Productive Procrastination

On Sunday, I finally rid my shop of three pieces that have consumed my time and shop space for the last month. You already know about the sassafras kitchen table. I also had a couple of tripod tables kicking around my shop the whole time.

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Cherry on the left, river birch on the right.

They’re based on a design from the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Kerry Pierce has an excellent book on the furniture from this village – it was probably my most-referenced woodworking book for several years. The table on the left is cherry, like the original. I made it back in 2011, and it’s one of my favorite pieces – simple and attractive, requiring only a paucity of time and materials. I can easily make one in three evenings.

I brought it back into the shop because the finish needed some work. When I originally built it, I finished it using just oil and shellac. The finish looked nice at first, but somehow, an open bottle of rubbing alcohol was left on the top…shellac dissolves in alcohol…you can figure out the rest. There’s been a disfigured blotch on the top for a while now that needed to be repaired. I sanded down the top and re-finished the whole thing with a few coats of lacquer.

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My enviable finishing room.

While I had the table in my shop, I decided to build another in river birch. I have a couple 15″-wide boards of slightly-figured birch that were just begging to be used, so I submitted. It was only a few evenings, right?

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Once those projects were out of the way, there was really no excuse to avoid the Windsor chair any longer. My plate was clean. I still wanted to build a new shavehorse, but there was no rush, since I won’t get the material to make the upper half of the chair until Thanksgiving. (My old shavehorse – a Jennie Alexander design – has seen plenty of use over the last decade, but it’s uncomfortable for long sessions). My dad, who lives in North Georgia, has set aside a nice white oak log for me to use for the crest rail and spindles. Coastal Florida is a bit of a desert for Windsor chair woods.

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The fact that it almost fits my 3-year-old daughter is probably a good indication that this shavehorse is really too small for me.

Everything from the seat down – the legs, stretchers, and the seat – can be built using the tools and materials that I already have. No excuses for not getting started. So, of course, on Monday evening I walked into my shop and immediately put off the Windsor chair for just a bit longer.

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Is procrastination still bad if you’re building cool things?

Instead of pulling out some poplar for the seat, I scrounged up a maple board and began building my new-and-improved shavehorse. And of course I chose the most complex (but also the most excellent) design around – Peter Galbert’s “Smarthead”. I figured I could knock it out in two evenings. I thought wrong. Hopefully one more evening to go…

I’m afraid the Windsor chair has become a bit of a white whale for me. I’ve been reading and dreaming about it for so long, I’m a bit scared that my creation won’t live up to my dreams. Am I the only one who does this? Is it normal to put our dreams on hold in a ruthless attempt to keep them pure? It’s uncomfortable to think that we might not be up to the task. But it’s heartwrenching to find out for sure. That applies to a lot more than just Windsor chairs.

When I first started woodworking, I was fearless. My first dovetails were cut with a Stanley flush-cut saw and a crappy 1″ chisel that I re-ground into a 1/2″ chisel so it would fit between the tails. I don’t want to think about how much time I spent at the grinder to pull that off. They weren’t perfect, but I wasn’t expecting perfection. I was just happy that they fit together. As my expectations were elevated, though, so too did my trepidation.

Not in every case, of course. I’ve built a lot of tables. The first piece of furniture I built was a coffee table. The second piece was my workbench, which is still just a table. The third and fourth pieces were end tables. The fifth was another coffee table. I can’t even count the number of tables I’ve built, of all shapes and sizes. They don’t scare me a bit. Once I have a design in mind, I just walk to my lumber stacks and begin picking out the material. I reach for my saw and and my square and I start cutting. There is no mystery and no reservation.

But a Windsor chair is a different story…Multiply the number of joints by 10. Multiply the complexity of the angles by 100. Multiply the importance of an aesthetically and ergonomically sound design by 1000. I’ve come to view them as the apogee of woodworking engineering and design. And with my respect comes no small amount of unease.

These thoughts stirred my mind and kept me awake as I lied in bed last night. Today, I decided put the thoughts on paper pixel, and then put them to rest. I know I’m up to the task, and the only person I have to prove it to is myself.

No more dreaming. It’s time to start doing.

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