the right bits and understand the orientation of the directions.  The horizontal pieces are called rails and the vertical pieces are called stiles.  The stiles run the entire height of the door and the rails meet them (more on measuring rails below).  There are router bit sets specially made for these panel doors and I recommend Whiteside bit set #6001 (available at Woodcraft).  These run about $115, but will last forever and allow you to make hundreds of panel doors.  In addition, the contours from this bit are common today and appealing to the eye.  If you are redoing your kitchen, you may want to consider investing in one of these bit sets.  A kitchen remodel can run tens of thousands of dollars and making your own doors can save you a bundle (see our post about not skimping on tools).  Once you’ve made one door, the rest are easy.  In addition, you can run all the rails and stiles for all the doors through the router table at one time and really expedite the process.

Step 1:  measure the opening your doors will cover and plan for 1/2″ overlap all the way around.

the raw wood
The Raw Wood

Craftsman Tip:  the width of your door is NOT equal to twice the width of your stiles and the length of your rail!  Due to the nature of the cuts made by this bit set, the rails will overlap the stiles by 3/8″ on each end.  This means you need to add 3/4″ (3/8″ on left plus 3/8″ on right) to your beginning rail length or your doors will be too narrow.  I learned this lesson the hard way on an earlier project and had to toss out the rails and start over.  Said another way, the desired width of your door needs to equal twice the width of the stiles, plus the length of the rail, then add 3/4″.  You’ll lose that 3/4″ during the routing process.

flat panel rails and stiles
Flat Panel Rails and Stiles

Step 2:  cut your rails and stiles in accordance with the tip above.

 

 

 

 

 

stile close up
Stile Close Up

Step 3:  rout the edges of the rails and stiles.  Don’t forget to have a piece of scrap wood behind the piece as it passes the router bit to prevent tear out.

 

 

 

Craftsman Tip:  don’t cut the plywood to fit the gaps exactly because it may prevent a perfect seating of the rails within the stiles.  I like to leave a 1/16″ gap all the way around the plywood to allow for some slight wood movement due to humidity and temperature changes.

Step 4:  cut your plywood panel in accordance with the tip above.

rail and stile good fit
Rail and Stile Good Fit

Once you have all the pieces cut, put them together to dry fit everything.  There should be no gaps between the rails and the stiles.  If there are, it’s time to go back to the router table.  See our post about the gulag,  craftsmanship, and not leaving a job undone.

cabinet flat panel glue up
Cabinet Flat Panel Glue Up

Step 5:  dry fit the panel together then glue it up.  There is an old woodworking adage that you can never have enough clamps and this is definitely true.  There is nothing like extreme clamping pressure to make for an absolutely rock solid joint.  The Jet clamps in the picture are gifts from the Best Sister in the Whole World, but pipe clamps from Lowes will also do the trick. I have a mix of both in the wood shop.

Step 6:  either paint or finish the panel.  For tips on the finishing process, read our blog post on the cherry coat rack commission.

As you can see from the picture, these panels are beautiful when done correctly.  Please let me know how the directions worked for you in the comments below!

Woodworking is like a Soviet Gulag? Solzhenitsyn, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

woodworking flag of the soviet union
Flag of the Soviet Union

How is woodworking like being in a gulag? Do we mean it is drudgery?  Absolutely not!  There are many parallels to woodworking, though, in Solzhenitsyn’s classic, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to have this book assigned in high school or college, this book is one of my favorites. It tells the story of one day in the life of a gulag prisoner (Ivan Denisovich Shukhov) and how he survives.  The book was laying around the house recently since the kids had to read it for high school, so I thought I would give it a read again and noticed there are many woodworking concepts sprinkled throughout the book such as craftsmanship, attention to detail, flowfrugality, and contentment.

Craftsmanship

“Shukhov looked about.  Yes, the sun was beginning to set.  It had a grayish appearance as it sank in a red haze.  And they’d got into the swing–couldn’t be better.  They’d started on the right row now (of bricks).  Ought to finish it today.  Level it off.”

