When I started out in cabinetry, I was twenty five years old and I couldn’t use a tape measure. I could barely read one. I certainly couldn’t use one. I hadn’t grown up with tools. I made a few things in college but it was all art related, so I usually made a mess of the whole thing on purpose. Over a decade after getting started, I’m still building. It’s my music. It’s where I can see things organized. Laying out. Setting up. Running tools. I love it and it defines me.
For many reasons, building remains a romantic trade. It’s real. It’s physical. Someone needs it. I meet a lot of guys who make more money than I do, don’t abuse their bodies, don’t have to work in the heat and cold, are rarely in physical danger, but appear wistful when I relate my experience in the trades. I always tell them I paid a heavy price. And it’s true.
A great number of harsh experiences went into my sense of wholeness through building. From day one, the experience of messing up alone is just awful. Horrible. I’ve screwed up in so many ways, on so many occasions, uncountable, infinite. On my first day, on my first task, I miss-drilled a finished formica ply edge shelf for a shoe store. I had entered adulthood and couldn’t read sixteenths.
In construction, most lessons learned, come real time on the job, motors screeching, dust flying, blades ripping. I remember once trying to shorten a cabinet door with a hand planer on site, running the power plane from inside out, exploding the end grain on the doors edge and ruing the door. You always remember the first time.
Even more frustrating, you’re never too old to relearn a simple lesson. I knew early on not to put my left hand in the path of my right hand’s travel while operating a cutting tool, but it didn’t stop me from stabbing myself recently with a cutknife while aggresively trying to cut shims from behind a nine foot tall cabinet. You get on a ladder, it’s late in the day, you forget the lesson. With tools, especially power tools, you have to play by the rules. I’ve only hurt myself badly a few times but there’s always next time.
The psychological anguish of screwing up didn’t go away till a few years ago when I was finally self confident enough to accept mistakes as part of the human condition, and not a direct reflection of my worth. It remains aggravating, ruining material, wasting time, looking foolish, but I now see that moment when I discover an inevitable mistake as crucial. Can I keep my cool? Everybody’s cool when the going’s smooth, but only the bad dude is cool when things blow up. If you want to be the man, you gotta get out of trouble with whatever you have on hand. Even if it’s not your fault. Before someone sees it. If you can’t stay calm, you can’t figure it out. Or maybe you can’t get out of it and you have to admit it. There’s just no fixing it and you have to admit you ruined something and everyone knows it. And you gotta let it go and go back to work again tomorrow.
Obviously, such a spiritually advanced attitude toward building sounds great. Everybody wants to be calm. If you freak out, everybody will remember the timber of your voice when you got pissy, how you blamed someone else, how you weren’t cool. Everybody wants to see mistakes as challenges and problems as tests, but in the real world, people lose their heads. When I started out, I had no cool at all. I was an angry, nervous, irritable kid. A year or two in I cut some box parts wrong and punched a table. It took five minutes to fix the parts, and six weeks in a cast to fix my hand. My little brother watched me do it, which seems only just, since he was witness to many of my peevish outbursts growing up. I haven’t thrown a tool or punched anything since, and I’ve cut a lot of parts wrong in that time.
As a city kid who watched too much tv, never went camping or fishing or hunting or fixed a car or did much of anything but art and skateboarding, I was really in for it when I got hired on in a redneck shop in backwoods New England. You want to feel like a dumbass, get hired as a cabinetmaker in an old school shop in an old school mill town in Rhode Island when you’ve never built off architects plans before. Nobody talked to me for the first three months. I was on my own with my own bench, and I had never even milled from rough sawn lumber before. The boss, a terrifying choleric Irish brute, would only talk to me for a few minutes a day, tell me to build this or that, and then disappear, his yellow van squealing wheels as he sped off to site meetings. Once he was gone, I would have to sheepishly ask the other cabinetmakers, how to do this or that, where this thing was, how do you use the straight line rip saw? Eventually they realized I didn’t know shit. Actually they probably realized that right away, but eventually they realized I wasn’t going to pretend I knew something when I didn’t, and they started to explain a few things about cabinetry. Sort of. I don’t know if anybody ever explained anything to specifically, that’s not how building culture works.
Guys who can build rarely talk about building. It would be awkward. Usually they want to talk about women, or sports or just chit chat nothing stuff, but they rarely talk about actual building. They mostly complain. I imagine in Europe they might still have trade guilds where you can learn cabinetmaking in an organized, civilized fashion, but in America, it’s a free for all. Shop to shop, it’s whatever works. Whatever does the job. Nobody talks about why or what if, that’s just how we do it here. It didn’t take long before I realized I would never wind up apprenticed to an old master, widdling away in the woods somewhere, him demonstrating to me piece by piece how to build a reproduction high boy. There were one or two guys along the way who were good at explaining, and I owe them a lot, but mostly I had to make the connections myself. Every time I did something, I thought about it. If I messed something up, why? If it worked, why? I thought about building constantly. It wasn’t enough to just know how to do everything, I had to recognize why it worked or didn’t. The why is translatable. Eventually I realized that my success as a builder would be determined not by my ability as a student, but by my capacity as a teacher.
