Stupid Woodworker Tricks

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With a nod toward David Letterman, pros discuss their least-best moments. January 24, 2005

Just to keep things lighthearted here, would anyone be willing to share stories of their own mistakes or others'?

Here's the best one I heard (and this was not me). A guy I know went to install a kitchen in a place that was part of track housing. Nobody was home, so he went in and found that the cabinets had not been cleaned out. He tore out the cabinets and was finishing up his install when the homeowner returned to find his neighbor's brand new kitchen being installed in his house.

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A couple of years ago I built a reproduction of an Eastlake style cabinet to be used as a TV cabinet about 48" x 27" x 84" in footprint and valued around $12,000.00. The customer was so fixed on a certain size TV that in designing it I lost all track of how I would get it through the bedroom door in a tight hallway on the second floor. As it turned out, I couldn't!

So I turned to the customer and asked which one of her new walls of custom printed Bradbury and Bradbury wallpaper she preferred to tear down? Not the right thing to say (I thought it was an obviously stupid question intended to lighten up the situation). She lowered her head in tears and left the room!

Thankfully my old friend and general contractor was still working on the job. He said he had to rebuild one of the windows anyway, and we could see if it would go in through the window. We had 1/2" to spare after removing the sash, parting stops on both sides, one jamb and exterior casing of this beautiful Victorian home. We laid 2x4's against the house and screwed 2x4's to the back of the cabinet to act as skids, and pushed it up to a bay roof below the window, then into the room with very minimal damage (a scratch on the crown edge). That cabinet now will have to stay in that room till the end of time or till someone decides to move the door or window. Hopefully I won't be around anymore!

Eventually the customer could laugh about this, and I have done more work for them since... but on a smaller scale.

Myself and a friend/employee were installing an island cabinet, which had a considerable amount of glass in it. This island was different in that it hung from the ceiling in an old estate home along the river. The ceilings were somewhere around 14' high. The cabinet was one piece (per the customer, a local doctor) and weighed in the neighborhood of 500 lbs. We had the cabinet to the ceiling via a hydraulic scissor lift and all was going well. My partner lost the toss and won the right to go up into the attic for gusset placement and to tighten the nuts on the allthread I was to push up through when he was ready.

Remember - this was an old home. As my partner was making his way across the attic of this 12,000 sq. ft. home, he discovered that the old boys who framed it in 1890ish did not have a trusty Stanley tape to lay out the ceiling joist. After I heard a terrible scream and a loud thud, I ran toward the repeated moans to find him lying in the master bathroom in the old clawfoot tub just as he would lie while taking a bath. No broken bones, but a huge hole in the ceiling and a really upset doctor!

To top off the event, while we were attending to my friend's needs, the doctor's dog got overexcited from all the commotion and urinated on my buddy's chop saw, which was on the floor to cut the crown later in the install. When we left, we let the doctor have the saw! :-)

I was helping a buddy of mine pick up some used countertops he had heard about from this "remodeling contractor" he met at the HD. We showed up at the house and the guy (we'll call him Bob) was already there. The Prefab Kabinets were arrayed in the living room. The guy comes up to us and says "Hey, can you guys tell me how to get the drawers out of these cabinets?" We kinda look at each other and well, we show him. I was thinking "That's weird."

He went up to the bathroom to do some plumbing and after a while we heard an "Oh S@#$!" We went upstairs and the guy had been sweating a pipe in the wall and had caught the insulation on fire. We helped put it out and went about our business. A while later we heard a crash... Went to investigate and found he had been using one of those circle cutters that have the adjustable beam on them to cut a hole in some tile. Well, I guess he didn't tighten it down and the head went flying off and shattered the sliding glass door! As we were walking by the master bath again, I noticed where he had tried to drill a hole through a stud to run, I assume, a pipe in the master bath and had gone through the wall with a 2" hole into the master bedroom (the only room that looked like it wasn't to get any work).

I didn't even want to be seen there by the homeowner! Ever since that day, if we screw up anything, we've "pulled a Bob".

Years ago I was installing cabinets in a townhouse project. Upstairs in the master bedroom, the painter had just finished spraying all the doors for quite a few units with oil based paint. It wasn't long after that a laborer arrived to open a window to air the bedroom out. When he reached behind a door, apparently he touched a door by accident, causing a massive domino effect. The doors were not braced well at the tops! I heard the crashes and ran upstairs. There were holes in walls and doors, and wet doors laying on top of each other covered in dirt. The kid kept saying "no way man, no way."