Here these poor prisoners were slaving away all day out in the open with the temperature at 17 degrees below zero when the day started, but the main character is more concerned about making sure the bricks are laid properly than about leaving for the day.  Is he being paid for his work?  Will he be rewarded for a job well done?  No!  He is a true craftsman who will not leave the job site until it is done properly. What a great lesson for all of us woodworkers.

Attention to Detail

“Now if some mortar had oozed out to the side, you had to chop it off as quickly as possible with the edge of your trowel and fling it over the wall (in summer it would go under the next brick, but now that was impossible).  Next you took another look at the joint below, or there were times when the block was not completely intact but had partially crumbled.  In that event, you slapped in some extra mortar where the defect was, and you didn’t lay the block flat–you slide it from side to side, squeezing out the extra mortar between it and its neighbor.  An eye on the plumb.  An eye on the surface.  Set. Next.”

Mrs Woodworker and I had a long conversation the other night about whether I should finish the reverse side of some of the pieces I was making.  One the one hand, finishing only one side would cut the finishing time in half since I wouldn’t need to let the finish dry, then flip the piece over and finish the other side.  Since I use a process with five coats of finish (see our post on the finish process here), you can see this would be a significant time savings.  On the other hand, I’m going to know the other side is unfinished and is it exhibiting true attention to detail to leave the reverse unfinished?  The discussion continues to rage here at Traughber Design.

Flow

“And now Shukhov and the other masons felt the cold no longer.  Thanks to the urgent work, the first wave of heat had come over them–when you feel wet under your coat, under your jacket, under your shirt and your vest.  But they didn’t stop for a moment; they hurried on with the laying.  And after about an hour they had their second flush of heat, the one that dries up the sweat.  Their feet didn’t feel cold, that was the main thing.  Nothing else mattered.  Even the breeze, light but piercing, couldn’t distract them from the work.  Only Senka stamped his feet–he had enormous ones, poor slob, and they’d given him a pair of valence too tight for him.”

Back in the day, we used to call this being “in the zone,” but the current terminology is called “flow” or being in a “flow state.”  When I’ve got the radio on and am using my favorite tools, I’m often in that flow state.  Have you ever achieved this in the wood shop?  Is it often or infrequently?  If you are not often able to achieve “flow” in the shop think carefully about the times you did achieve flow and what were the conditions that contributed.  Try to recreate these conditions as much as possible.  Another technique that works well, is to leave a task unfinished at the end of one day so you can quickly pick up where you left off the next day.  This creates a quick condition for getting back into the flow when you start the next day.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov gives a great goal to strive for:  being so engrossed in our work that we even forget subzero cold.

Frugality

“But Shukhov wasn’t made that way–eight years in a camp couldn’t change his nature.  He worked about anything he could make use of, about every scrap of work he could do–nothing must be wasted without good reason.”

We discussed this to some degree in our earlier post about minimalism, but I’ll add a few thoughts here.  What should we do with those very inexpensive parts from the local big box retailer we aren’t going to use?  I had a couple of screws in a plastic package from Lowes the other day that I wasn’t going to use on a project.  Part of me said it’s not worth the effort to return them since they only cost a buck or two.  The other part of me said I was going to go to Lowes at some point anyway and why not just return them?  In addition, they were going to lay around the shop and take up space.  Not only that, someone has to produce more of that part if it is laying around my house and doesn’t go back to the store. We’re planning a move to a smaller house next year, then a tiny house, so why have any parts laying around we are not going to use?  The minimalist argument won out and now I return everything to the store I’m not going to use.

Contentment

“Shukhov went to sleep fully content.  He’d had many strokes of luck that day:  they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening he’d bought that tobacco.  And he hadn’t fallen ill.  He’d got over it.

A day without a dark cloud.  Almost a happy day.”

We can learn a lot from such a man.  Perhaps we shouldn’t agonize over what tools we don’t have in the wood shop and just be satisfied with what we have.  Along those lines, I try to be thankful every day Traughber Design has work, not matter how big or small.  We are fortunate to have this business and and small jobs lead to big jobs.

