How to overthink the shit out of a project
I am a terrible woodworker. I’m not good at keeping things square, I run out of patience in the measure twice, cut once department, I overuse screws and am averse to glue, what feels sanded to me may in fact be very rough. That being said I like to build. And I like to plan the building. In point of fact, it might be the planning of the building that I love the best. Things on paper, converting an idea in my head to a tangible concept, are where I excel. Unfortunately, for these plans, my skills are lacking. My woodworking skill consist mainly of watching a mustachioed man build amazing things with tools from the 1850s on PBS
and owning several different types of power tools. If that doesn’t make me a competent wood builder I don’t know what will, except of course anything else including practice.
Which brings me to today’s problem: Sara and I own a large number of books that require proper housing. After the collapse of several cheap pressboard bookcases, I decided I would only house my books in real wood, something with structural integrity and heft. In Duluth, I made a few hastily assembled bookshelves, which I never bothered to paint and each shelf had a slight cant. In the move to Columbia, all the books were boxed, and the shelves left behind. Sara had some Ikea shelves for her books, but with baby, we felt their precarious balancing act was best left in the past. Therefore, my first project was to build a new bookcase. It was simple but solid (at least up and down and it could hold quite a few (but not all) of our books. Problems arose quickly. First, I discovered that while each shelf could solidly hold at least 200 pounds of books, if I pressed the side of the bookcase it would wobble in a manner not befitting anything you want to store heavy or fragile things upon. Nevertheless, it was already built, I had built it, and I was proud. I also wanted to get the books out of the garage before they became mushy garbage. So I bought some high quality mounts and lashed the bookcase to the wall studs (insert Peg+Cat singing problem solved song). Well that lasted a few months until Katie became very mobile and very interested in books. She removed every book off the bottom two shelves, stripped them of the dust jackets and any bookmarks, a slung them around the room like so many beer cans at the end of a frat party. So out go the big people books, and in come the Katie books and toys at least on the bottom two shelves. The top shelves then become massively overcrowded with books and knickknacks jammed together.
Thus was initiated my brilliant new plan. I the builder of the previous precariously put together bookcase would build not one, but three new bookcases where the bottom shelves would be free to hold Katie stuff and the tops would provide enough room to display our books and tchotchkes and pictures and the like.
The overthinking started immediately. First was move from 1 to 3. One bookcase, that was the thinking. Simple, solid, square. I had a design in mind. It would have a backboard that would eliminate the wobble of the previous version. I sketched it out. Looked good. Then I started planning… I could do the whole thing with two sheets of plywood, a 6’ by 30” bookcase with five shelves. Since I don’t have a table saw I planned the cuts I would need the hardware store to make. It was ready to go from paper to wood. Then more thinking. What if I used board instead of plywood? I could do the cuts myself and the cost would be the same and I wouldn’t have to worry about the edges being ugly or rough or hard to sand. So that was the plan for a minute. I priced things out and it turns out Menard’s was having a sale so I could do boards for about the same price. Except for I had $100 in gift cards to Lowe’s and fuck Menard’s for their shitty politics and employment practices. So back I went to the idea of plywood. But the more I thought about (key word thought) about the project, the more I thought about the excess wood, how with just a few extra sheets I could go from one bookcase to three bookcases. So for a minute that was the plan, three simple, identical bookcases. The reason for three instead of just one giant bookcase had to do with the potential for moving. Three heavy 96”x30” bookcases are hard to move and pack, but one 96”x96” monstrosity would be nigh on impossible to move.
With the holidays and travel and a bit of sickness and work I wasn’t able to get to the store to get the wood. Which of course left me time to overthink the shit out things. The original plan was the bookcases be 12” wide with a shelf depth of 11.25’ (due to backboard), but then I thought, what if like the Ikea bookcase we have in Katie’s room they would fit the cute foldable bins from 3 Sprouts. We this required a bit a rethink. Those cube dimensions were 13” on all sides and that wouldn’t fit into my current 11.25” space. But the magic of working with plywood is that you can cut it in any size you want so adding another two inches onto the width wouldn’t hurt anything. So I set about designing my three bookcases with bins in mind. Quickly this caused a problem because I was pretty set on the 30 inch width, but that would only hold two bins and there would be a bunch of space in between (unlike the Ikea shelf where they fit perfectly). So another rethink. This time I added boards to separate the spaces on the shelves. With one space for the bin and one open space that was slightly larger. This gave the shelves an unacceptable level of asymmetry. So I thought, maybe the asymmetry is OK if it is mirrored in the other bookcase. But there were three bookcases, so if the two outer ones were mirror images, what would the middle bookcase look like? At this point, the overthinking goes into hyperdrive and I start to examine all of the other bookcase designs I’ve thought of over the years, from utilitarian to ultra-modern (aka unfunctional). I settled my thought s on the middle shelving unit housing a fish tank. I love fish, and I have plenty of spare fish tanks. It would be good to have another one up and running. This lead to more thinking about how to structurally support a fish tank and what the added dimensions needed to be. So now I had it. Designing done. Two mirror image bookcases on the outside that house 13” fabric cubes and in the middle a bookcase with a fish tank in the middle.
