Often, maybe not every time, mistakes, errors and screw-ups can be a blessing.

About two decades ago we did our first valley system timber frame. The frame was also our largest, most complex work to date. I worried that valley system to death, but in the end it worked out beautifully. What didn’t work out beautifully was a thru-mortise on a post which was visible – or, more correctly – very noticeable as one ascended the staircase which that post framed. The opposing face of that post, where the misplaced mortise occurred, was at floor level on the second floor, mercifully to be hidden at the bottom of a closet in the master bedroom. The thru-mortise was too high on the post by 8 inches, exactly the dimension of the oak girts which should have connected immediately below at both sides of the post. At least I understood how I’d made the stupid mistake. My knee-jerk excuse was I was too fixated on the valley system.

Before they discovered it on their own, I confessed my sin to the clients and offered to replace the post with a properly carved one. Their attitude was to just leave it alone — they’d simply place a plant on the girt where it connected to the post on the staircase side and since the opposite side was in a closet nothing there had to be done. We could cut a new thru-mortise and continue with the raising. Later in the week when we returned to the shop I was still obsessing about that open mortise being fully on display for generations to come. I just had to come up with something. After a day or two of fretting I had a solution. For the “visible to everyone in the world” mortise I carved a plump cat sporting a Cheshire grin with its shoulder going into the errant mortise. For the mortise on the opposite of the post — the one hidden at floor level in the closet I carved a mouse with a cat’s paw engulfing it. This carving took many more hours to carve than would have been required by an accomplished sculptor. But I thoroughly enjoyed the process and I was very pleased by the finished pieces and when I delivered and installed the sculptures, the clients were elated.

A number of years later, while working again in that area of New Jersey, I stopped in to say hello. They were thrilled to tell me that everyone who climbed the stairs asked about the cat. At which point the inquisitor would be taken into the master bedroom, the closet door opened and a closet light switched on. “Oh my” followed by laughter was the universal reaction. The clients felt that the experience brought a lot of joy to their visitors.


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