I hope you enjoyed this woodworking journey through the gulag and my rant about craftsmanshipattention to detailflowfrugality, and contentment.  If you haven’t read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, check it out at your local library.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

How to Make a Beautiful Custom Wooden Mitered Picture Frame

black walnut wooden picture frame
Black Walnut Picture Frame

Want a great idea for a birthday gift for Mrs Woodworker? She works hard and a custom made gift like this will go a long way to show your appreciation.  In our case, Mrs Woodworker’s grandmother was quite the artist and had done a neat charcoal drawing that was hanging in our house.  Unfortunately, the frame was not the right size and was falling apart.  The glass in the frame and mat had also discolored over time.  I thought a new frame would be a great gift to let Mrs Woodworker see a little return on all the tool investments I had made.

First, start with the print you want framed.  All of the dimensions will be generated from the size of that print.  Once you have the print in mind, estimate how big the visible portion of the mat should be.  In our example, the print is 9 1/2″ by 19 1/2″ and we overlapped the print by a quarter inch with the mat all the way around.  Given that we wanted a 2″ wide (visible portion) mat all the way around, our matt needed to be 14″ by 24″.  Keep in mind a quarter inch of the mat will not be visible because it will be resting inside the frame.  Continuing with our example, the inside dimensions of our frame are 13 1/2″ by 23 1/2″.

Select a wood type and color that complements the pictures in the print.  Before going to the wood dealer, read up on our post about buying lumber.  In our case, I had some 1″ thick black walnut left over from another project and decided to go with 1 3/4″ wide frames.  If your print is bigger than the one in this post, you may want to go with a wider frame to keep the entire piece in proportion.

cutting rabbet for wooden picture frame
Cutting Rabbet for Picture Frame

Rout your pieces first (see picture), then miter in order to clean up any tear out from the routing process.  One of the techniques that will prevent tear out is to always place a block behind the piece being routed.  This will usually give you a nice clean edge on the trailing edge of the piece after it goes past the router bit.  For our frame, I used a 1″ thick piece of black walnut and routed a rabbet (or notch) 1/2″ deep into the piece from the back and 1/4″ from the middle of the picture for the matting to lie against.  Use either a straight router bit (I recommend the Whiteside bit # 1086) or the bit from a rabbet bit set (Whiteside #1955).  Both bits are available at your local Woodcraft.  This leaves 1/2″ of wood showing in front of the glass and leaves enough room for the glass, mat, and any cardboard or plywood backing.  The rabbet should be 1/4″ wide all the way around the frame.

wooden picture frame tenon
Picture Frame Tenon

Join the corners of the frame with 8 mm x 40mm tenons (see picture) if you have a Festool Domino then glue up.  If you don’t have a Domino, you can make an oval hole with a router straight bit and use Festool tenons (available at Woodcraft), or clean out the corners with a chisel and use rectangular tenons.

After you’ve got the mortises cut, it’s time to glue it up.  Make sure the piece is square by measuring from corner to corner.  If it is slightly off square, use a long clamp to pull the long corners toward each other until the two diagonals across the piece are the same length.

Once the glue dries (best to allow 24 hours), it’s time to add the finish.  I prefer a clear finish on top of premium hardwoods so the grain is visible.  Check out our post on making a cherry coat rack to see the steps in finishing.

You probably don’t have a mat cutter at home and this is where your local frame shop can really come in handy.  If you live near Montclair VA I highly recommend The Framing Outlet.  Osman at the frame shop was extremely helpful in picking out mat colors and suggested the double mat design in the picture at the top.  You can Google “frame shop” and you should be able to find a shop near you that can help with the matting and glass.

Well that was a lot of math!  But if you methodically go through the steps above, you’ll have a beautiful picture frame in just a few hours!

Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian Fog and Friction

karl von Clausewitz fog friction woodworking
Karl von Clausewitz

What does a 19th century Prussian military genius have to say about entrepreneurship and woodworking?  A lot!

The great Carl Von Clausewitz was a famous Prussian military leader and strategist who wrote a seminal book in 1832 called “On War” that is studied endlessly in the U.S. military’s war colleges.  Clausewitz wrote about many concepts that are useful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers, but I’ll focus on two here that have come to mind lately:  fog and friction.

