At least once a week, I have this conversation with my father:
Me: Look at this – (referring to photo of beautiful/interesting/unusual object/piece of furniture/house that I can’t afford to buy) We could make this.
Dad: We could totally make that.
As long as his response is in the affirmative, we usually draw up plans to make it. He’ll tell me if it would be totally crazy for us to even attempt to make something, although those conversations do usually end in us trying to rationalize how we could do it if we just had the right tool, or could reach the right remote supplier of some obscure product, or if we could only buy a crane. Some ideas get filed in the “Too Crazy to Make Right Now (But Someday We Totally Could)” category, the Backyard Forge being the one we return to most frequently, but many of them make it to the workbench.
The drive and ability to make things runs in my family. When I was very young, my parents ran a custom furniture and cabinetmaking shop. I grew up accustomed, and oddly attracted to, the sounds of power tools and the smells of freshly-planed sawdust (different types of wood produce different-smelling sawdust.) The business eventually closed, but my father has always kept a woodworking shop, as his father did before him. I suppose some fathers wouldn’t have invited their daughters to accompany them to the shop, but my Dad was different. I was an only child, and my parents never saw a reason to limit my activities to those that society approved for female offspring.
As an aside, before comments pile up in judgement of my rearing, safety was paramount. I was always appropriately goggled, ear-protected and placed at a safe distance. I was never allowed to approach or touch anything until I was big enough/old enough/experienced enough and even then, only after many instructional lessons on wood we didn’t care about. To my father’s watchful credit, in thirty years I’ve never received so much as a scratch in the (knock-on) woodshop.
I began my training by putting away tools, cleaning up the shop and helping my Dad hold things in place as projects came together. Slowly, I progressed into making simple things, then more complex things, then larger things. To be clear, I’m a passionate amateur – he’s an artisan. His ability to conceive of a project and immediately break it down into the 300-something discrete tasks that will be required to build it amazes me.
Under his guidance, however, I’ve learned how and when to use different kinds of joints, when hand tools are best and when power tools are necessary for the sake of sanity, how to organize your woodshop so that your tools are at the perfect height for you (and to provide a stepstool for your daughter who is a full 8″ shorter than you) and how to turn “Oops we were not supposed to cut that off/in half/in that spot” into “Oh look, an artistic feature that we totally planned to incorporate.”
People often ask me why I go to what they perceive to be the trouble of building things by hand. The coffee table pictured here was a collaborative project that took two years to complete. I can’t count the number of times people have looked at in-progress photos and remarked “You know, you could have bought a coffee table two years ago.” That’s a difficult thing to respond to, because we’re although we’re both using the term “coffee table,” we’re not talking about the same thing. Comparing the experience of buying a piece of machine-assembled department store furniture to the experience of building a piece of custom furniture is way beyond apples to oranges – it’s like trying to compare the experience of eating a piece of apple-flavored candy and planting, tending to and harvesting an apple orchard.
I’ll tell the story of the coffee table in my next post – until then, in whatever it is that you enjoy doing, enjoy the process.