The hidden cost of convenience

tool carrier
Reusable grocery bag, nineteenth century version.

Stopping at the grocery store today to pick up something for lunch* I was reminded that whatever our intentions, not to mention our policies and our laws, humanity will continue to screw itself. To wit: When the young man (I am now old enough to use that term) bagging groceries was about to pile everything into one paper bag, the clerk pulled out another bag and started helping him, with polite but pointed verbal correction. Everything would fit, yes, but it would make the bag too heavy, and lifted by its handles it would tear. “I’ll lift it from the bottom,” I said, “don’t waste a bag.”

Of course I got the groceries home just as well as I would have done before someone thought to put handles on paper grocery bags. So I started wondering how much more paper we now use bagging groceries because we thought they needed handles, or, rather, that we needed handles, either by splitting the groceries into smaller parcels or double bagging the larger ones. This is why although I am not opposed, in principle, to banning plastic shopping bags, I’m not enthusiastically for it, either: we’ll just find other ways of wasting resources.

Convenience costs, in other words — if not us then someone else or, more commonly, “the environment.” Of course it isn’t like anybody ever decided, yes, I want handles on my damn bags and I’ll cut down twice as many trees to get them. That we use more bags is the kind of thing that might have been foreseen but wasn’t and seldom is. Cost-benefit analysis might be a cure, but it won’t prevent further stupidity, because we can’t foresee all the consequences of our choices even if we were inclined to. What’s needed is a different ethic: to say, when confronted with a new convenience, I don’t need that. Not that all conveniences are ipso facto bad, but that our default ought to be to reject them; you can always change your mind later. Instead, our default is to accept without question any and all convenience. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep destroying everything around us.

*It was an unplanned trip, else I might have brought along one of my approximately two dozen reusable grocery bags. Emphasis on might: just as likely I’d have forgotten. I don’t claim not to be part of the problem.

Those old guys really nailed it.

I racked my brain for a week trying to think of something, y’know, important with which to inaugurate this blog, and then I gave up and went with a pun.

Back in the early summer of 2013 I built this box to store my drawing and art supplies:

art box

It’s the 19th-century schoolbox from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, made with circa-1830 methods, resized and with a till for pencils. It’s functional and attractive sitting beside my desk, and the yellow pine has aged nicely, but it’s essentially a student project, without unnecessary adornment. The exposed dovetails aren’t contemporary ornament but evidence that the original wasn’t worth the effort of fancy moulding or veneer. The simple moulding around the top is simply nailed on, with historically accurate cut nails (headless brads, actually). Here’s what the top looked like when it was first built:

art box, view of the top

There’s a dab of glue at the center of the front piece and at the front end of the side pieces, but otherwise it’s just the nails holding that moulding on. To glue the moulding to the sides would invite disaster: wood, of course, expands and contracts across the grain as the ambient humidity changes, and if you force long-grained moulding to stay attached to the end grain of the top, something’s apt to break.

Novices and non-woodworkers may ask: Does wood really move that much? Moderately experienced woodworkers may ask, contrarily: Won’t those nails keep the moulding from moving laterally and invite as much damage as glue? When I first started working wood I was mildly skeptical on the first point; when I built this piece I was mildly skeptical on the second. But the answers are, quite definitively, yes and no respectively. Here’s proof.

The summer of 2013 in North Carolina was ludicrously rainy. Summer here is always humid; that summer was like living in a walk-in shower. While I was building the box I stored the wood in my workshop, which was an un-air-conditioned 12’x16′ shed. When I built the schoolbox, as you can see in the photo above, the moulding on the lid was trimmed flush with the back and the miter was square at the front.

After six years living in a dry, air-conditioned house, here’s what’s happened (click to zoom in):

I don’t have plans or notes from 2013, but to judge from the moulding, the top was originally 10 3/16" wide; now it’s exactly 10", about 2% shrinkage. Two percent does not sound like much, but it’s enough to visibly deform the moulding — but (ah!) not break it. I don’t believe I elongated the nail holes to allow for movement, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have elongated them that much. So, yes: wood moves, and nailing stuff together cross-grain works.

I’ve seen more than enough antiques to believe both points, but it’s fun to see it in my own work. Of course I could trim the moulding (or even replace it, since I used liquid hide glue), and it would, objectively speaking, look better — but I prefer to leave the evidence of this tiny little victory for historical methods. And as a reminder to let wood acclimate to a climate-controlled house for a few weeks before building it into furniture.