The Zen and Joy of Successive Approximations

Back in my TV days I liked to watch a show on PBS called “The Yankee Workshop” (or something like that, don’t quote me on this). This was like a drug hit for woodworkers but I found it torture to watch. But watch it I did. In the show the host would take a piece of elaborate woodwork, like an 1823 ornamental dresser, and recreate it. With 11,245 unique little cuts and dowels and flourishes it was just unbelievable what a human can create. I guess it’s like watching sports as you get older, you can only marvel at young people’s abilities.

I am a terrible woodworker.

I make a fair amount of stuff with wood, very poorly. And I accept this.

I tell myself I should do better, but somehow my inner voice which says ‘take your time, do it right’ is usurped by the “just crank it off the way you always have” voice.

My woodworking started with my dumpster diving in the city. Here is a playhouse I built for my daughters when they were young. All the materials including the roof singles were scrounged. I had a customer in an industrial mall with an office furniture outlet next door, so whenever I delivered artwork I drove around to the back and jumped into the dumpster. File cabinets and things like that were shipped protected by wooden crates and I just dove in, pulled the wood out and crammed it all into my Toyota Tercel. Yea, that was me driving down Guelph Line with 1”x 2” s sticking out of my side window.


So most of my efforts went into running my business and scrounging materials. The actual putting together of said materials ended up pretty low on my priority list.

Here at the farm I build tons of stuff with the marvelous off-cuts from my neighbor’s millwork company. I can do sort of reasonable stuff, like these shelves in the guesthouse for overflow books.


The bulk of my woodworking though, is building shelves for storing stuff, like books, food, CSA supplies and that kind of thing, and attention to detail is not my forté.

I believe the woodworker mantra is “Measure Twice, Cut Once” but I’ve always preferred to power through and measure once, and cut once, then cut again if it doesn’t fit, and just keep cutting until it does. And if/when I cut it too much, I just grab another piece of wood and use the last one that didn’t fit as the guide for the next one. If the wood is free and the electricity is generated by the sun, no harm done.

I sometimes refer to this as ‘successive approximations,’ whereby I get closer and closer to my ultimate goal with each cut. It’s not pretty, but it works for me and again, I’m okay with it.

Like so many of the projects I marvel at my ability to not think a job through, or at least not factor in some major component until I am well into the project.

The latest example was my new and improved grow light shelf for my seedlings that I start for the CSA. My first design several years ago allowed two plant trays on each shelf which provided for 6 potential trays. As the CSA has grown and we’ve got a better handle on how to improve our output we have added to the list of vegetables we start early to transplant. Now I have shelves I’ve built for every southern window, and I have shelves crammed into the house wherever they’ll fit.

But the grow light shelf is the main stage and living off grid I have a finite amount of juice to keeping lights on for extended periods of time. Yes, I could heat a greenhouse, but I keep two woodstoves going as it is and I refuse to use propane, a fossil fuel, in an endeavor where I try and do the right thing for the planet.

Last year as the trays of seedlings multiplied, somewhat like the brooms in the Disney movie “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” we began turning them perpendicular in order to fit more on a shelf, but the shelf wasn’t build for this so they were entering the ‘precarious’ zone.

So this year I decided to build a new set of shelves so we can fit 4 trays where previously there were two. As any good woodworker would do I lay down 4 representative trays side by side to figure out how wide the shelves should be. I could probably have made them 44”, but sometimes I put the trays in stronger plastic frames, so 46” or 47” would be safer. Once I finally cut the first shelf piece it was a bit wider than 47” … or thereabouts.

I cut all the shelf pieces to a little less than 48”. Then as I started to sand the wood quickly since it’s rough cut, I remembered that the whole premise of the grow light shelves is that I use grow lights … which are just fluorescent shop lights … commercial shop lights… which come in 24” and 48” widths… and I have three of the 48” ones.

So can you see where this is going. Whoops, I did it again. While the lights are 48” wide and I probably would extend the bracket which holds the shelf in place to accommodate them, the lights have wires that come out of the end to power them… so they’re actually a bit wider than 48”.

And so it goes, I had to recut the shelves wider (with more wood). No harm, no foul. The 47-and-a-bit-inch shelves now have angled cuts at one end and will become garden stakes. The supply of shelf raw material, in this case 16-foot White Poplar off cuts that just about broke my truck hauling them home, seems to be inexhaustible. The new shelves are great and no one will be the wiser (except the hundreds of thousands of readers of this blog).

plant shelves


I continue to be in awe of people who work with their hands and are able to incorporate the multiple inputs and factors to just build something right the first time. I believe my brain does allow for multiple inputs to process information. I believe I’ve figured out a lot of the big picture stuff and have made appropriate recommendations for a suitable path for individuals to take personally factoring in these multiple inputs and potential outcomes. The little picture stuff though, like making the shelves wide enough for the lights on the first cut … not so much. Get out the solar powered chop saw… I get to make some noise!

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Thanks to A.R. for her recent generous donation to the Tip Jar!