Canadian Woodworking

Projects from Hell

Author: Don Wilkinson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: June 2007
projects from hell
projects from hell

In most businesses and endeavors, there always comes a time you will refer to as, “the _____ from hell.”


A mechanic may have a car from hell that comes in for every conceivable problem and no matter what the mechanic does, the next week it’s back with another problem. A dressmaker may have a client from hell who comes in for their final fitting the day before the special event, having gained fifty pounds, or so, since the previous fitting. Every waiter, waitress and anyone who has ever worked for an airline has had at one time or another, customers from hell that can never be satisfied no matter what you say or do.

If you are a woodworker and have created anything from wood other than a Popsicle stick or toothpick, then you have discovered and experienced your own personal “project from hell”.

Mine was a wall unit. I was commissioned to design, build and install an entire room worth of wall unit incorporating two desks, one of which was a drop front complete with pigeon holes. There were file cabinets, computer trays and slide out computer CPUs and book shelves. This was to be matched above with cupboards of various shapes, sizes and functions, stretched from one side of the office to the next and then wrapped around the corner.

The clients had a particular stain colour in mind, and other than the over all dimensions, I was left on my own, which is the way I like it. It’s usually best this way both for mine and my clients’ sanity. The stain colour was not a standard, off the shelf colour, or any normal colour known to man. Well, not this man, anyway. It was a sort of oxblood-burgundy, but from a rather anemic ox, and the burgundy wasn’t a particularly good vintage.

One of the very first rules of woodworking clearly states: Do not cut off any fingers or other parts that you might wish to use in later life. While that is a really good rule to follow, it has nothing to do with the story. The rule I really wanted was: Measure once, cut twice. Maybe not! No, what I wanted was: Measure twice, cut once. I have heard that rule used many times, and on occasion have even used it myself. Maybe not as often as I should, as it is a very good rule. As is the first rule, which I also should have followed more closely.

For this job however, I followed the rule scrupulously. I returned again and again to the house for further measurements to ensure that I would get it right. And also to replace some of the dimensions I had somehow lost.

This was a newly constructed house so I made the incredibly dumb assumption that it was likely to have been built correctly. As in straight and/or square. Not once did I use a square or level while taking the dimensions of the room. I mean, who does? Me, now, as it turns out. Construction of the various units went well and in four or five weeks, the 20 something feet of cabinets and units were ready for the finish and installation. I tried various tints added to many, many different stains but no matter what I tried, the clients weren’t happy with the results.

One stain tint looked pretty good to us on the sample but once it dried on a trial cupboard, it obviously wasn’t right. I sanded down the unit and tried again with another promising tint. It didn’t live up to its promise.

More sanding. More tints, more sanding. This went on for a while. The cabinet walls were getting a little thin from all the sanding and both my and the clients sense of humour and patience were also wearing thin. And then I hit on the solution to the whole problem. Ask someone else. I just happened to know the best furniture refinisher in all of Ontario, and possibly all of Canada. I took a sample to him and half an hour later he arrived back at my shop with a gallon of the perfect stain. Three days later I was ready to install the units. Because of the sizes and number of units, the entire thing was designed to be dismantled and reassembled individually. Besides, my van was too small to fit the entire thing in at once.

The lower sections went together well until I got to an area where the upper units had to be fastened to the lower units. Once this was assembled, I stepped back and proudly gazed upon the unit as it was so far. Something was off. Either the entire thing was both crooked and leaning out from the wall and on the verge of falling into the room, or my head was on crooked. I tilted my head the other way and, although that seemed to help somewhat I really didn’t think I could convince my clients to do the same every time they entered the room. I checked my measurements. I checked my levels and my squares. Everything was fine. Then I checked the walls and floor.

The walls were out a full inch and a half over the 20 foot width of the room and the floor dropped almost ¾ of an inch for the depth of the cupboards. Are there no building inspectors in Ontario? How could that have been missed? And yet, I had missed it as well. I used enough shims to keep the B.C. forestry industry busy for 2 ½ weeks but eventually managed to level and straighten the entire unit enough to complete the installation. Unfortunately, because of the crooked walls and floor, the final corner unit wouldn’t fit and had to be completely replaced.

The clients are happy with the unit now and have since commissioned me for additional work. There is another upside to the entire project.

I now have a lovely, oxblood-burgundy cabinet in the square and level living room of my home.

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