Fail Harder

A couple of months ago I took my students on a field trip to Wieden+Kennedy, one of the most successful advertising firms in the world. On the third floor of their huge office is this mural:

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

This greets all the creatives as they reach the top of the stairs every day.

One of the big messages that Dan Wieden gave to my students is that spectacular failure is important to the creative process. He said that designers aren’t useful to him until they have failed big a few times.

Well, in making a kitchen table for our eating nook, I went for it and failed harder.

I thought it was going to be a success up until almost the end. I had written most of this post–and thought all I’d need is a few finished pictures to complete it–when it all fell apart. Rather than rewrite the whole thing, I thought I’d let you see exactly how it all unfolded.

Here goes:

Summer project update

The saga of the kitchen nook re-do continues, but slowly. We had a bit of a heat wave recently, when it was too hot to do much of anything.

The heat was a good thing for me, really. I had been on a project tear since school let out. For some reason I get it in my head that as soon as school is out I have to bust out all the projects that I’ve been saving up all year. It was nice to have a forced break.

This (sorta) Old Life: Big Wood Table paddle boats

Beating the heat at Blue Lake Park. We love the paddle boats. (Ed. note: You can see from the smile on his face that he’s not totally cool with forced fun. But he’s trying. -R.)

I managed to get the floor done in the family room, though. We’re really happy with how it turned out. It’s exactly what we had in mind.

And, the children actually like it. That’s a big bonus because they pretty much don’t like anything that we do to the house. Most of our efforts are met with either eye rolls or pointing fingers with the word “NO” expressed over and over.

This (sorta) Old Life: family room floor

Here’s a look at our downstairs family room floor. We really like the way it turned out.

The floor looks great and Rita and I got the walls painted, too. The kids don’t like the wall color but we like it a lot. When we put up our sweet thrift store art on those gray walls they will really pop, you know?

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

Rita is messing around with painting the fireplace orange. We really want orange to work. We’ve tried at least 6 different oranges. We’ve narrowed it down to one.  We could have just gone easy and painted the whole damn thing a dark gray or something like that, but we couldn’t give up the orange without a fight.

This (sorta) Old Life: family room fireplace

Here’s the fireplace in progress. It’s almost finished now. We think it looks way cool. Rita will probably do a post on it soonish.

Oh, back to the subject: the kitchen eating nook.

This post will be bit of a how-to. Really, though, you shouldn’t try to do things the way I do because I almost always don’t really do things the right way. This will be no exception, of course.

I tend to do quite a bit of creative play and experimenting. About half the time it means I screw something up. Other times though I end up with something cool.

I started designing the table as part of the MOOC (massive online open course) that I started this spring. I didn’t much like the class but it did allow me to think through the design quite a bit. Here are some prototypes and sketches I did for the table top:

This (sorta) Old Life: Big wood table mock-up

Small mock up of the table and benches.

This (sorta) Old Life: Big wood table mock-up

Table top sketch ideas.

This (sorta) Old Life: Big wood table mock-up

Here’s a mock up of the table top and benches.

Well, I didn’t use any of those shapes for the top. (I’ll show you in a bit what I decided to go with.)

One of the problems that came up in my design process was that benches are great but they are difficult to get in and out of. The table legs get in the way and you have to do some real acrobatics to get in the bench and around the legs. You can see that in my prototype here.

This (sorta) Old Life: Big wood table mock-up

You can see in the bottom left of the image that there is a table leg right next to the bench. This is a design problem.

I managed to solve that problem with my next prototype (below). If you read my last post here, you know how I solved the bench design issue. I was really enamored with Enzo Mari’s design simplicity and wanted to replicate that in the table.

This (sorta) Old Life: Big wood table mock-up

You can see how the T shaped legs sit out of the way and make it much easier to get in and out of the bench.

I thought about building my own table legs, but in the end the simplicity of these cast-iron ones won out. They were cheap enough. I found them on Amazon for 20 bucks per leg plus shipping.

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Fail harder kitchen table

Once I got these I knew I wanted a big old slab table on top of these legs. The slab table would work well with the bench. It would have that same kind of simple form-follows-function elegance. Off to the Depot I went in search of some Big Wood.

In the lumber section I found 8 foot long fir in 12 x 2 inch boards. They looked good. I liked the coloring and grain of fir. It’s a soft wood for sure, and not as suitable for a table top as a hard wood would be. Hardwood like oak or maple would be super expensive, though. I wanted to make something easily affordable that anyone could make.

This (sorta) Old Life: Big wood table lumber

Not bad. 10 bucks per board. I need 3 for the top.

I dug through the stack and found the 3 best ones. I also got a 2×6 as well, as I thought I might split it in half and put one piece on each end to give me just a bit more width to the table.

Once I got everything home I dug around on the internets to see how to join up all the boards. I like doing DIY on the cheap where I can, but I quickly learned that “cheap” and “right” don’t go together in this project.