Back in the 60's on a Friday, I was installing cabinets in a high rise medical building for a shrink whose offices had a color scheme of red. Everything was red, but each a different shade - walls, carpets, doors, cabinets. Construction was going on throughout the whole building, since it was new, and tenants were moving in on all floors. The shrink had rooms close to the top floor of the building. During the time that I was there, I misplaced one of my Yankee screwdrivers. I noticed this when I was packing up to leave. I hate to lose tools. You might say I was a bit red. Anyway, my job was done there.

The following Monday, the company gets a call from the shrink saying that we will have to pull our cabinets out and redo them. I'm just told that they're damaged. When I get to the job site, I understood why. Seems that over the weekend, water pipes on the upper floors burst because of too much pressure, and all the water over the weekend flowed downward, ruining everything in sight. There was no one in the building during that period of time to catch the problem. The plumbers had regulated the water pressure while people were in the building using the water, and had not adjusted for a vacant building. The plumber's insurance company took a big hit that day.

As I was tearing out one base cabinet, I found the Yankee screwdriver that I had lost, as it was just laying on the floor under the base cabinet. I was happy.

This story isn't exactly funny, and doesn't really have anything to do with cabinets, but definitely falls into the stupid (and painful) category.

About 12 years ago I was project manager for a custom builder. We were awaiting delivery of a custom poured 6 ft. cultured marble Jacuzzi tub so the plumber could finish the rough-in plumbing. The 500 plus lb. tub finally arrived on a flatbed truck along with 2 men to unload it. They backed up to the front porch so the tub could be carried in through the front door. Because delivery of the redwood flooring for the front porch had been delayed, we had scraps of OSB ply laid across the floor joists to allow access to the front door.

The 2 men grabbed the tub to unload it and couldn't lift it. I offered to help and positioned myself at the end of the tub while they were on the two sides. We lifted the tub and I stepped back off the truck bed onto the porch. About two steps later, I stepped on an edge of one of the pieces of OSB, and it flipped up and dropped between two of the floor joists. I also dropped. Not between the joists, but straddled one of them. Yikes! Thank goodness my momentum was carrying me backwards. Rather than landing on my... uh... well, you know, I landed squarely on my tailbone. Ouch! I hit so hard it knocked me out for a few seconds. When I came to, both men were holding their crotches and they looked like they had just eaten a lemon.

The two men helped me up, then down off the porch where I proceeded to pass out again from the unbelievable pain. I finally managed to half crawl, half walk to the truck, where I made a call for help. At the doctor's office, x-rays showed a fractured tailbone. I couldn't walk for 2 or 3 days, then only baby steps. You can't believe the excruciating pain from a broken tailbone. It was a good 6 months or more before I fully recovered. Now, whenever I see scraps laid over joists, I get a real PITA.

Not too long ago I was on my way to meet a client for the first time after exchanging much information via e-mail and phone. On the way there, I was cut off by this guy in a BMW and I flashed my lights at him to get his attention and then gave him the old middle finger salute. I arrived at the meeting and guess who it was? Mr. BMW. I did not get that job.

Also… I was finishing an 85' yacht's interior and as everything was to be finished the same, I got a 2.5 gal. pressure pot, air fed respirator and made a day of it.

After spraying on 5 gal of what I thought was 3 parts awl bright, I stood back and admired my work. I closed up the boat and my assistant and I went home.

The next day we were going to remove masking paper and tape only, and go get paid. I say "were" because when I arrived at the boat, the fumes were still very strong and even though the finish looked great, it was tacky.

I checked my stock of finish, and sure enough, there it was - an unopened container of catalyst. I forgot to use it at all. Man, it took days to wipe that mess up. All the trim and moldings had to be taken off again, as uncured finish had crept under them. To this day, that was my biggest mistake.

Last Thursday I was delivering an entertainment unit made up of four separate cabs. When I took the job, I didn't think the central TV cab would make it up the stairs, so I told the customer that I would bring the case in parts, then assemble in the room. Sounds good. Later on, about a week before delivery, I was talking to the client and she said "You know, we managed to get that bulky couch down the stairs, so the cabinet should make it fine." So I assembled the cab in my shop and loaded it for delivery. Showed up at the house and found that the case would not go up the stairs due to a tight corner and low ceiling in the stairwell. I went and got out my trusty Festool circular saw and edge guide and cut about 24" off the top of the cab (nice neat cut due to the Festool). We carried the two parts upstairs and a couple of biscuits and some pocket screws later, it was back together again. The client was happy in the end, so it ended up okay. From now on I will always go with my gut on these issues. Thought I was gonna puke, though.

