Home > Woodworking > Lead, follow or get out of the way!

Lead, follow or get out of the way!

a musing on learning, originality and creativity

What we have here is situation where I haven’t had much shop time since I finished the “10 Drawer Small Fossil Chest and Lower Chest”. For unexplained reasons I seem to have an affinity for tool chests and totes. I can’t explain the attraction. Too date,  I’ve built two of the 10 Drawer chests and one tool tote and have given them as gifts. That fact has lead me to my current quick project, a DIY tool tote with lower drawer.

Popular Mechanics Tool Tote

The plan was published by Popular Mechanics and may be found on the web if you’re interested in its design. I liked the addition of the lower drawer and also that it was potentially simple to build and it was in that vain that I decided to make a change or two to its construction. The drawer is hard to see in the 3D model image above, this image shows it more clearly.

Tool Tote Drawer

Although I didn’t want to “over build” this shop work piece I decided to step out of my shadow and learn something new. Instead of screwing the bottom to the sides, I decided it would make a good excuse to get some dovetail lessons in. If I don’t make myself do it, I’ll never learn how and there is no way to learn a practiced skill without actually doing it. Other changes are to use pine for the carcass and oak for the dowel handle, drawer front and catch button. I also want to eliminate all those hideous screw heads while at the same time trying more traditional joining methods.


So I start with an idea in the form a detailed plan. Plans sometimes get a bad rap if they are used as a crutch but I am now of the opinion that at the beginner level it really is useful to build the piece as detailed in the plan. Why? Well there is a very good chance that you really don’t know how the thing goes together until you’ve built it once. There are plenty of opportunities to learn and make mistakes even with detailed instruction. At the intermediate level, you may very well want to venture from the original plan, perhaps customizing it for your own needs, simplifying construction or perhaps even complicating the construction to try something new.


Recently I have been drawing all of my projects in SketchUp. This project gives me an excuse to improve my SketchUp skills while documenting my journey. To me the most important aspect of SketchUp is that I can learn how the piece should go together without having to first build it. While drawing up the model for the lower storage chest, I discovered that I had chopped the mortises in the incorrect location. Had I drawn the model first before starting the project, I would have easily seen my mistake. Still it was advantageous to learn soon-than-later that I had to repair my error before proceeding.

I can cite another example of this on my current project. My decision to step outside the plan and attach the sides to the bottoms with dovetails resulted in my making a couple of mistakes. As I cut my first pin board, I left the half-pins on both ends but I mistakenly cut away the bottom overhanging piece. In other words, I made two additional cuts to free the half pins. The mistake was obvious when I showed the pin board to the tail board. DOH! In this case, I had actually modeled the original plan in SketchUp but had not had time to fool with my proposed modifications. Had I done so, it would have been clear the ends must not be cut away.

Popular Mechanics Classics - Toolbox w/ Drawer

SketchUp Model of “Popular Mechanics Classics – Toolbox w/ Drawer”

You will note I have not drawn the dovetail modification in this version of the model.  I did however, drop some material on the components to test my idea about using oak pieces with the pine. So my point is that the recommendation to “build it twice” can be further improved upon by building the model first before attempting your maiden build. The benefits of models should be self-evident. You can build you plan easily to any size and shape, altering materials, colors with the click of a mouse. You can design and print out full size templates which can eliminate layout frustrations for complicated parts. All this is true to be sure but for me, the single most useful feature of drawing it first is to understand and visualize in my mind, how the pieces fit together before I start cutting pieces in the shop.


If you happen to be reading this, you may think to your-self, self what a joke. This guy knows very little about woodworking, how can he lead? My only thought is that by being a good student, you eventually learn enough to add your own touch to a piece and to the craft. In this sense, we are all followers seeking inspiration and we should all be leaders as we search for our own originality. I’m suggesting the cycle is inspiration, learning, creation, teaching. Even a beginning would worker can inspire others to give it a try.

Get Out of the Way

So if you’re not inspired, not learning, not creating and not teaching (inspiring others), I suggest you move from where you are and find one of these states. I should think the last thing you want is to be caught “standing in the way”.

Shop Note: I’ve been inspired recently by two articles on learning to dovetail. The first recommendation was to mark out dozens of lines on a board and make cut after cut to work on your mechanics (lots of practice) without worrying about messing up your project. Great idea that I have already started. The second was “A Dovetail a Day – Hurray” by Christopher Schwarz. Chris suggest he never suspected people would actually take him up on the challenge of cutting a dovetail a day for 30 days but many folks have been inspired to do just that. I think I’m going to challenge myself to practice a little every day whether it be just sawing technique or actual joint making.


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