Most people who have a cottage which isn’t a mini-mansion spend a lot of their cottage life maintaining and improving it. This can be a little stressful to those like me who are more or less entirely without home-improvement skills.

I dunno why I never got the bug. I do like the idea of being a builder, but I can’t make a nail or a saw proceed in a straight line very well, and I find that things that are supposed to fit together don’t, and once together can’t be made to come apart as expected, and the whole thing involves a lot of pain and swearing and small precious pieces that fall on the floor and roll under immovably-heavy objects.

So, this picture requires some explanation.

A piece of a picnic-table-to-be

At the cottage, we have this lovely deck built around huge trees overlooking Howe Sound, and we like to eat out there, but we don’t have much of a table; a flimsy round plastic thing that tends to spill one’s beer when jostled by a bouncy child.

We also have a big stack of lumber, trees that were cut down a few years back to get us a little more sun and have been milled into a variety of dimensions notably including 2x6", first-rate hundred-year-old cedar. So I got the idea of a sturdy companionable home-made picnic table and have embarked on building one.

There are lots of patterns on the Web and I picked this one because it doesn’t have built-in benches; rather than making the ones in the pattern, I plan to get nice comfy outdoor chairs that you can lean back in while you sip your wine and admire the scenery.

Now clearly this pattern is beyond my powers, involving as it does many subtly-curved pieces of wood. I may not be able to build, but I can model, so I re-did the pattern to eliminate the curvature and replace almost all the 2x4" bits with 2x6" because that’s what I have.

Lauren, who actually has a gift for carpentry, has instructed me in the use of a circular saw and a belt sander. The saw is tricky and I’m still mastering the skill of mounting the pieces so they don’t sag and twist and tear as the cut nears completion. The belt sander though, it’s a dream; you can make rough-milled timbers smooth as a baby’s bottom reasonably quickly and without having studied the technique for years.

And I have to say, time spent out on the deck measuring and cutting and sanding and so on is pretty relaxing. So far, no small parts have been lost.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Mike (Aug 18 2010, at 01:50)

Check out for really simple carpentry plans.

While the layout is a little cluttered her plans are very clear and well illustrated (using SketchUp I believe).

Like yourself, I'm a natural klutz when it comes to carpentry so I have yet to work up the nerve to build one of them.

But at least they don't invoke the same gut-wrenching fear that most plans I see online do.


From: John Cowan (Aug 18 2010, at 05:30)

I heard exactly the same kinds of things from the professional carpenter who installed extra shelves and bookcases in my apartment: "Level isn't level, plumb isn't plumb, straight lines aren't". (Okay, he was also a novelist.) So it's not just you.

From The Mythical Man-Month, Chapter 2:

In many creative activities the medium of execution is intractable. Lumber splits; paints smear;

electrical circuits ring. These physical limitations of the medium constrain the ideas that may be

expressed, and they also create unexpected difficulties in the implementation.

Implementation, then, takes time and sweat both because of the physical media and because of the

inadequacies of the underlying ideas. We tend to blame the physical media for most of our implementation difficulties; for the media are not “ours” in the way the ideas are, and our pride colors our


Computer programming, however, creates with an exceedingly tractable medium. The programmer

builds from pure thought-stuff: concepts and very flexible representations thereof. Because the medium is tractable, we expect few difficulties in implementation; hence our pervasive optimism. Because our ideas are faulty, we have bugs; hence our optimism is unjustified.


From: Tony Fisk (Aug 18 2010, at 06:31)

I used to do a small bit of carpentry about once/year. Last effort was to put up a longish child-proof fence into the kitchen area. (It even worked, to my astonishment!)

Measure twice. Cut once. Cuss innumerably.


From: Gordon Weakliem (Aug 18 2010, at 08:24)

The curved bits shouldn't be so daunting, a handheld jigsaw is a pretty compliant piece of machinery and not too expensive either, and as you've discovered, a belt sander absolves a multitude of sins quicker than a crooked priest. Just remember, "save the line".

The circular saw is handy for long cuts, but my advice if you want to make your life easer:

1) Get a miter saw. The fancy ones now have a laser sight to line up your cut and can easily take care of a nominal 2x6 or 4x4. I'm currently lusting after a compound miter but I'd have to be doing baseboard or crown molding to justify that purchase.

2) A table saw is a really quick way to turn a 2x6 into a 2x4. It's also much easier to do long, straight cuts than a circular saw. Just buy one with a sufficiently big table and probably an extension table so you can manage bigger pieces.

When I was in high school, the instructor's advice was that if you had only one power tool, a table saw should be it. I'd dispute that, I use my miter saw about 5 times to every 1 for the table saw.


From: len (Aug 18 2010, at 08:49)

I've done a lot of it.

If you don't want to hit your thumb with a hammer, hold the hammer with both hands.


From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Aug 19 2010, at 10:57)

Dear Tim,

Your latest blog has inspired me to write of my own experiences in carpentry so long ago. I do have an old fashioned bench saw (the table is made of cast steel not pressed steel). We could arrive at some bargain trade if you are interested. My blog will be up shortly.



From: Derek K. Miller (Aug 19 2010, at 12:40)

If Lauren has a gift for carpentry, I presume she isn't interested in building this stuff herself? Or is there another reason you're the one doing it?


From: Michael Richardson (Aug 20 2010, at 08:13)

> And I have to say, time spent out on

> the deck measuring and cutting and

> sanding and so on is pretty relaxing.

Yeah, carpentry on non-essential things is like when you used to write code for fun, because you hadn't discovered you could get paid for doing it...


From: mag3737 (Sep 30 2010, at 12:23)

Mag's three criteria for a successful home (or cabin) project: You must have

1. made at least two trips to [insert name of your favorite home center store].

2. acquired at least one minor injury (cut, scratch, bruise, etc.).

3. parts left over.


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