The Vulcan Mind Meld

There was a cartoon circulating in the 1970s, which you may have seen, with five or six panels, each one showing a tree with a swing hanging from it, but in various different forms and designs, some of them pretty outlandish. The first panel, shown here, was titled “What the Designers Suggested” — a clearly unworkable swing  for anybody. Then  in succeeding panels: ” What the engineers designed”. “What the marketing department promoted”. What the sales team ordered”. “What the factory built”. ” What the field services finally installed”.

And finally: “What the customer originally wanted”.

What the Designer Suggested

What the Designer Suggested

I remembered this cartoon recently when I was thinking about why it is so difficult to design for people other than yourself.

Designing for yourself is easy; most of us do it all the time. Of course, we know exactly what we want. 

The most difficult part of designing something for somebody else, is making sure that the vision in one mind is identical to the vision in the other. This sort of goes without saying, is obvious, needn’t be repeated, and of course everybody knows it; but if that’s so, then why so many horror stories about delivering products that  aren’t what had been asked for? I have had a few of those stories myself (I’d call them failures, but of course I did  leave the customers happy in the end.) In each case, I’ve been surprised at the irony:  the aspect of the design where our minds had seen different results, was never anything that I had worried about or fretted over myself, but always something I had assumed was correct right from the start.

Apparently it’s harder than it seems  for two people to know that they’re visualizing the same thing. It’s a safe bet that if I were to say ” rustic pine furniture” to you, the image that comes to your mind would look nothing like the one in mine.

What the Field Service Installed

What the Field Service Installed

Worse yet, the vision in both of our minds would probably only vaguely look like the actual piece that we were thinking about. It’s amazing how the mind itself idealizes and alters images of the real world. It’s hard for the real world to live up to our fantasies.

If I’ve learned anything from all of this, it has been to use every possible tool to ensure beforehand that the two minds are one. A Vulcan mind meld, of course. I translate the vision that’s in my mind into some sort of picture or model or descriptive words or sounds or smells that I can then show to the customer. The closer the model is to the real thing, the fewer surprises there are likely to be later.

You can’t get every little detail, of course, but you don’t need to. Even a simple drawing can sometimes be enough to see that, “Oh, boy, this is nothing at all like what I was thinking!”

Words are okay, but a photo is worth 1000 of them. Photos can be drawn on with magic markers, for a  really simple visual. Computer programs can do an excellent job of building pictures or models; in fact, Google has a free program called SketchUp that is fairly easy to learn to use, where you can build simple models in a three-dimensional way, so that you can rotate, move in and out, view the drawing from different angles. (You can just go on your browser and Google “Google SketchUp”. )

So what was it the customer wanted again?

What the customer Wanted

What the customer Wanted

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Making it up

The part of what I do called “design” is what comes to mind. Designing something brand new — making it all up — is actually harder work for me than I ever thought it was going to be. Physical effort (commonly know as “work”) will tire me out after a time, but the exhaustion that comes after trying to create a new design all day can be bone-deep. I don’t know why that is; I would certainly seem to be using less muscle with the latter than the former.

But the tiredness is probably more mental. Thinking up something new feels to me  like trying on different suits of clothes all day. The effort isn’t so much in the changing, but in mentally assessing each outfit, judging how it feels, looking, fitting, fussing, wondering, looking again…getting “into” the new idea, spending some time with it, and becoming friends with it. Or not.

Then flinging out the suit when you realize it wasn’t what you wanted. That’s when it can seem like all the effort was wasted, and nothing is more tiring than that.

So a lot of time goes by just trying on different ideas  that never get used.

But parts of the process are fun too, like making pictures and models and drawings of what I hope the idea will look like, how it will live in its place, what it would be like to live with it. If at the end of all the flopping around, and trial fitting, and throwing out, putting on, taking back off and then finally deciding upon, something new comes of it — perhaps even something wonderful — it does seem to make it all worth it.

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Real Furniture Has Curves

This is after all a woodworking blog, among other things, so I’ll share some recent  projects.

One of the things I enjoy most is figuring out a technique to accomplish an impossible task…or to make an otherwise difficult project possible to do. Several recent projects fall in this category, and the common thread is curves.

Router Setup for curved Molding

Router Setup for curved Molding

 Here was the way I made a piece of curved molding. This is the standard ranch casing you may have seen in a hundred homes, a 2-1/2″ wide board used to trim windows and doors. The trick was that these four pieces were trimming a curved door frame.

So I build a blank out of four or five pieces of wood, joined in roughly the curve I wanted, and attached it flat on the bench to a scrap piece of plywood. Then using the router attached to a long arm pinned at the center of the circle, I made four or five passes with the router, cutting different portions of the molding profile with each pass.

I attached a piece of the original Ranch casing to the plywood base, at the end of the blank to be cut. Then each time, I could align the router bit to the exact place I wanted to cut on the blank, and it would cut the same profile into the whole length of the curved work piece.

Guide piece of molding

Guide piece of molding



Here you see the finished molding, after about seven passes with three different cutter shapes (one for the square corners, one for the smooth inner curve, and one for the tiny bead near the outrside edge. Then when it’s finished, a barrel of sandpaper and a little bit of work smoothes the ridges and corners left over from the router.


