Book 'Em: Making the Case For Self-Assembly


            Many challenges face a couple in modern society. Raising children, paying bills, sharing a bathroom, having a conversation …

            Assembling furniture.

            Yeah, that’s right up there. There was a time when a home didn’t have much expensive furniture, but the occupants could build the whole house themselves.

            Then, one day, the average head of the household went from being a man with advanced mechanical skills to being … well, me.

            Emily and I bought a bookcase. How hard could it be to assemble a bookcase? Two boards and some cross shelves. And yet, fearing the job to come, we let it sit in its box for two months before we even tackled the job.

            “Maybe I should just work on it alone?” she suggested, when I finally dragged the box into the middle of the room.

            “Why can’t we do it together?” I was honestly puzzled. I was clueless.

            “Well, sometimes when you try to assemble stuff you get all bad moody, and stalk back and forth, and throw Allen wrenches around.”

            “I do not! What’s an Allen wrench?”

            What I didn’t tell her is that, in my entire school career, there were only two classes where I got an incomplete grade. One was an elective class in which the teacher wanted us to each do a hands-on “project”, and would not take a written report instead. My written reports were legendary. My hands-on projects were legendary for an entirely different reason, and it turns out starting work the day after the class ends doesn’t cut it.

            The second time was “woods” class.

            To me, the mechanical arts area of the high school building was like being behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Some paper-pushing board room education “expert” decided everyone needed to take a class there in middle school, and another in high school, and later I screwed up myself by signing up for an elective called “mechanical drawing”. I’d focused on the “drawing” part, and didn’t realize the whole title meant going a third time into the gulag of mechanical arts. Luckily I came down with a well-timed case of near-death mono and missed a large part of that semester.

            How I passed metals class is beyond me. I made an ash tray, I think, back before making an ash tray in school seemed ironic.

            In woods class I made … a bookcase. Which is to say I never finished it, because I always procrastinate when it comes to things I have both no talent and no interest in, and the night before it was due my mother found me almost in tears in the basement, staring at – boards.

            She let me take the incomplete. My mom’s no dummy.

            Neither is my wife. Still, seeing my manhood was threatened, she let me help anyway.

            The instructions to assemble a simple bookcase – which did not include any sawing or sanding – were eight pages long. On the bright side, the only tools required were a hammer and two screwdrivers. 

“You can’t hurt yourself too badly with those,” Emily said.

            “I haven’t shown you my scars?”

            I knew we were in trouble when the first page said we could visit the company website for assembly video clips, or call a toll free number for assistance. Really? Really? What was wrong with boards and concrete blocks? They make great bookcases.

            We started by setting out all the parts, to be sure we had everything. “There should be four compression dowels,” Emily said.

            “Right. What’s a compression dowel?”

            “And eight cam bolts.”

            “Eight what? You’re making sounds, but the sounds make no sense.”

            We were in for a long night.

            Or so I thought. Turns out my favorite Girl Scout (retired) is a whiz at assembling stuff, which I should have known from her mad Tetris skills. There were few words on the instructions: Only illustrations. It turns out tab A really does go into slot B, so that was a help. We succeeded without divorce proceedings by proceeding slowly and methodically, turning the job estimated by the company to be a one hour task into one that took all evening. That may sound bad, but keep in mind I’m the guy who turned replacing a sink trap into a three day long endurance marathon. With stitches.

            The compression dowel got compressed, and the cam bolt when into a cam lock, which was then – you guessed it – locked. Then I was given pause when I started to nail the back on the thing, and not just because I was running out of bruised fingers.

            “The back actually provides structural support to the unit,” I noticed. Emily nodded. “But the back is cardboard.”

            Well, it’s not like we were going to turn it into a rowboat.

            Finally we were done, with the only remaining job being to nail a strap on the top into the wall. In case of earthquakes. Seems silly? Ask the people repairing the Washington Monument.

            So we stood there, admiring our handiwork in its place against the wall, and that’s when we noticed something. Each cross board had a black painted side, and an unpainted side. The top one was upside down: the unpainted side on top. Turning it would require disassembling half the unit.

            “Can you see the top?” I asked her.

            “No, I can’t.”
            Neither could I. Our job was done.


  1. I'm glad to read that you got through it without injuries.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  2. My dad, who was a carpenter, made me take a blood oath I would never, EVER buy any more "assembly required" bookcases ever again after the first one.

  3. When my daughter helped my husband assemble a file cabinet, I left the room. From the kitchen, I could still hear her telling him, "You're doing it wrong."

  4. Glad Mark that you survived this ordeal! A couple of months ago I assembled a bookcase almost by myself, with my son coming to help hold it a couple of times so I could get it together. And yes, it took more than an hour. I was also terrified of it because I don't usually do these kinds of things; however, I managed and yes, the bottom shelf is upside-down, too, and I left it. With books on it, you can't see it! Certainly I wasn't taking it back apart to fix that flaw! Take care, Mark!

    1. Hey, what the heck -- it's going to have books on it anyway, right? :-)

  5. I generally buy assembly packages only when the instructions are written in english, or variations thereof; not an easy task in the UK these days.I also think they deliberately include an extra, redundant part just to send us nuts when we finally get to the end.

    1. Always some extra part! Instructions over here seem to be more and more in pictures, while I prefer language -- maybe a bad commentary on reading ability.

  6. Brilliant, thank you for making me laugh! Your post also reminded me of the time hubby, and I decided to assemble a metal storage unit for the garage. We spent an entire day putting various bits together. My only contribution was to collect the parts and hold them in place while Terry fitted all the screws, etc., All was going well until we realised the back section was fitted the wrong way around. This meant that there was no way in hell to fit the top. It almost ended in divorce, and I’m sure the neighbours are still talking about the noise that emanated from our garage – most of it in very colorful language!

    1. It seems like everyone has a story like that. The lesson: Never assemble as a couple!

  7. Great post it brings back memories of when I tried to attach training wheels onto my granddaughters bike and got so frustrated I wanted to throw the bike off a cliff!

    1. It would be nice to have a handy cliff at times like these ...

  8. I would be completely out of my depth even trying to assemble anything!

    1. Me too ... any success is just proof that miracles happen.

  9. Mark, poor Emily, lucky you. I won't put furniture together until someone gives me a magic wand.

    1. She lives for that kind of stuff. While I was sleeping the other day, she put a shelf up on the wall with absolutely no blood spilled.