Clausewitz says friction is like running in water.  It’s something that can be done very easily on land, but is not very easy in water.  Clausewitz says “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”  After 27 years in the military, I have encountered friction many times, so there is no surprise at seeing some in my entrepreneurial ventures and woodworking; however, it is still frustrating to experience.  How one responds to it is the most important thing.  One of the “joys” of woodworking is that it will force you to be patient.  For example, the other day I was working a piece in cherry which can change color depending on how much it’s been exposed to sunlight.  I was finishing up sanding the piece and was about to start wiping on finish, but was just not happy with the variation in color across the face.  I had inadvertently sanded away too much of the face that had absorbed the sun so the color wasn’t uniform any more.  Clausewitz’ friction had raised its ugly head because I was ready to press on with finishing, but had to stop and consider what to do.  One thing I’ve really strived for in Traughber Design is craftsmanship.  I don’t want a piece to ever leave the shop if I’m not happy with it.  Given that,  I closed the shop for the day and decided to sleep on it.  After a good night’s sleep, it was clear we needed to start over and resand with coarse 60 grit to get a consistent color, sand with 120, then 180, then continue the finishing process.  A calm, measured response is one way to respond to friction, and another is to just power through it which Clausewitz addresses in some detail.

Clausewitz says “Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.”  This is great counsel for an entrepreneur with a startup.  An entrepreneur can “pulverize every obstacle” for a while, but eventually only has a finite supply of will power.  It’s important to survey the battlefield (or business landscape) to assess where to focus that iron willpower, because one only has so much of it.  You can’t do everything and have to decide where to expend your finite time and energy.  This is especially important when you are building a business alongside a career as we discussed in blog post #1.

black walnut crown molding
Crown Molding in Black Walnut

Related to friction is a concept Clausewitz called fog.  This is essentially not knowing what is going on because you can’t see.  Fog, however, can be a good thing.  It forces us out of our comfort zone and also forces us to learn new things.  In some ways, at Traughber Design we seek fog because I like to always learn some new technique or tool on each project.  There have been some woodworking projects we took on where I had no idea (fog) how we were going to do a particular portion of the piece.  An example was the first gun cabinet project.  The plan called for a mitered crown molding (see picture above) made from three intricately routed pieces in black walnut which were then glued together.  We hadn’t made anything quite that elaborate before, but knew that by talking with more experienced woodworkers and researching online we could figure it out.  In that case we sought the fog.

Another example of fog is starting a new business.  When you are an entrepreneur, you are essentially jumping off a cliff into the unknown. The only thing you know for sure is the vision that’s in your head of what you would like the enterprise to be.  Every day you try to take steps to achieve that vision, but certain aspects don’t work out and you need to pivot to where the promising opportunities are.

Clausewitz said “Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes.  Each is an uncharted sea, full of trees.  The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without every having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark.”  Likewise, an entrepreneur has to attempt to sense the business reefs approaching and steer away from them in the dark.  One of the practical ways to do that is to identify risks and develop a mitigation strategy.  For example, one reef in small business is what happens if there is a fire and the shop burns down?  One mitigation strategy might be to beef up your insurance.  Another reef might be an area with which the entrepreneur is unfamiliar.  For example, operating a WordPress blog was a reef in my mind, but thanks to my sister’s suggestion, taking an online WordPress class mitigated the danger and actually created an opportunity since it showed possibilities with WordPress I hadn’t even anticipated.

If you’d like to read more from the great master, here is a link to the book on Amazon (the blog does not benefit if you buy the book).

Who knew all that study of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu during PME (Professional Military Education) would be so useful in starting a small business?

How to Build a Simple Wooden Coat Rack in Cherry

wall rack in cherry with iron hooks
Wall Rack in Cherry with Iron Hooks

Would you like a quick project you can knock out over a weekend?  Or maybe produce something for Mrs. Woodworker to justify all those tools?

We recently received a second woodworking commission for one of these pieces so I thought I’d open source the instructions into the ether for you. You should be able to knock one of these out in a few hours before applying the finish.

