My Woodworking Origin Story
It started like it did for so many other woodworkers. We bought a house, and we wanted to renovate it.
My first real woodworking project ever was in a shop class in junior high. It was a little wooden stool. Though I can make guesses about the techniques I must have used, I don't really remember anything about the project other than that I did it so quickly, I needed another project. My shop teacher pointed me towards some pine and I made an open bookshelf. Techniques? No idea (it's still at my parent's house, so I can't look at it now), but again I raced through it. Clearly I must have enjoyed it, right?
Some family history. My Dad isn't really a wood guy. He likes cars. He can diagnose a car problem over the phone by a described sound. Growing up, I learned a lot about mechanical things from my Dad. I'm great at taking things apart and putting them back together. I scored stupidly well in spatial mechanics in one of those High School tests you take that measures such things. But, wood never really entered the picture. Just not my Dad's thing, and he thought he had no talents there. But, there was a time when he used to help his Dad. His Dad was a logger. Maybe the wood grain runs in the veins, but just skips a generation.
So, take this kid who raced through the wood section of industrial arts, and then divert him towards computers for the next umpteen years. Then give him a house that needs some renovation, and watch the lit fuse go.
There wasn't much opportunity for woodwork with most of the renovation. Truth told, we removed more wood from the house than I put in it. We pulled out some wood paneling in the room that became our library. We pulled up a pass-through and corresponding cabinets that blocked access to the kitchen. We painted over the nice wood paneling in the living room (though it makes a really pretty feature wall the way we did it). But the closest I got to woodworking was creating a soffit for a gas pipe out of some pine 1x3s I bought at Home Despot. I screwed it together with drywall screws. What's the old saying? "When your only tool is a shovel, every problem begins to look like the back of someone's head."
But the problem with pulling out all the old wood paneling in a room, and the corresponding trim, and pulling up all the carpeting in your living room and the connecting hallway, is that you expose a lot of areas that need baseboards, moulding and casings. We didn't touch that trim work for a year, at least. (I did build, er, assemble about 15 Ikea bookcases, though.)
Right before that first Christmas in the house, I bought a Dewalt Double Bevel Compound Miter Saw. We'd borrowed one from Gillia's dad for a while that we never used, but we had this philosophy when we did the renovation, that we wanted to buy good tools and do things the right way. My Grandfather could fix anything with duct tape, spit and bailing wire, but then 30 years later, my Dad would have to fix it the proper way, which always involved time and money and effort in plentiful supply. So, when we started the renovation, I convinced Gillia (it wasn't hard) that we needed to buy quality tools that would last, and the miter saw was one of those bought in anticipation of all that trim work.
Finally, the next summer, I got tired of seeing all those exposed drywall edges. It's amazing how easy it is to get used to stuff like that when you live with it every day. I think the biggest factor in leaving it undone so long was that we'd just exhausted ourselves during the renovation and the move, and we just couldn't think about giving ourselves more work. A few days vacation in Leavenworth, WA (and one night of your writer stumbling drunkenly around the Bavarian-themed town after consuming what must have been an entire barrel of beer) and I suddenly started to find some energy for renovating again. So, we picked up lots of pre-painted, 7' lengths of MDF trim and I broke out the miter saw and set it up on a water-logged Ikea table we has sitting in the back yard.
I loved it. From the first moment I started cutting that MDF, I really enjoyed it. I seemed to have a knack for it, and was delighted by simply measuring a space on the wall, cutting a piece of trim to fit it, and then finding that it actually fit. I don't know what I expected, but I think I feared that nothing would measure quite right, that I'd have to re-trim and re-trim pieces and that I'd cut them stupidly short and that it wouldn't be fun. Instead, it was super fun. The only bad part about it was the fact that the room had been paneled in thin wood and so replacing that with 3/4" drywall meant that pretty much every frame for everything was not the right width. You fix that through shimming the frames, or pounding down or cutting away drywall until all the casings sit flush. (It's funny writing about it now, because at the time that part was really intimidating, and now I'd break out the table saw and cut shims with no problem or fear.)
We bought an air compressor and nail gun and painted and caulked and amazed ourselves at how great our handiwork looked. You get used to the place being incomplete and then you complete it, and the feeling is pretty damn gratifying.