Luckily the shop in Rhode Island was still set up in the ancient manner. All the cabinetmakers had their own bench, their own job. You lay it out, you list it, you cut it, you mill it, you build it, you finish it, you install it. Maybe you get a helper, but it’s your job. You are responsible. You’re on the hook. For a great many reasons, this style of shop, the original style, has largely disappeared. CAD software eliminated the necessity for layout and hand written cut lists. The fastest guy on the fastest saw can’t touch the CNC machine. In order to keep up with the pace of CAD software and CNC technology, you really just need a bunch of low skilled workers on repetitive operations, building boxes, assembling. Throw one of them in the spray booth and you’ve got the modern shop. Most competitive shops order their doors from a door shop. One less skilled operation. The only difficult part left is the install. No robot is installing cabinets. But you’ve cut down significantly on skilled labor, and you’re pushing high end custom cabinetry out at a good clip.
The original shop was slow. Laying out by hand. Listing by hand. It’s a slow process. I still remember seeing a guy laying out for the first time on a layout stick, using a combination square to mark out lines for all the cabinet pieces, drawing himself a full scale map showing every piece of material that would make up a kitchen, in context, with everything to scale so that you could pull a tape on any segment of the layout and know exactly what dimension a part should be cut at. It was beautiful. I had been building cabinets for three years at that point, and had never witnessed more planning that a sketch. I’d seen countless projects go wrong because of mixed up numbers, “bad math.” There’s no math in a layout. Not in the sense that parts have been turned into numerical equivalents. In a full scale layout, the part IS its numerical equivalent, and all the parts TOTAL the overall dimension desired, since the overall dimension is the first mark drawn.
In the modern shop, CAD software can easily accomplish the task of laying out. Cutlists are simply generated, and complex construction features can be saved and reused, over and over. The better you are with the program, the more time you save, and the more predictable the results will be. There’s no turning back. All the same, no computer rendering will ever feel as secure as a to scale layout. And no one needs an expensive program to make one. All you need is a stick of wood and some wits. Learning the how to and why of layout changed my whole relationship to building. It taught me selfsufficiency and calm. Once I’ve carefully laid a project out, I can relax. I know it’s right. The guy who scribbled all his calculations out on a piece of paper will never know until it’s too late whether he switched a number, or forgot a unit. The cabinetmaker knows it’s right. When things are right, it’s not luck. When things are wrong, he knows why.
Other lessons learned in that shop were of the rougher variety. Having the boss call me an idiot in front of everyone for not knowing something obvious, ruining prize stock because I couldn’t read 100ths of an inch on the planer, realizing I was trapped in a noble but thankless trade. I left after a year, worked in a bronze foundry, two tiny wood shops, moved on. My wife and I moved to Austin. I built furniture and worked in a down and out commercial shop. The foreman, the meanest human I’ve ever met, taught me more things, practical stuff, laminate work, more redneck logic, try not to get old. We moved back to Virginia, more cabinetry, mostly installing. Had a kid. Moved to Santa Fe. Welded for a year.
Building eventually became my sanctuary and my burden. Like the old schoolers I met along the way, I wound up a cabinetmaker because I never new I could be an engineer or an architect. With the self-confidence of a trade learned, comes the sadness of a future assured. Luckily I do still enjoy it, the logic and harmony of building keep me engaged, and material manipulation will always be gratifying. I like big machines, simple jigs. I like rules and the clarity they produce, the logical underpinnings that never change. Understanding functional practices of building taught me respect for a world other men lived and died creating. Knowing why and how a saw cuts gives me power over it. When I turn on a table saw, I am unafraid, but I had to catch a kickback in the gut to learn how the thing worked, or to learn how I work it. I don’t ever want to get hit with a kick back again, but I wouldn’t give that first one back either. The sound it made, as it skipped onto the blade and shot toward me, a giant plywood frisbee slamming into the soft flesh above my groin, tearing through my shorts. After it hit me I had to run/skip to the bathroom. The need to go was as strong as the need to cry. The kickback had knocked the shit out of me. And I thought it was just something people said.
this handrail was the first project I built after I started welding. the curve of the stucco wall was irregular so we had to modify the rail several times. after welding and grinding on it for an extended period, I tried to pick it up like you’d pick up any piece of pipe. the entire surface of my hand was scorched. I burnt myself a bunch of times this same way in the beginning, but never quite as badly. for some reason the “it’s hot even though it doesn’t look hot” lesson was a tough one for me to remember.