A few years back my father (a general contractor) was building a 3 story house with an elevator in it to accommodate a wheelchair. After the house was framed, Dad called the elevator company and told them they could set the cable drum (250lbs). They declined and said they would set it after the sheetrock was in so they only had to make 1 trip. So the time comes and these guys carried this drum up into the attic. As they were doing so, there was a tremendous crash followed by a series of smaller crashes. Turns out they dropped the drum and it came down in the front entry of the house (18 or 20 foot high ceiling) and landed on the stairs, breaking a stringer under the stairs. It then bounced down the stairs, smashed into the wall and down another set of 3 steps onto the finished hardwood floor. We had to chisel a broken grease fitting out of the floor.

As if all of this wasn't enough, later that week they dropped the elevator car 3 floors and nearly killed a man.

I hope you all get a good laugh from this one, and remember, it can always get worse.

A cabinet shop I worked in many years ago had a foreman who drank Coke all day and chewed tobacco. Jeff had spit cans all over the shop. One afternoon I'm in the spray booth and I hear a very loud proclamation of the F word. By the time I make my way into the cabinet shop, Jeff had turned an ugly shade of green...

Finishing kitchens in the field requires tape and papering off the new counters from overspray. The new guy is doing something to an upper cabinet when an unusual disturbance makes us investigate. Upon opening the two lower doors under sink cabinet, there he was looking like Houdini in a sardine can. I can't describe the position he was in, but I can tell you it was hard to pull him out of there - not because he was jammed, but because we were laughing too hard! He was fine except his pride. Look where you step!

About 21 years ago, I had been in the cabinet business for about 1 week. I was only 17 years old, but loved cold beer as much as the old cabinet maker/employee that I had been left at the shop with. On this cold morning, the boss was installing, so we had the shop to ourselves. We had a 55 gallon wood stove for heat, and a dirt floor covered with sawdust. Well, ole Melvin says "Hey boy, come over here and throw some mineral spirits in this heater. I got an old can and poured about a quart in it. The door blew off and knocked me on my butt. It was lacquer thinner. I had 3rd degree burns on my entire right arm, and almost burned the shop down that had just burned 3 months before, and that darned Melvin made me stop on the way to the emergency room and get a 6 pack of tall boys for the ride. After that I had no job, and had to pay for my own medicine to treat the burns. 21 years later my new shop has steel interior (walls and ceiling), concrete floor, dust collector and 100% electric heat.

About 20 years ago I was installing for the company I currently run (I'm either really stupid or like this place a lot). One morning the original owner called me into his office and apologized in advance for the installation he was about to ask me to handle. The job was a re-model for a NASA engineer. This customer had already, in just the pre-install stages, become a real pain in the keester! After my warning of things to come, I decided to make a statement as soon as I hit their front door. I went to their door with my tool belt on, a chainsaw in one hand and a weed whacker in the other. When the owner opened the door, I announced that I was there to install their new cabinets! The job went very well because they truly thought I was nuts and pretty much left me to do my job. When I was done, they were happy. Strange thing, though - weeks later, a hinge broke on one of their doors and they asked that I not come to replace it!

Back in the 70s I had a contract to do the cabinets and millwork in this 12 plex. Somehow the plumbers ended up with the countertop as part of their job. I hung all of the cabinets in all of the units first to allow the plumbers to do their part. They had a young guy setting the top ahead of the plumber. When he got to unit #5 (where I was working) I pointed out a little problem he was having. The eight screws per top that he was using were a tad too long, and he was shooting eight holes in every top.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor S:
We made built-in cabinets to go beside a fireplace. Because of the size of the TV, we needed as much width as possible. We made it a fairly snug fit, but figured we had enough clearance to get it in without incident. This was an older home, balloon framed, with vermiculite insulation poured between the studs. The plaster at the very bottom right of the wall was pushed out so we couldn't set the cabinet back far enough. Out of frustration, because of the snug fit, one of my guys grabbed his hammer and gave the plaster an almighty blow. You wouldn't think there could be that much insulation in a space 14 inches wide by two stories high. In no time we were all standing with insulation up to our knees. Luckily the customer was at work, and with the help of a shop vac, we were able to clean up before we looked any more foolish.

Also, we once built a murphy bed for a customer who lived in a seniors' complex. It was on the third floor, so we had to use the elevator to get there. We measured the opening caefully to make sure it would fit in the elevator. We arrived to do the installation, hauled the cabinet inside and planted it in the lobby, eagerly awaiting the elevator. Who would have guessed that the actual car wouldn't stop where the opening was? It was 3 inches lower at the top. We sent it away several times, trying to get a different result, but always 3 inches too low. Lessons learned.