Remember the 1x3s I used to build the soffit? Well, the leftover wood was just sitting around in a metal shed in the back yard, and I played around with the miter part of the miter saw and realized how easy it would be to build a picture frame (Mistakenly so, actually. Those angles are not super easy to line up in reality and you have to make a groove for the glass and so on. But at the time I didn't realize that - I just marveled at how pretty it was when two pieces of wood with a 45 degree angle were put together). The 1x3s gave me an idea, though. We needed a sort of stadium set up for our shelves where we were double-stacking my collection of DVDs on those Billy bookcases. Also, our spices were set in our spice cupboard on little cardboard risers that Gillia had harvested from some packing materials somewhere.
She went out of town on a business trip, and I got really ambitious. I told her I was thinking of taking that Thursday and Friday off. (Advice to husbands young and old: Don't do this. Your wife, reasonably so, might prefer that you take vacation days when she can enjoy your company. Instead, what you've got to do is lie about it, so that you can surprise her). Right, so after we argued about that for a while, I told her I wasn't taking Thursday off (I was), and that I was taking Friday off so that I would be home early when she got home from her trip (a lie). What I, in fact, did, was plan to build the risers and stadium situation for the shelves.
But I got distracted, and started looking up benches that could be used at the end of the bed. Gillia had been wanting one forever, but we could never find a pre-built one we liked that wasn't $600 or more. I found Ana White's website, and the women from Shanty2Chic had made a bench based off of a pottery barn bench, and I sneakily sent her just that picture. She loved it, and I told her that regrettably, it was several hundred dollars and we couldn't afford it.
So, I took that Thursday and Friday and I built it. The project plans seemed straightforward enough. The drawers looked a little intimidating, but I had all that Ikea experience. (Heh.) I probably should have been scared that the project was labeled as an "Advanced" project, but I really wasn't. I bought the pine at the home center. I invested in a Kreg Jig pocket hole screw system. I bought some gorilla glue. Thursday went great and I got quite far into it, despite multiple trips to multiple hardware stores to get all the stuff. I also found time to sand and paint some more casings (my cover story for my nighttime activities).
Friday was a little scary. My workshop was outside the house, after all. I'd bought a $70 collapsible workbench from Home Depot and was working in the shelter of our patio. Friday rained, and lightninged and thundered. I worked outside as much as I could, trying hard not to make myself a headline ("Idiot Struck By Lightning While Using Miter Saw in Thunderstorm"). I was so close, so close to finishing it when Gillia came home. At that point, all that was left was to glue up the top panel and screw it to the carcase (no idea that that's what you call such things). My stunned wife really kind of couldn't believe what i'd done. She was deeply touched by it. She'd had a childhood with little furniture (they had to buy their own beds), and not a lot of things that were just hers, so the idea that I would make something so pretty just for her to use was powerful.
And there it was. I enlisted her help in figuring out which order the panels should go. I showed her how to drill the pocket holes and glued it all together, and then she had a bench, with drawers that she was going to get to paint or stain in any way she wanted.
And I was hooked. A world had just opened up. I'd worked for the last two years on a web site that wouldn't be shown to the world for another 3 months. I'd worked on another web site for almost a decade that was about to be decommissioned. I'm a computer guy, and everything i do with computers for my job is out of date and needs replacing 18 months after I've made it.
Making something with your own hands is powerful. Making something you know you'd have to purposely set about destroying in order to break it is powerful. Creating a beloved object out of flat boards of pine from Home Depot in the space of two days is powerful. It was powerful in ways I didn't anticipate. It scratched a deep itch. I felt like I was good at doing it, too. I know I made mistakes with it. I know it's not perfect. But fundamentally, it just doesn't matter. It's a functional, beautiful object, and I want to make many, many more of them.
I was hooked. I still am. This blog isn't instructional (except when it happens to instruct you). This blog doesn't pretend to share an expert opinion based on years of experience (I started in late August of 2015). What it will do is share my journey and share my thoughts on what it's like to build things, and what it's like to learn about this craft and others. Thanks for tuning in.
(In case you're curious, I did make those stadium risers for the DVD shelves and spice rack, all in an afternoon the next day or so.)