Your Project Makes You

When you’re building a piece of furniture on a tight schedule, there comes a point where you stop fussing with a workpiece and decide that “good enough” really is good enough.  If, for example, you’re making a dresser for your daughter, who has just recently moved into her own room and is in desperate need of a real dresser to replace the plastic drawer unit she’s been cramming her clothes into, and you’ve promised to have it finished before her birthday, which comes just before the big annual family vacation…. well, you’ve got to economize on time where you can.

A dresser, however, is not the kind of furniture that is especially forgiving of slop.  In theory, a dresser is just a series of boxes nested inside a larger box.  But in practice, each of those smaller boxes must fit inside the larger box with a high degree of precision.  If the drawers are 1/8″ too narrow, they’ll rattle around instead of sliding smoothly in and out.  But if they’re even slightly too wide or too tall, they won’t fit at all.  Plus, both the case and the drawers must be perfectly square, not twisted or rhombus-shaped; otherwise nothing will fit properly.

As I began building the dresser, I considered my approach.  Yes, I needed to get this dresser built, but experience told me that imprecision in the early stages of stock preparation leads to frustration later on.  So despite my tight schedule, I decided that I had better be as precise as I could.  My mantra for this project was going to be “no cutting corners.”  I was going to do each operation as precisely as possible, even where it wasn’t strictly necessary to do so.

A few details about the project itself: I had been stocking up on wide 2X construction-grade southern yellow pine from the local home centers and letting it dry out.  The plan was to build the whole thing out of this SYP, using my bandsaw and planer to cut the wood down to furniture-sized pieces.  The design would be entirely traditional: dovetailed drawers, solid bottoms that slid into grooves, and even solid-wood dust panels between each drawer.  The case would be made from 1″-thick stock milled down from the 2X stock.  There would be no frills–no moldings, no carvings–just a few chamfers and round-overs to protect exposed edges.  There would be absolutely no plywood.  With a few exceptions (such as the dust panels and the case back), I would make each piece as precisely as possible.  And that’s what I did.

In this context, “precision” has a very particular meaning.  I had no intention of making any element of this dresser precise in a mathematically-measurable way.  It didn’t matter in the slightest whether the top finished out at 63/64″ or 1 1/64″ thick.  What did matter was that each workpiece was cut and trued straight and square.  Each drawer blade needed to be exactly the same length, width, and height–whatever those dimensions happened to be in numerical terms.  That doesn’t mean each element was finished to the same degree of smoothness, however,  Undersides and backs were left rough from the jack plane, or even from the bandsaw.  Only exterior surfaces were smoothed and sanded.  But I kept reminding myself that every reference face, and every part that would be joined to another part, had to be made as precisely as I could.

This approach took a new level of self-discipline on my part.  As I planed edges and ends, I checked each of them for square.  At first, this seemed to take up a lot of valuable time.  But it forced me to confront something about myself that I hadn’t really acknowledged before: I’m really bad at keeping my handplane square while I’m planing edges.  I’m nearly as bad at crosscutting wood square.  I have very definite tendencies to lean in one direction (left).  So my squares and my shooting board got a lot of use during this project.  By the end of it, I had a better sense of when I was planing an edge square and when I was definitely off.  My crosscutting had improved a little, too.

The payoff to this approach was two-fold:

First, the final stages of the build were relatively easy.  Doing the final fitting of drawers is usually an arduous task, but not this time.  Because I had taken care that each edge was straight and each drawer was square, I had to do very little additional planing to fit each drawer into the case.  Extra care taken at the beginning meant relative ease at the end, whereas haste and carelessness at the beginning will make a project increasingly difficult as little errors accumulate into big discrepancies.  (There’s a life-lesson in this, I think.)

Second, making myself stop and check for square at every step helped me be able to see and even feel for square more consistently.  The more I forced myself to stop and check, the more I found myself able to tell, if not when I was on, at least when I was definitely off.  That doesn’t mean I started planing everything square on the first try, but by the end of the project, I could get to square more quickly and more reliably than I could before.

All of the above comes down to this: The way you do your work affects you, for good or for ill.  While you are building the project (whatever it may be), you are also building habits.  Each project you build is also building you.

As Aristotle observed, virtue comes down to habit–your character is made up of the kinds of things you do habitually, often without thinking about them.  Habits are built up through a series of choices, conscious or unconscious, that eventually harden into character.  If you keep shrugging at hasty work and telling yourself “it’s good enough,” pretty soon your work won’t be good at all–let alone good enough.