In order to do this the right way, I’d need a planer to get all the pieces flat.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

Planer used to get boards to a uniform thickness. This tool gets them flat and true. Image via

And I’d need a joiner to get the edges straight and true.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

The joiner is perfect for getting edges straight and true. This allows you to edge glue boards with perfect precision. image via

Then I’d need a biscuit joiner to put all the pieces together.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

The biscuit joiner makes slots in the sides of the boards so you can slip in the little football shaped pieces you see here called biscuits. Why are they called biscuits? I don’t know. You cut a corresponding slot in both boards and slip a biscuit in the slot. It fits halfway into the slot of both boards and helps to build a strong glue bond.

Then I’d need a bunch of clamps.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

I’d need 8 or so big clamps for my table top.

Well I don’t have any of these tools–and I wasn’t going to go out and buy them. My goal was to make the table top essentially with the tools I already had. I almost did that.  I spent 12 bucks on a clamp and 10ish on a block plane.

So, here’s how I made a table top on the cheap.

Step 1- Cut the boards flat.

The first step was to get the edges as straight and true as I could. To do this I used my table saw and ripped off just a hair from each edge. This wasn’t perfect. It’s not as good an edge as I could get from a joiner, but I didn’t have to go out and spend a thousand bucks one one. This was a case where good enough is good enough.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail Harder kitchen table

This is the best shot I have. The board is coming off the table saw. You can see the thin strip on the right side that’s being cut off.

I also ripped the 6-inch board in half and trimmed the outside edges as well. I did a dry fit of my boards to see what orientation would work best. I immediately found that the boards didn’t fit super tight. One of them was bowed a bit, and I had a space of about a quarter inch on one side. I’d have to force the boards together with clamps.

Step 2- Join the boards together.

The best solution I had for joining the boards together was my pocket screw jig. It cost me less than 20 bucks and I find I use it all the time. You clamp the jig on the board and use a drill bit to make a pocket hole. The screw goes in the hole and grabs the other board tight and pulls the two together hard.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail Harder kitchen table

Here’s my pocket hole jig. This is the most economical one made. It comes with the drill bit. The bit has a collar on it that you use to set the depth of the drill depending on the thickness of the wood.

My plan was to drill pocket screw joints on the back side of the table where they wouldn’t be seen. This would hold the boards together tight while the glue set. That way I wouldn’t have to go out and buy a bunch of clamps. I put a pocket screw hole about every 10 inches or so. I wasn’t too perfect about it as it won’t be seen at all.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

Here’s the first 2 boards getting joined together. I used a glue called Titebond II. Any carpenter’s wood glue would work just fine, I’m sure.

If you look at the image above you can see that there is a tiny space where the boards don’t touch. That space is the difference between using my table saw and buying a couple of thousand dollars worth of tools. I decided that rustic is just right, and I’ll deal with the space later.

I had to pry quite a bit with the clamp to get the 2 pieces together as one of the boards was bowed a bit. I left the clamp on one end and let the whole thing dry overnight before adding more boards.

I got up the next day and removed the clamp and proceeded to add the third 12-inch board. It joined up just fine as it wasn’t bowed. The nice thing about pocket screws is that they take the place of clamps so I was able to remove the clamps as soon as I put in all the screws. After I joined up all three 12-inch boards, I decided I wanted the table a bit wider. I also added the two pieces of the 2×6 that I ripped in half. I put one on each side for symmetry. I let the whole thing dry overnight.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail Harder kitchen table

Here’s the whole glue up from the bottom with all the pocket screws.

Step 3- Sand the top flat.

You can see that it’s pretty tight, but there are some spaces.

The next step was to flip it over and get the top flat. No matter how hard I tried to get the boards to sit flat as I joined them I knew that it wouldn’t be perfect. It wasn’t.

I got out my palm sander and put on some 60 grit paper and proceeded to sand the top to death. A belt sander would have been great here but I don’t own one and wasn’t going to go out and get one just for this project.

Step 4- Mess up the top.

After 2 or 3 sheets of paper I had the top reasonably flat. I could have been content here and started to sand it with finer grades of paper to get it smoother. But no, I didn’t do that.

I had this hair-brained idea that I could get a hand planer and plane the top glass-smooth. How hard could that be? I imagined pushing that razor-sharp plane across the top and watching the ribbons of paper thin wood peel away from the top.

Of course I should do that!

Off to Harbor Freight I went to get this guy:

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail Harder kitchen table

10 bucks at Harbor Freight

I brought it home and adjusted it the best I could and had a go.

It was very hit and miss. In some places it cut beautiful ribbons of wood. In other place it tore out chunks.

I decided that maybe it wasn’t sharp enough, so I took out the blade and sharpened it. It did work better with a sharper blade.

I still had the problem with the plane occasionally taking out a small chunk of wood. I managed to smooth out the edges where the boards joined together. I’m not sure if the plane did more harm than good. I tried sanding out the chunks but they were too large. In the end I filled all the low areas in the top with wood putty. I wanted a rustic table right? Well that’s what I got.

