My grandfather was a woodworker. Not just any old woodworker, but a true craftsman, his work replete with intricate carvings of Ionic columns, richly detailed rosettes, and regal yet extremely fragile flame finials. After 30+ years as a dentist, he retired, took some classes, and spent the rest of his days creating heirlooms in a shop about 50 yards away from his house. Close enough for meals, but far enough away to be… away.
My step-father is a skilled carpenter (taught by his father, I’m sure) which is how I came to be a pretty decent one myself. Decks, sheds, home additions, docks, walkways, fences… you name it, he can build it, and thanks to much of his teaching, so can I.
Over the years, I’ve drawn inspiration from both of them, making “rough” improvements to the house and yard as well as creating some heirlooms myself.
But here’s the thing:
When you start, it’s just a pile of wood.
In order to become something useful or beautiful, that pile of wood has to go through a transformative process that only a true woodworker understands. And for this craftsman, that process becomes very personal, with the wood an extension or representation of myself, going through life, going from a pile of wood, to becoming something beautiful and useful.
Many people look at my work and exclaim (to my delight, I won’t deny it), “How do you DO this?!” I’ve given that a lot of thought, and there is no single easy answer. It’s a collection of things, really.
First, you need a PLAN.
What do you want to build? Why? For whom? For what purpose? Sometimes it’s ok to say “Just cuz.” That’s a reason – don’t apologize for it. Sometimes those plans are the most fun of all. But still, there must be a plan. You can’t walk into your wood shop and start measuring and cutting all willy-nilly and expect to come out with something (I suppose there is a place for the “artist” somewhere there, but never mind that for now). If you want to get from “pile” to “product” you need a plan. I know to some of you this is already sounding restrictive – don’t worry, there’s a plan for deviating from the plan.
Stay with me.
Once you have a plan, you need MATERIALS.
Whether it’s a walkway from the house to the beach or a Mission style bed, it doesn’t get built without materials. In some cases, those are very raw materials. When I started woodworking, I bought my hardwood at the Home Depot, where the lumber is already cut to size, milled and planed to the dimensions required to start building. This is called “dimensional lumber” (hardwood costs a TON this way – what was I thinking?)
Wait for it…
As I learned and developed my craft, I learned that some plans come with lumber cutting plans that assume you are working with “plain sawn” lumber. Aren’t those two words beautiful together? Plain. Sawn. I like to think that’s how we came into this world – Plain. Sawn. What this means for lumber is that the size written on the lumber reflects exactly what it is. 5/4 (or “five quarter” if you want to talk to the guy at the mill and not sound as ignorant as I did on my first trip) lumber is wood that is plain sawn to 1 and 1/4 inches thick. At this point, the wood can look pretty awful. It can be stained, still have bark on it here and there, just plain NOT ready to be made into anything. Dimensional lumber, on the other hand, has already undergone some transformation. Did you know that a 2 by 4 is actually 1 and 1/2 by 3 and 1/2? I know – mind blown, right?
ANYWAY, as I mentioned, dimensional lumber is a lot more expensive than plain sawn lumber, and this is where probably the most important part of woodworking comes into play.
Depending on the project, the raw materials that will eventually become the project, and the techniques required to transform the raw materials into the project, you absolutely MUST have the right TOOLS.
I allow myself to buy one major tool for each major woodworking project. For my first project, I had a Sears Craftsman table saw that had been lovingly patched together by a friend and given to me when he upgraded, and a drill press. Period. Yes, I had tape measures and other basic shop tools, but these were my primary tools for the first project, thus my first project was consequently pretty basic.
Pretty basic use of a table saw and a drill press for mortise and tenon construction, plus a glued up solid wood top detailed with a chamfered edge that I did with my table saw because I didn’t yet have a router table.
I JUST noticed that my grandfather’s Grandfather Clock is looming over my first project. Kind of cool. Psychologically significant? Perhaps…
Each of my projects became more and more complex and demanding, and for each of those projects, I added a tool. For example, once I realized I could save A LOT of money buying plain sawn and taking it down to dimensional sizing myself, I needed to go out and buy a thickness planer. I also picked up a jointer/planer along the way that has helped move projects along more briskly and increase the quality of the finished product.
Before you let the word “briskly” settle in and take root too much, however, there is a reality every woodworker must reconcile himself to: No matter what kind of tools you have or the simplicity/complexity of the projects you undertake, one of the requisite ingredients is PATIENCE.
If you are an impatient person, woodworking may not be for you. But if you want to BECOME a patient person, woodworking might be exactly what you need. The old carpenter adage of “measure twice, cut once” is a universal truism. Does measuring twice take more time? Absolutely. Does it take less time than making the wrong cut, running back to the lumber yard to get another board, returning to your shop and THEN measuring twice and cutting once? Yes. You get my point.
Speaking of making the wrong cut, unless you are some sort of woodworking demigod, you need to approach each project with enough self-awareness to realize and admit that YOU WILL MAKE MISTAKES. Please, admit this ahead of time, for your own sanity. I speak from experience.
My most recent project, and probably my most ambitious (closely followed by the crib both of my children used), is the Mission style bed I built for my wife and myself (yes, that’s a correct use of “myself”, the misuse of which is a grammar peeve I can save for another post). This bed was ultimately the product of the pile of lumber up in the title photo. Remember how I said earlier there was a way you can plan to deviate from the plan? This bed is a perfect example of that. the plans I was working from had wider slats than what I wanted:
This required me to deviate from the written plans, do some careful measuring, and redraw the plans from which I was going to build the bed I envisioned.
DEVIATING FROM PLANS is OK and will often lead to results that are ultimately more satisfying than what would have come from the original plans.
Another one of my early projects that provides an example of this is a music chest that I built from plans that were originally intended for building a wine cabinet:
The key take-away here:
Once you understand the BASIC PRINCIPLES and HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS, you are only limited by your IMAGINATION and your PATIENCE.
But here is one more thing (or many things) you don’t know about my projects (and yes, I’m being allegorical. Please find the allegory without my having to spell it out for you):
The bed project (and every project) is LOADED with mistakes, do-overs, behind-the-scenes “patches” and “fixes” that I had to push through and work around before this bed was actually usable. I see and know every little flaw in this bed. I see and know them because I am the craftsman. I even had to completely redo one set of the legs because I cut the mortises on the wrong sides.
I ultimately repurposed those legs for another project, so in the end, they didn’t go to waste (What? More allegory?)
So yeah, I’m pretty freaking proud of it. It was a lot of work, used many different tools and techniques, took a lot of time and patience, and eventually became a piece of beautiful and useful furniture.
I think I’ve said enough.
When you start, it’s just a pile of wood.
Everything in between is a work in progress, and when you’re done, there is always another pile of wood.
A true woodworker is never done with his work.