So now that you’ve waded through the philosophical part of the dresser build, here are a few process pictures:

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Leveling the top of the case with my jack plane.  Note the undulations that result from planing directly across the grain.  Also note, the short, thick shavings that result from planing like this.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Getting the top straight with the jointer plane.  (Zoom in to better see the diagonal plane tracks.)  Here the shavings are long and wide, and tightly curled.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Smoothing the surface with the smoothing plane.  The shavings are still wide, but they are now very thin ad wispy, curling in unpredictable directions.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Fitting the drawer blades, which I installed in two stages.  This is the back of the case, with the rear blades and the runners only dry-fitted.  One of these days, I’ll do a blog post on the cat.  His name is Cheddar, and he likes to get into the middle of everything.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Gang-cutting the dovetails for one of the drawers.  Joinery is one place where “good enough” is generally not actually good enough.  Having planed each side to the exact same dimensions really pays off here.  So does having planed each end straight and true on the shooting board.  It’s easier to see pencil lines on a planed surface than on a sawn one.  And because each edge aligns with the other, it means I can cut two sets of tails at once.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

The dresser with all four drawers fitted into the case.  Dresser-construction tip: fit the drawers BEFORE installing the back.  Otherwise, if you push the drawer all the way in, you’ll have no way to get it back out again.  I installed the back of the dresser last, even after applying the finish and installing the drawer pulls.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

The top drawer pulled out to show its half-blind dovetails.  The square tail at the bottom covers the groove that holds the drawer bottom.  If you look closely at the second tail from the top, you’ll see where I used a shim to repair a slight gap at the baseline.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

This is perhaps my favorite picture from the build-along.  It shows not only a thin and very consistent reveal around a drawer, but it also shows a perfectly tight dado joint. It’s satisfying when your joinery stands up not only to use but also to photographic scrutiny.

Anyway, the real point of the picture is to show the drawer stop.  We all use drawers all the time, but we never really think about the fact that the drawer always stops sliding in at the same place, much less about why the drawer stops where it does.  There are several different ways to create a drawer stop, but this is my favorite.  It’s a triangular slip of wood glued and nailed onto the runner.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

The back of the drawer front makes contact with the stop when you push the drawer in all the way.  The grain of the stop is oriented front-to-back because end-grain is less liable to compress under force than is face grain.  And the stop is triangular so that the drawer bottom, which fits into its groove in the drawer side by means of a bevel planed on the underside, will clear the stop as the drawer slides in and out.

Next time you’re at an antique store, pull a drawer all the way out of some of the older dressers and see if you can find the drawer stops.  They might be on the top or the underside of the drawer blades.  You’ll find quite a variety in drawer stop design.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Here is the case during the finishing process.  (The finish is clear, semi-gloss lacquer.)  You can see the frame-and-panel dust panels, which were left rough from the saw.  These panels have a couple functions.  First, as the name implies, they prevent the movement of air and airborne dust between drawers.  They also prevent stuff in one of the lower drawers from sticking up and jamming the drawer above.  They are normally omitted on newer dressers, but they come standard on most older, high-quality dressers.

Dresser for K Summer 2020

Here is the dresser completed.  I encouraged my daughter to pick out the knobs, and she chose some simple, antique-brass ones from the home center.  Because the drawer fronts are not a standard thickness, we ended up having to cut each screw down to size so the knobs would tighten properly.  The drawer sides and runners are liberally waxed with paraffin wax so they slide easily.

Dresser for K 2020

And finally, here is the finished dresser in place.  My daughter helped me establish the original width and depth, but the height was predetermined by the situation.  There was exactly 36″ of clearance underneath the half-lofted bed, so that was the one numerical dimension I did have to observe strictly.  The dresser fits with about 1/4″ of overhead clearance.

It’s a bit ironic that I took a lot of trouble to smooth and sand the top of the case, which is now hidden underneath a bed.  But I trust that this dresser won’t always have its top hidden.  My daughter won’t live in this room forever.  (She better not, anyway.)  Eventually she’ll pull this dresser out from under the bed and put it in a bedroom in her own place, and then we’ll both be glad I took the trouble to make the top look and feel good.  After all, I built this dresser to last.  With some luck, it should last longer than either of us.

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8 Responses to Your Project Makes You

  1. wilburpan says:

    Really nice work, Steve! Quick question: how did you attach the top to the case?

    • Wilbur, good to see you here! I attached the top with dadoes. In fact, the whole carcase is assembled with stopped dadoes. The drawer blades (but not the runners, which are tenoned into the grooves in the dust panels) are dadoed into the sides.

  2. bgjfurniture says:

    Beautiful job in a little used but pretty species.
    The article was excellent also.
    My tool cabinet has “how long is eternity” (in Latin) carved in its front to remind me my work will outlast me as will any mistakes.

    • That’s a great motto, Martin. Thanks for sharing. While I know my woodwork won’t last for eternity (I reserve that hope for other kinds of work–raising my children, for instance), I’m reminded of the longevity of good furniture every time I step into an antique shop.

  3. Matt McGrane says:

    Fantastic project. The grain looks very nice and shows you chose boards carefully. I totally agree with your assertion that a little more up-front work will make the downstream work go better. A life lesson that I try to work and live by.

  4. Paul Clayton says:

    Gorgeous piece of work. Thanks for the thorough write-up and detailed pictures.

  5. Florence B Schuler says:

    You cut corners when you were here. I have four of them…

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