It was at this point that the creative conceptual thinking kicked off and the creative logistical thinking kicked in. I started to sketch things out. I used MS Publisher to diagram the parts with each different piece a different color. I used a spreadsheet program to diagram the wood panels and how they would need to be cut in order to maximize the wood. I was done. Or so I thought for about 30 minutes. After a critical analysis I realized that everything needed to be readjusted for the increased size of the backboard (I’d switched from ½” plywood to ¾” to maximize the amount of useful wood). This required several parts to be lengthened, so by now the width had increased from 12” in the original plan to 14.25”.
So after spending more time tweaking everything to fit into six pieces of plywood, I realized for all the planning and diagraming and designing I had done, I hadn’t thought at all about how I was going to actually attach wood to wood. This sparked another round of thinking. Last time I had put the bookcase together with heavy duty decking screws. It was solid but kind of ugly as screws for each shelf went through the outside into the shelf (or sometimes through it or just below it, as I’m a terrible woodworker). So this time I wanted to use a better approach. I had bought a pocket hole jig which allows the screws to be in pockets on the bottom side of board or on the back so they won’t be visible. Insert more thinking. The problem with the pocket holes is that while they are good for not being ugly, they require a lot of drilling and measuring on each individual board. Since there were by this point about 40 different boards this seemly like a point at which a large number of errors could occur. So I thought about alternatives. Since for me many of the boards would need screws or some other fasteners in the exact same places perhaps I should make some sort of jig with allows me to insert each board and then put all the screw holes in the correct place. Then more thinking. What if instead of screws, I used dowel and glue to attach everything. Dowel and glue joints are almost as strong as mortice and tenant joints (according to this internet video I saw). So I went about designing a couple of jigs that would allow me to place dowels in the identical places across multiple boards so that everything would be straight and true and solid. Of course, this is all theoretical at this point. I imagined the construction in my head. Everything cut to exacting specifications, jigs working perfectly, boards sanded, primed and painted, then everything glued into place systematically. Again, I get trapped into thinking. I realized that the strength of dowel joints are in any direction perpendicular to the joint in three dimensions. Pressure in parallel to the joint would cause it to easily separate. When looking at my design I realized that aside from the top most board there was nothing holding the shelves together from any outward pressure. As soon as someone grabbed a sideboard to move the bookcase the whole thing would pull apart, coming apart in its weakest dimension. So this made me think that as a matter of course I should add a number of pocket hole joints at critical junctures, especially where the sides attached to the back and shelves. Now it is glue and screw and peg and beg and more thinking. How do I get rid of the slightly ugly plywood edges? Do I use iron-on edge banding (which requires I buy an iron as well as the banding). Do I nail on small strips of wood like some sort of moulding, and do I use chair rail or crown moulding or what). Or perhaps do I just use joint compound and fill in all the imperfections in the edges then sand it down and paint it. And speaking of paint, what color are these things going to be, I like dark bold colors, but the previous bookcase in grey-blue (because that was the color of paint on sale at Walmart that day). This was getting out of control.
Except, this is all just still theory. Ideas on paper and sketched out on a computer screen. I don’t even own the wood yet. So now I’m fretting over paint colors and edging preference for a project that hasn’t left the drawing board. Time for some deep breaths. Time to get out of your head. Time to stop thinking. The problem is that I’m good at thinking. I am good at the creative part. I’m good a problem solving, at thinking through the multiple levels of complexity to get to the best solution. The problem is I’m a shitty carpenter who doesn’t currently own any wood.
PS. This is where I miss my friend Ted (who currently resides in NC). When we were in grad school together I’m pretty sure we could have accomplished anything. Ted was great at pushing forward to get things done and I was good at planning and problem solving so together we pushed each other in positive directions. Plus it would be nice to know someone with a chop saw.
PPS. Perhaps tonight or this weekend I’ll be getting the lumber and moving out of the realm of theoretical carpentry and into woodworking.