There is an old saying in the carpentry community, “measure twice, cut once.”
Seemingly obvious observation, but often lost on the newcomer or hasty craftsman. Confronted with a pile of timber or even scrap material, the urge of instant gratification overcomes caution. Grab a measuring tape and begin marking cut lines. It will all come out as planned—or so one believes until it is time to assemble the assorted timbers.
This lesson in humility comes to me as I turn the pages on Doug Stowe’s deceptively straight-forward tome Basic Box Making. One of the early tasks a would-be woodworker encounters is the opportunity to construct a box. Be it to house tools or simply a place to toss shoes, the box is a natural “first” for a craftsperson intent on honing skills and learning new tricks of the trade. Square corners and a simple bottom matched with a proper lid. How hard can it be?
Oh, that life and carpentry were so simple.
Life, as most of us have come to learn, is composed of complex curves and miss-matched grains. The personalities and problems we encounter on a daily basis rarely meet with the best-laid plans outlined in self-help manuals or countless team-building exercises. The same is true of box making. What Stowe makes appear simple is actually the result of years struggling through trial and error. As he so aptly notes, “developing the skills you need to accomplish your best work won’t happen overnight.”
I just happen to be in the midst of my own box project. The tools of a general contractor typically come in the form of molded plastic or battered sheet metal. Intended to be haphazardly tossed in a van or pickup truck bed, these boxes are not reflective of the maker’s imagination. Certainly there is a skill involved in designing and assembling such containers—but is not a craftperson’s heart and soul, it is industrial production accomplished with an efficiency that would make Frederick Turner proud. That is what currently clutters my van. They serve a useful purpose, but are inappropriate for the tools of fine joinery or traditional handwork.
For that one needs a proper box. A container crafted to the dimensions dictated by a handsaw, planer and drawknife. Certainly a hammer and set of new drill bits may also be added to the mix. But as a whole, the box in question must be crafted to reflect the wisdom of generations who labored over raw timber without the benefit of electricity or laser-guided rip saws.
So it is with patience I begin sorting through the scraps of lumber my father has acquired over the last 15 years. Bits of plywood that have served in multiple other tasks. Stained framing two-by-fours that should have met the fire pit years before my project. And, behold, a collection of aged teak from an Asian cabinet that long ago became a memory and pile of odd timbers. This is the material of patience and imagination. It is where one begins the labor of “measure twice, cut once."
So it is with craftsmanship. The art of patience and learning. A lesson I aspire to share as we traverse the challenges that lay ahead. I find much wisdom in Stowe’s opening remarks before plunging into the skill of crafting the perfect box: “If you want to learn something and get good at it, teach it to others.” In this case I offer the case for patience. Green wood must dry, glue needs to set, and the saw should only appear when a carpenter is certain the cut will meet an intended purpose. All a product of patience.
Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard. A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.