Next / Previous / Shipman's Home Sweet Homepage / Site map

Non-Euclidean carpentry

My grandfather, Lynn Shipman, was a cabinetmaker. My dad Jack was a respectable amateur carpenter. The line continues to degenerate: describing my carpentry skills as “wood-butchery” is perhaps too generous.

Dad tried to teach me well, but I didn't have much chance to practice carpentry. I remember a few of his favorite shortcuts. For example, if you need to bolt two pieces of wood together, rather than measuring carefully and drilling two holes, just place the two pieces in the correct orientation and drill through both of them at once. You don't need to measure, it's quick, and you're guaranteed that the holes line up.

Here is a sketch of a project I built to fit in the bed of the Toyota long-bed 4x4 pickemup I bought in 1980 to replace my treacherous and evil 1975 Saab (which had 11 different mechanical problems in one 10,000 mile trip in 1979 and just about drove me bonkers). Sketch of truck-bed platform installation

The goal was to provide an elevated sleeping platform that was in the cross-ventilation between the side windows of the camper shell, and provide a secure storage area out of sight underneath. My bright idea was to cut the horizontal legs to fit the width of the pickup bed so the whole thing wouldn't wander around in transit.

The top was a 3' x 8' sheet of 3/4" plywood, with the rest framed out with two-by-fours, and held together with lag bolts. I cut the plywood, cut all the two-by-fours to length, and drilled all the holes for the lag bolts using the trick my father taught me.

I soon found out one problem with this trick. It assumes that all your lumber is straight and square. Where I bought the lumber, you don't get to pick over the stock. You tell them what sizes and lengths you need and they pick the lumber for you. I can see why they have to do that: otherwise the customers always take the straight pieces and pretty soon your stock is as twisted as a champion bucking bull in mid-flight.

Assembly went quickly...most of the way. However, when I put the last few sets of bolts in, it got harder and harder to get the bolt holes to line up, as the minor warpages of several boards started to add up in infortuitous ways.

This operation took place at the UCSF marine research lab in Tiburon, California, where my friend and bird photography mentor Leonard Compagno was working at the time. After listening to me cursing the inaminate [sic—no amino acids] objects for a while, he quietly walked back into his shop and returned with an eight-pound sledgehammer.

I grinned and took the sledge and found that it was a great help in persuading the boards into the correct alignment.

As I tightened the nut on the last lag bolt, I looked up and found Leonard standing nearby, grinning broadly, and holding the eighteen-pound sledge. Just in case.

Now here's the serendipitous part. When I measured and cut the lumber, it was supposed to fit just inside the pickup bed with less than an inch to spare. However, as constructed, in any plan view, the whole assembly looked more like a parallelogram than a rectangle, which is why a little Percussive Engineering was required to install it.

Because it was so firmly wedged in, it never rattled!

See also: Shipman's original writings
Previous: Dolphin-safe beef
Site map
John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2010/11/06 18:36:05