Trust your eye and listen to the voices in your head
Every young carpenter is told that frequently you should lay down your rule, square and line, walk twenty paces away from the work being done, turn, and look (really look) at what you’ve been doing. Many times what you see is not what you expected. Occasionally, something that is drawn in a smaller scale, just doesn’t “look right” when it’s constructed full size. A design that appeared very harmonious in sketch form, might be completely discordant when formalized. And more often than we might expect, an error that we have made and overlooked will present itself. And, once in a while, we may find ourselves the victim of a dreaded “cumulative error”. This is the situation I recently found myself in.
I was in the process of painting the above hybrid with potassium permanganate, to give it a little age, when I noticed something slightly odd about the crest rail. I sighted it against other horizontal lines in the kitchen. It just didn’t look right. As I live in a house that was built in 1860, I’m used to things being a little “off kilter”. I spent an hour or so in deep contemplation and came to the conclusion that even if it was off a little bit, it would never been seen by anyone else than me, so no corrective action on my part was required. The Kp would dry. I’d paint the chair black and everything would be good. I put a few ice cubes in my glass, covered them with Black and White and went about my business.
But human vision is, perhaps, the most powerful inspection tool ever devised. We are designed to instinctively know when things are “out of whack”, in terms of level, plumb and dimension. Every time I looked at that chair, I heard my Grandfather saying, “trust your eye, my boy; trust your eye”. (“Most of the time, these voices in my head have some pretty good ideas. But, sometimes, they just cause me extra work – Anonymous”)
So after several hours of walking past the chair and having it call to me like some mocking anthropomorphic changeling, I decided to take the it back out the shop and do some serious measuring. As chairs have so many angles and reference points, they can prove to be quite a measuring challenge. I had used the top of the arm rail as the reference surface to position the crest. After thirty minutes of exhaustive inspection, I realized that, somehow, the arm rail was out position by about 3/16″ (nearly a mile, in furniture terms). The arm rail error itself was not easily seen. But the cumulative nature of the error would have drawn the attention of even the most casual observer, or so I thought. So after fighting with my inner demons for a little while longer, it was out with the pull saw and off with the crest. The crest was re-bored and the chair made right. I felt much better. I had done the right thing. Gramps would have been proud of me (but probably would not have paid me for the additional time spent). And my lovely wife simply said that she couldn’t see any difference.
So, the chair is somewhat shorter now, but will still be black (after milk paint and many coats of boiled linseed oil).
In the end, the moral of the story is two-fold. First, trust you eye. Second, remember that 1° is approximately 3/16″ in 12″. Might not look like much at 6″. But, if you run that line out to 24″ or 36″… You get the picture. Keep listening to those voices in your head. They’ll make sure you always do your best work.