It’s beautiful smooth now though, and I’m going to say that the wood putty adds a rustic thing to the top. Here’s some images of the top with wood filler. I was also able to use the wood putty to fill in the spaces between the boards while I had it out. I wasn’t originally going to do that but since I was now using it why not?

Here's the filler before sanding.

Here’s the filler before sanding.

Here's the filler after sanding but before finish. It gets a dark wood color when polly is put over the top.

Here’s the filler after sanding but before finish. It gets a dark wood color when polly is put over the top.

Step 5- Cut to length.

Once the top was all sanded down smooth I clamped a straight edge to the top and used my skill saw to cut the top to length. I did this last so that the ends would be perfectly flat and I wouldn’t have to get them lined up super-exact when joining them together in glue up since I’d be trimming the edges later.

Step 6- Apply polyurethane.

Four coats of clear satin polly, and I’m done. I had to sand after the second coat of polly as it raises the grain of the wood just a bit. I used a 220 grit paper, as I only needed to take the bur off the top. With a simple clear polly, Doug Fir is a beautiful wood. I really like how it looks. The simple slab reflects our design aesthic and I think it’ll look super cool in the kitchen.

My next step was to attach the legs. I marked where the legs will go and drilled pilot holes in the garage. I attached the legs when I got the top up the stairs and into the kitchen. It weighs 4 tons and would have been really hard to move with the legs in place.


(And that’s where the original post stopped. Thought all I needed to do was add a picture of the finished table in place. Nope.)

Step 7- Profanity.


This (sorta) Old LIfe: Fail harder kitchen table

Woke up and checked it in the morning and the thing was crooked. One of the boards had warped quite a bit. I didn’t mind it being a bit warped because of the whole rustic thing and all, but this was beyond usable. My guess is that the wood I bought was still green and when it dried it warped and twisted. They stack the wood high at the Depot and it sits flat until you take the weight off of it and let id dry. It’ll then warp and twist.

I find that sometimes a situation  calls for liberal amounts of profanity. This was one of those situations for sure. Searching for some to share with all of you allowed me to escape from the question of what to do next for just a bit. I think there’s just about the right amount in this video to express how I was feeling.

(Ed note: Don’t play this at work with the volume on. Of course, there’s not much point in it with the volume off. So, just don’t play this at work, OK? -R.)

I think I would have been okay if I had let the wood sit a few days before using it. Lesson learned. Which brings us back to the idea we started with:

This big tile mural greets all the creatives as they reach the top of the stairs every day.

This idea goes with our philosophy that says you have to have big balls to do creative stuff. If you aren’t making mistakes and trying some things just above your pay grade, then you may not be learning anything, you know?

Now, I know that some failures are easier to deal with than others. When I was running plumbing for the new tub in the bathroom failure was not really an option. The pipes had to work and not leak. Spectacular failure there would have not been great.

This (sorta) Old Life: Fail harder kitchen table

Even still, there was failure with this plumbing. We did get a leak, and I did have to re-do this.

Sometimes. though, you can design a project where failure IS an option. I designed this project that way.

I knew that my method for putting this together was untried and could possibly fail, which is partly why I chose wood for the table top that only cost me 35 bucks. I knew that if it didn’t work out I wouldn’t be out a huge sum.

I think the idea of designing with the possibility of failure in mind helps us to try new things. I learned some things along the way, and if I was to attempt to make a slab top from fir boards again I’d do a few things differently. That’s cool–and we’re OK with spending $35 for that learning.

Step 8- Rethink it.

After I whined to Rita for a while, we decided to scrap the tabletop and do something else for the dining room table.

We did have the great idea of cutting off the bent part of the slab I made and using it for the desk we’re building in the nook in the family room.

This (sorta) Old Life: Family room plan

You might remember this plan from a month or so ago.

A couple of quick rips with my circular saw later I had a top just the right size for the opening. I attached some old school desk legs that we found at an office furniture resale shop. I put in a bit of trim around the edges and just like that I have a desk downstairs.

And, we decided to go with a plywood tabletop to match the benches. We like this even better than the slab top.

Our UnDesigning philosophy can sometimes zig-zag quite a bit. This project is no exception.

The idea of formulating a plan and following it to the letter just never sits right with us. We like a plan. We also like to throw it out if it suits us.

The table/ bench is sorting itself out just the way it was supposed to. The plywood table will be a better table in the long run, and I accidentally finished another project in the process. Allowing for the unexpected and being willing to try something even if you are not sure works for us.

How about you?

Have a great fail harder story? Happy accidents that worked out great? What’s your approach to planning with your creative projects? Would love to have you share your triumphs and tragedies in the comments.

This (sorta) Old Life: Dark truffle railing

We still haven’t figured out what we’re doing with this earlier “fail harder” project–which has us at 7 cans of brown paint and counting.