‘Not My Problem,’ by Bruce Chaffin




Editor’s note: Congratulations to Bruce Chaffin, the winner of our True Tales of Woodworking Contest, and a $100 gift certificate to Lost Art Press! Thanks to everyone who entered in celebration of the release of Nancy Hiller’s new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life.” We enjoyed reading every one of the entries – and will run a few more of our top choices next week. Nancy will also be sharing some of the entries on her Making Things Work blog, so be sure to tune in there, too!

edited boxMaybe you’ve built something that went exactly to plan or came out better than you had hoped.

Maybe your project started out as, say, a bed frame and ended up a bench.

Maybe the partially assembled parts gathered dust for years.

Or maybe it was doomed from the start.

In 2014, a contractor I worked with contacted me with a commission – his client, a tough-as-nails restaurateur in Center City, Philadelphia, got her landlord to pay for a planter box to be installed in the tree pit outside her upscale establishment. As a sign of defiance, she wanted it to be expensive. I liked the sound of this. For once, cost was not my problem.

She wanted the box built out of clear cedar, painted white, in keeping with the restaurant’s black-and-white color scheme. To match the interior woodwork, it was to be V-panels, which translated into $150 for the router bit set. Not my problem, the client would pay for it. She also wanted the box filled with dirt and planted, so I needed to build a small interior box to go around the tree trunk. My wife (repeatedly) insisted that this was going to kill the tree. My response? Not my problem.

I went to the site to take measurements and discovered that the tree pit was cut out of the sidewalk right next to the curb. Then and there, I knew that someday a car, truck, or the #12 or #17 bus was going to hit this box. Not my problem.

The contractor and I met again to agree on construction details and to come up with a plan — the four sides and inner box would be built off-site and assembled (Dominos, pocket screws, and glue) around the tree. With the chances of getting good miter joints for the rail cap on-site being slim to none and Slim just rode out of town, the rail cap was also going to be constructed off-site and hoisted over the young tree. We also agreed that someday this box was going to get hit.

Milling the boards where I rented shop time went without incident, as did construction at the builder’s shop space. Much as I hated seeing beautiful wood being painted, I enjoyed the luxury of having someone else do it.

Installation day saw the contractor, three helpers and I descend with the unassembled boxes and necessary paraphernalia, which we scattered over the sidewalk. As we dodged traffic, I was thankful that my strategy called for placing the bar clamps parallel to 20th Street and that the tree was not centered in the pit, so we could check diagonals for square. I handed the No. 2 guy a drill and screws and he said, “Don’t you want to do it? You built it.” I said, “Nope, you’re good.” Minutes later, he climbed out of the box and said, “Man, that really sucked.” I replied, “That’s why I wanted you to do it.” The rail cap, lifted over the tree by someone younger and taller than me, was screwed to the box, and the inner box was screwed together. As we admired our work, we pondered taking bets about how long the box would last before a car, truck or the #12 or #17 bus demolished it.

My travels in town often took me by my box, and I would express amazement to my companions that it had survived. Then sure enough, this January, a little more than 4 ½ years after the box was installed, I saw that it had finally met with a car, truck, or either the #12 or #17 bus. I didn’t feel anger or sadness. I simply said to myself, “Not my problem.”

ruined box

— Bruce Chaffin

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.

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