“Because that’s the way it’s done…”

I  have always had a fascination with writing.  Back in fourth grade, I won a short story contest for my class.  I started writing for the school newspaper in seventh grade.  And, while I was in high school, I routinely took extra credit writing assignments to help boost my grades. Some grades needed more help than others.

Writing provides me a powerful way to express myself and gives me the freedom to be as creative, analytic and persuasive as possible.

Unfortunately, English is beset with several complex rules pulled from Romance, Germanic and other language families. Writing is FUNdamental!I’ve discovered that many of the people who routinely point out when I run afoul of the rules of grammar – also known as the Grammar Police – can barely string together a coherent sentence on their own.  It’s kind of like someone having a mastery of every nuance of a driver’s manual, but routinely getting into traffic accidents and receiving tickets for moving violations.

The one rule that drives me up the wall is the one about NOT ending sentences with a preposition.  I’ve looked through books on the subject, but have yet to find a reason why this rule is enforced so rigorously.

Great writers will routinely ignore this rule – most famously was Sir Winston Churchill.  Once, a clerk returned a memo to Churchill after circling a sentence ending in a preposition.  Showing his disdain – and just how awkward this rule is to apply in writing – Churchill tersely penned a reply and returned it to the clerk – “This is the sort of pedantic nonsense up with which I shall not put.”

What’s the reason why so many Grammar Police point out this ‘mistake’?  Because, somewhere in their education, they had an English teacher who made a big stink about it.  It’s not in a manual or a well-written paper on the matter, but pulled from their personal memories of sweating under the stern glare of their fifth grade grammar instructor.  They will hem and haw for a while, and then say, “Because, that’s the way it’s done…”

In woodworking, many woodworkers fall into the same trap.  As skills are learned from a beloved shop teacher,  a woodworking school or a video produced by a famous woodworker, many of the individual preferences of the instructor are passed along as inviolable rules and regulations to another group of students. Norm Abram

One classic  example of this personal-preference-becoming-law scenario has to do with how Norm Abram instructed woodworkers for more than a decade on the New Yankee Workshop. For many woodworkers, NYW is a bellwether.  If Norm uses a certain tool to perform a certain task, many budding woodworkers will dutifully march down to their home improvement center or woodworking store and plunk down their hard-earned money.  If Norm cuts a joint one particular way, viewers have a tendency to abandon methods that work for them to use the described technique.  And, if Norm uses a particular species of wood for a project, a visit to the Q&A section of the NYW website will show that woodworkers frequently write in for ‘permission’ to use a different species in their iteration of the project.

The one example of how widespread his influence is shows in his method for gluing up panels.  Once Norm got his first biscuit jointer, every single long grain to long grain joint was reinforced with biscuits.  The only exception was if the boards were too thin to accept them. Panel Glue Ups in clamps

It’s well documented in  woodworking magazines and scads of books that the strongest glue joints are those that involve gluing long grain to long grain – what you see running the entire length of a panel glue up.  Tests have routinely shown that the wood will fail before a well-prepared glue joint, regardless of the type of glue being used.

Yet, even knowing these circumstances, woodworkers will dutifully retrieve their biscuit jointers with their clamps and glue before assembling panels.  I did it, and many other woodworkers did, and still do.  Yet, when I ask these folks why they use the biscuits in their joints, few could agree on the reasons why.  “It’s for reinforcement.” “They are for alignment purposes.” “They help the boards resist the effects of cupping and warping.”

The reasons were varied, but more often than not the main explanation was, “That’s how Norm does it.”

Please understand I’m not knocking Norm.  In recent years, he has shied away from using biscuits on his edge joints, and has taken the time to explain why. He’s a very skilled woodworker, an effective communicator and is the first woodworker to use TV to develop a massive following.  So, when every season of NYW rolls around on PBS, fans look to see what new tools, projects and techniques are being rolled out.

What I love most about woodworking is that there are many ways to get from a stack of dead tree flesh to an heirloom project.  While someone with the influence of a Norm Abram may use a table saw to cut a dado, you will also see Roy Underhill use a plow plane, Pat Warner grab his router or a woodworker from down the street use a totally different tool or technique. There is no one ‘right’ way to arrive at your goal.

What I encourage all of you to do is try several methods when you need to build a project.  Take the time to explore you options, evaluate what tools you already have on hand and determine the method that works best for you.  That’s where the real discovery of woodworking lies, and it’s easily within your grasp.

Tonight’s homework – I want a 500 word essay on sawdust and the best way to remove it from your carpet before your spouse goes ballistic.

Class dismissed.

5 thoughts on ““Because that’s the way it’s done…””

  1. “Because is the way is done”. Tom. I divide people in “Spiritual” and “Religious”. The religious people only do what the gospel tells them without questioning, without considering options and listening to others. Please note I am not attacking religion, is just a term. This is used in politics, woodworking, music, etc. Your comment about different ways of gluing panels is well taken, I was going to glue up some panels for a project and decided that it was overkill. However, my idea was to use my Domino’s (I don’t own a biscuit jointer because most of my tools are Festool). Anyway … my career in woodworking showed me that there are many different ways of doing the same thing and somewhat the way a particular woodworker learns to accomplish a task becomes “The Way”. I take forever to get anything done because I look at the different options to do it … and then discuss it with my friends.

  2. Thanks Tom for clarifying a suspicion I’ve had for years regarding prepositional phrases!

    Duke Ellington once said “If it sounds good, it is good.” I think the same can be applied to woodworking. It seems that there is much obsession about the quality of joints that will never be stressed to any significant degree.

    When I think about tables in my house, I can hardly think of a piece I would climb on top of for any reason. However, I strongly believe that all the pieces will support my weight. If a table only need to support 40 pounds of books and such, why are we worried if it can sustain a sheer strength of 1000 pounds??

    Thanks for saying what needed to be said!

  3. Nicely said, Tom. I love it when anyone challenges conventional wisdom or tradition. It’s ironic that Norm has done this as well. I have watched him use modern fasteners such as pocket screws, biscuits, and brads – arguing the notion that if 17th century craftsmen had such technology at their disposal that they would’ve incorporated it in their craft. It’s also ironic that the “finest” woodworking is usually associated with wood/wood only joints and hand tools, given that the shakers developed the first circular saw, for example. I think there’s room for both modern and traditional techniques and tools, provided the user first gains the necessary understanding.
    in my Norm-influenced days, I made a small garbage can shed for my parents, and thrilled at the idea that my inadequate shop could produce such nice frame and panel doors – held together with pocket screws. They didn’t last more than 6 months. All three, 3.5ft tall doors fell apart – and in some cases, taking some of the face frame with them. I learned a good lesson – ignorance isn’t cost effective. In fact, it usually costs me triple of what I should’ve spent in the first place.
    my point is that pocket screws have their place – as do biscuits. However, if you don’t understand how wood binds and moves, how joints are stressed, what the strengths and limitations of a particular joinery is, or even the right wood for the project in the first place, you will probably be unhappy with the result in the long run.

    In short, I agree with you, Tom. Although, I think I strayed from your original point a little 🙂

    By the way, you might find the “usage note” in this “Preposition” definition interesting. It says that the rule prohibiting ending sentences in prepositions is a Latin rule, and doesn’t necessarily apply to the English language…



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