You Are Now Joined, I Mean, Joineried

Now I want you to put down that wine glass and walk to whatever drawer–furniture, people!–is nearby. Pull out a drawer and look at the corners. Feel how it glides (or lurches) out as you pull on it. Push it back and see how it closes … And give silent thanks to whatever machine (likely) or woodworker (less likely) put a bunch of boards together so you could have a nifty wooden box that slides out–smoothly, we hope–to offer itself to You and Your Stuff.

“Joinery” is the business–my definition here, highly unexpert–of making one bit attach to another. It is far more complex and artful than I ever realized. You can whack two boards together so they’re perpendicular and say, “Whatevs, I’m bored,” and that’s a “butt joint.”

Or you can grab your chisel–your fine furniture one, thank you–and spend the next two days chinking out “dovetails” and “pins” to create a gorgeous corner that no one will notice except you and the bemused archaeologist who someday digs up your crib and wonders why you spent so much time joining two bits of wood.

I’d file joinery under the category of “it ain’t necessary but it proves we’re civilized,” like braids (just stuff that hair in a rubber band), food garnish (why bother with squiggly sauce decorations, just throw the hash), and music (let’s grunt around the campfire and be done with it).

The varieties of joinery are infinite: dovetails, finger, rabbets, dadoes, scarfs (not scarves), laps, bridles, and more. Then you can pile ‘em together and make joints that sound like those excruciating ice-skating jumps that make me turn from the TV and hide my head in the fridge so I don’t see some nubile teenager taking a big leap and crashing into the camera pit: the “full blind rabbeted dovetail” or the “through tenon with a plunge router.” (Cue the sports announcer, in hushed tones: “Now comes the moment in this skater’s program that will either clinch the gold or send her back to Toledo,” etc.)

In class we made finger joints (crazy automated fun), dovetail joints (tedious but beautiful), and straight-on, get ‘er done butt joints (best). Then we sanded the drawers for what seemed like hours, the drone of the orbital sanders and the roar of the exhaust system drowning out any hope of conversation.

That done, it then took an hour to hang the cabinet doors using innocent-looking hinges from the hardware store. We chiseled out the space for the hinges, set them in place, put in the screws with a good deal of cursing, then found the doors–so carefully measured and cut–didn’t close cleanly. In fact, they crashed over each other. It was ugly.

So out came the screws, off came the doors, and the table saws were fired up to skim another fraction of an inch off so the doors would meet together in harmony. It kinda worked–they closed on pressure but drifted peacefully apart once you let go. The teacher gave up and slapped some blue masking tape on them, saving the fix for tomorrow.


So admire your doors, how they swing open and close, and your drawers (furniture, people!), how they pull out when you ask them to, and retract into their parking place when you’re done. There’s far more work–and art–in all that than you realize.

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