The 5 Stages of Gluing-Up

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This article is from Issue 93 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A psychological study in assembly

By Larissa Huff

According to pioneering psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages of grief that apply to all people regardless of age, gender, and walk-of-life. Well, after eight years of making furniture and helping teach nearly a thousand students, I posit that there are also five universal “emotional stages of gluing-up” that anyone undergoing a furniture assembly faces. So if you recognize yourself in the following descriptions, don’t worry. Take heart that you’re not alone. You’re human. You’re just another woodworker trying to get it together.

Anticipation. You’ve made all the parts. Countless hours have been invested in measuring, cutting joinery, dry-fitting, and sanding. Things are looking and feeling good. You’ve cleared a bench and gathered all your clamps, cauls, and other necessities. You’re excited and ready. A smooth dry-fit that requires only a simple tenon trim goes better than you expected, confirming that all your careful work was worth it.

Anxiety. You’re preparing for the real deal. All the parts are organized on the benchtop, and you’ve staged every clamp at-the-ready. You review your gluing strategy: coat the mortises first, then the tenons, and assemble from left to right. You’ll use your favorite glue brush, of course, because it’s obviously good luck. A hammer, block, and a wide beater chisel are at hand just in case. Flop sweat is building as you inventory everything one last time. You grab a snack to postpone the inevitable.

Panic. You are mid-glue-up and nothing is closing the way it did during rehearsal. You are somehow two clamps short. Huh? It’s only been three minutes but the squeeze out is already starting to harden on your front stretcher. Arghh! You’re supposed to have eight minutes of open time! You start to wonder why you even like woodworking. Maybe you should just quit now, burn this botched piece, and call it a good run.

Recovery. You’re sweating, upset, and sure the project is ruined. But your frustration has abated just enough for the logical part of your brain to kick in. It can’t get worse, right? So you try one more thing: you bust out a clever clamp maneuver you saw in a video once several years ago. It works! It corrects those misaligned parts and closes that gap that wasn’t budging. You manage a sigh of relief.

Acceptance. Okay, so there’s a slight gap where the tenon shoulder didn’t completely pull home. But no one will notice except you, especially since it’s under the top overhang. The piece is also slightly out-of-square, but you can tweak the drawer front a bit to compensate. And that raised grain caused by splashed water during a manic glue wipe-up is nothing some 220-grit hand-sanding won’t take care of. Alright, then, whew!

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