First of all, why cherry? As you can see from the picture, cherry gives you a nice unique reddish hue and the grain really pops once the finish is applied. In addition, it’s very easy to work with. It’s harder than pine on the Janka hardness test, but not so hard that it is difficult to mill.

raw cherry board woodworking
Raw Board

First, plane the board to the desired thickness.  You can have the hardwood dealer do this when you purchase the board, do it with a hand plane, or better yet use a bench top planer, like my trusty Porter Cable (see picture).  In this case, the board was partially planed when I bought it from Woodcraft, but there is still some work to do as you can see from the scruffiness (technical term) on the right hand side of the picture.  Planers generate a ton of shavings, so I recommend doing this step outside.  In addition, most planers create something called snipe at either end which is an ever-so-slight indentation.  I recommend leaving the board with a couple extra inches at either end so this can be cut away in a later step.

squaring a board woodworking
Squaring up the board

Second, square up the sides by using your table saw or Festool Tracksaw to make one clean edge (see picture).  Then mark off a parallel edge on the opposite side and cut.  If you’d like some more intel on the Festool gear pictured in this post, please check out our post on tools.

 

 

 

squaring the end of a board
Squaring off the ends

Next cut the board to length, by cutting from both ends.  This will cut away the snipe mentioned earlier.  Make sure the ends are square.  If you have a sliding compound miter saw like the one pictured, they typically have a laser which will aid in this.  Otherwise, a carpenter’s square will do for drawing a square line perpendicular to the long edge.

keyhole router bit woodworking
Keyhole Cuts

Next make two keyhole cuts (you can pick up keyhole router bits at Woodcraft) in the back in order to hang the piece flush to the wall.  I like to make my keyhole cuts at least 2 inches long to account for the screws not being exactly 32 inches apart in the studs.  This way you can slightly adjust the piece from side to side without any risk of it coming off the wall.  Also, set the depth to 8mm so you get a nice 3mm lip for the screw head to pull against when the piece is hanging on the wall.  This will make it very secure.  I recommend making the keyhole cuts first before routing the edges, because they are the most difficult cuts in the entire process.  If you make a mistake with the keyhole cuts you’ll have to start all over again so it’s best to do the most difficult procedures first so you are not wasting effort if you need to start over again.

round over router bit
The Magic of a Quarter Inch Round Over Bit

Next rout the short edges, then the ends, then the long edges in that order.  The reason is that you’re likely to get some minor tear out when routing the end grain.  When you rout the long edges this will clean up any tear out from the ends.  I recommend a 1/4″ round over bit for the edges which give a very streamlined look.  If you get too fancy with the edge routing, it draws the eye away from the grain of the piece.

 

 

placing metal hooks woodworking
Hook Placement

Next drill the holes for the hooks by spacing the hooks equally across the face of the piece.  In this picture you can see the placement.  Be sure to also center them vertically.  In this picture you can see the client chose gold colored hooks to match the hardware on their door which will be located close to this wall rack.  Contrast that look to the photo of another client’s piece at the top of this post.

hand sanding edges woodworking
Hand Sanding the Edges

Sand the piece using increasing sandpaper grits.  I like to use an 80, 120, 180 combination.  Start with sanding the edges by hand using a sanding block in order to preserve the sharp edges from your routing.  Then sand the large faces using a random orbit sander, if you have one.  Random orbit sanders do a good job preventing visible sanding lines.  If you don’t have a random orbit sander, hand sanding will do, it just takes a bit longer.

 

oil & urethane finish General Finishes
A Fine Oil & Urethane Finish

Next, add the finish.  I recommend a clear finish, like General Finishes Arm-R-Seal which you can find at Woodcraft.  The Wood Whisperer has a five step wipe-on process we’ve adopted which creates a brilliant finish.  I highly recommend TWW’s finishing DVD which is available on his website.

 

 

To add the finish, follow this five step process:

Step 1:  flood the piece with finish then wipe off after a few minutes
Step 2:  carefully wipe on the second coat.  Let dry.  Sand with 320 by hand after finish is dry
Step 3:  wipe on third coat.  Let dry.  Sand with 600 grit by hand
Step 4:  wipe on fourth coat.  Let dry.  Sand with 600 grit by hand
Step 5:  wipe on fifth coat

There you have it.  This is a quick project that is an ideal candidate to impress your client or The Wife.