The second project presented a whole different challenge. I borrowed a technique that my uncle Dick Bayard tried and perfected. In his case, he wanted to flatten an entire table top, using a router travelling  across the surface. He wound up “inventing” a system to hold the router on a plate, as it travelled on top of wood rails that were mounted over the work. He would move the router over the top and cut one swatch at a time, until the whole top was flat.

The Boat perhaps?

The "Boat" perhaps?

The hitch with my project was: it was curved! Those pesky curves create all kinds of….opportunities.


These are four legs for a small coffee table, which were to have a curve cut into the outer two faces of each leg. I could probably band-saw a curve into the legs accurately enough that it would  take only an hour of hard labor to sand the legs smooth. But I am lazy, so I chose to do it the hard way.


The setup I built looks more like a boat than a woodworking fixture: the router is mounted on a platform that has two curved runners under it. The base of the fixture has two matching curved pieces that enable the whole upper assembly to slide in a curved track, matched to the curve that we want to cut into the legs.

But the legs were almost four inches wide, whereas the router bit only half an inch.  I had to make multiple passes with the router to smooth the entire surface. So I mounted the router in a second channel so that it could move from side to side while I was cutting along the length of the legs. I made one pass over the leg with the router at the far left edge, then moved the router over a half-inch to make a second pass, and so on for about eight passes to smooth the entire leg.

It did take about an hour to build the jig. But I was surprised to find I could smooth a leg in about a minute! And it required almost no sanding.

Now that I’ve really figured out how to do these curved legs, maybe somebody will call me looking for a set, and I’ll be able to pull the jig out and make another four beautiful table legs.  But of course I knowthat’s not how it works.

Anybody want a table leg jig?

The Curved Casing

The Curved Casing

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Forest Ranging

I mentioned that I live in a forest. It’s not big, about six acres, but big enough that there are new things to see even on daily walks.  And ever since I was a kid, I felt that if I had to choose another career it would be a forest ranger. You get to be way out in the woods and to get paid for it.  

In the Shady Wood

Shapes Among the Leaves

I don’t mention it  to people or think about it much day-to-day,  probably because it’s a fairly private thing. In the forest, everyone is alone..not lonely, but rather in a state of solitude.  Like the trees, you feel comfortable just being, and even if you’re walking with someone else, the forest allows  you each to be alone within youself.  

Whatever. Maybe that’s too “woo-woo”.  But only recently have I caught on to the connection between my woodworking–building things out of wood for people to use–and the forest. (I’m slow sometimes.) Of course it is obvious. The forest is where wood is born, grows up, grows old and dies.  The more time I spend, the more I appreciate wood in all its other forms: seedling, tree, log, compost, soil.  

In the forest, the dead outnumber the living. You realize that if it weren’t for all the dead trees, there would be no soil, no forest, and no more new trees. And the rotting logs are some of the most interesting.  I began by appreciating the beauty of wood. Now I see beauty in wood throughout its lifetime, not just in the petrified tissue that we use to build things out of.  

Rotting Back into the Earth

Rotting Back into the Earth

I feel almost like a scientist gathering core ice samples from the frozen Arctic: I interrupt the natural cycle of wood when the wood has been formed but before it has a chance to rot, then carefully cut into useful parts what is essentially the record of the tree’s life. No wonder it’s so pretty.  

Thinking about it that way, I like working with wood.

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Creating something new is a fun process. I don’t mean all of it, but excepting the few nuisance tasks that every project has, making new things has a great kind of joy to it.

We recently had a project that qualifies as fun: it was to help design an altar for a public chapel. The criteria were that it should  function equally well for a person of any religion or faith, in a chapel that would be open to  Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, and agnostic. It would provide an image of sanctuary, guidance and connection for any person.

The design  included two panels of decorative woodwork, which would be the focal point of the display. I began with a few sketches — were they clouds? Wildlife? Planets in orbit? Or just random shapes that could be anything? I wasn’t sure. They didn’t seem to belong to any class except that of the natural world, the universe we see and live in every day.

A series of changes and re-drawings, tossing out and adding in, and  I found myself trying to carve little shapes out of Bubinga wood and attach them to a grid of wood, to be mounted on these panels.

What I found was that I was overwhelmed trying to do the whole design. After some time spent just uselessly shifting things around and making parts that I threw in the scrap bin, I began just doing small, incremental parts of the design. I couldn’t seem to see the whole thing at once, but I could take any one part of it, do something to it, then see if I liked it.

It’s like what engineers do, when they’re trying to measure something: they will use what they call a  “go/no-go ” gauge. It’s a piece of metal with holes punched in different sizes. You insert the part to be measured into one of the holes, then you ask: Does it go? Or not go? If it does, great. If not, keep on fitting until you find the one that does.

Or what your ophthalmologist does: has you look through a lens while he asks: does the page look better or worse? If it’s better, great. If it’s worse, he moves to the next lens. Better or worse?

One simple question, only two possible answers. I can handle that.

The finished Shapes

The finished Shapes

So I went through the design with this piece and that part in hand, placed them somewhere, did something to them, reshaped them, then asked: Do I like it better or worse? If better, great. If not, go back and do something else,

Better or worse?

I also realized I had to learn to tell when I did and didn’t like something (because that seems a challenge in itself). Sometimes I would tell myself that something looked great, but realized I really didn’t like it much, even if I was supposed to. So I just kept changing and moving things until it looked right.  At least to me.

I still can’t tell what the shapes are.  But I do like them.

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