Wood Filler: Great Mistakes

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This article is from Issue 83 of Woodcraft Magazine.

great mistakes

Flubs and fixes as curriculum

Jim was pretty upset. He was calling about a recent class project he was finishing up at home. A beautiful wall-hung cabinet, it had book-matched birds-eye maple panels set into precisely fitted doors, for which he had shaped delicate walnut pulls. He said, “Rob, I’ll tell you, I was installing the pulls in the detached doors, and things were looking great. I’m thinking ‘Phew, that’s it! Finito!’ I was feeling proud of myself when, all of a sudden, I realized that I had just—AUGHHH!—drilled the holes for the pulls in the wrong stiles!” 

After a bit, I was able to talk Jim down. I’m practiced at it, since we get calls like this from former students all the time. But in addition to discussing repair options, this time I decided to show some real solidarity with our alumnus. “Jim, maybe you wouldn’t feel so bad if you realized how many mistakes we make every single day in our high-end custom furniture facility, and we’re really good!”  

It’s true. As with Jim, I could regale you with stories of the horrible missteps that have happened in our shop, but I only have this one page. So here’s the short version of a recent single day’s errors made while working on a cherry and curly maple sideboard commission: 

Jason was fitting ship-lapped panels for the back of the cabinet. In spite of careful measurements (twice) and a full-scale drawing, he ended up with a 3/4" gap. Damn. As for Larissa, who was drilling pilot holes for the door’s precision-fit knife hinges, well, she neglected to flag the bit, and drilled straight through the door frame. Ouch.

Me? I was  creating tenons for the breadboard ends, using a template for fast, repeatable layout. Unfortunately, my template wasn’t so accurate, and I cut way too much off a couple of the tenons. #*@%!! 

Of course, being the pros that we are, we performed the necessary unnoticeable fixes. The point is, no matter how good you are, you are going to screw things up. A lot.

It’s an integral part of the building process. Artfully performing fixes is a skill that is required of any fine cabinetmaker, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Truth is, I sometimes get more gratification from a flawless fix than I do from executing something perfectly in the first place.

Jim will probably do a remarkable repair job. And when someone is marveling at the figured maple and caressing those delicate pulls, he may interrupt, “Yeah, but look at this spot right here...” But it’s because he’s proud of the struggle—of the fact that he has wrestled with the piece. Sure, he’ll make worse mistakes, and he’ll recover from those too. And in the process,  he’ll gain the confidence and power that comes from the deep understanding that you can fix anything. As for me,

I have yet to make a perfect piece of furniture, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying. 


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