Cowboy carpentry… a confession

3 Sep

As a woodworker I always try to keep safe practices at the forefront of my mind as I work. I completely and utterly failed at this Friday night at work. Let me just reassure you that it didn’t result in an accident. But it was one waiting to happen.

Setting the stage…

So it was late in the night, about fifteen minutes before the end of my work night. I work from 3:15pm-11:35pm. I needed to just quickly cut 2 pieces of MDF (roughly 20″x18″) down to act as cauls for some glue ups.  All I needed were these two pieces and I would have been all set to glue up.

Obviously this is “stupid factor” #1, I was in a rush, trying to beat the clock and#2, it was late in the night and my mind was not fresh by any means.

I headed over to the  table saw and ripped the MDF to width. Next I needed to cross-cut to length. Here is where the problem arose. I realised that using the miter gauge wouldn’t work because my MDF was too wide and I’d be feeding the stock into the blade before my miter gauge was even in the miter slot. I ruled this out.
In my own shop I would simply plop the MDF into my crosscut sled and the cut would be safely made. Unfortunately not only do the table saws at my work not have splitters/riving knives but they have an dearth of useful jigs such as the crosscut sled.

Two options were ruled out at that point and time was ticking down. I then thought I would cut on the panel saw- except I remembered that only certain personnel was allowed to operate the panel saw. I could have asked to have it cut but said personnel was actively occupying the panel saw with what looked like a job that would take the remaining time in the night.
I thought of how everyone at work cuts laminate on the crosscut using the rip fence- for large pieces. I thought well, it can be done- and people are doing it… when it Rome…  I made the decision that I would just this once (for two cuts!) use the rip fence to crosscut my MDF(longer than it was wide, creating an unstable workpiece against the rip fence- something that should NEVER be done)- and I would just be very careful to keep the piece from coming away from the fence which I knew would cause a disastrous kickback. I knew the risk. I knew the procedure was something I was never supposed to do.  But I felt desperate to get the cut done in order to complete my glue up.

“Stupid factor” #3 I justified using a dangerous procedure!! This is the most dangerous form of complacency.
I made the first cut. And I did manage to keep it tight to the fence without pivoting.

I figured I’d faced it once, so I could succeed in doing  it again.

“Stupid factor” # 4 I felt emboldened by cheating danger.

I was about to try again when I noticed my edge was slightly banged up and wouldn’t hold flat against the fence, so I flipped it to see if the other edge was better.

This was the moment when one of the cutting room personnel stepped in and interrupted me. I felt relieved and ashamed, and 100% guilty. He said the panel saw would be safer and I explained that I couldn’t use the saw. He suggested I ask him or other personnel in the cutting room to complete my crosscuts in the future. I agreed wholeheartedly.

I felt so relieved to work in a shop where such dangerous procedures were not only recognized, but forbidden. I’ve heard of some really scary crap that shops carry out- it’s just accepted. But the kicker was that a different personnel member was sent to me and instead of taking the piece over to the panel saw as the first guy had mentioned, he just carried out the cut with my very dangerous setup! He just said, you know why this is tricky right? and I supplied the reasons for which it was dangerous, and he completed the cut and said  “this is what they call cowboy carpentry!”.

I realise now how stupid the entire 15 minutes was in retrospect, and just how many red flags were whipping furiously  in front of my face. And as much as I never wanted to share this with another living soul, I felt I never understood the “stupid factor” so well until Friday night. I felt certain I would always put safety before anything else. So I feel compelled to confess and perhaps shed some light on the subject. Anyone can be stupid, and it’s a perfect storm of stupidity (to quote FWW, but in the proper sense…) that leads to accidents. You may feel that you’re above having your judgment compromised by deadlines, fatigue and circumstance, but you’d be wrong.  I learnt not to have blind trust in my own abilities to keep myself safe. I’ll be questioning my motives and priorities as I work from now on.

We are all capable of making horrible calls that could lead to an accident. I’m thankful I experienced those fifteen minutes (unscathed) on Friday night because now I know to fear myself more, and be EVEN more cautious than I thought I already was. NOW I have to really check that I am making the correct calls-  in the worst of circumstances.

2 Responses to “Cowboy carpentry… a confession”

  1. ChrisHasFlair September 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm #


    Good for you for thinking about what you are doing.


  2. Olly Parry-Jones September 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    I’m glad to hear that you’re okay but also, that a colleague was aware and intervened. You do hear all sorts about what goes on in various professional workshops and ‘factory’ environments so, this is reassuring to hear. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: