When I’m in the shop and focused on my work, hours slip by in the blink of an eye. I’m not thinking about what happened yesterday, nor am I worrying about tomorrow. For a short time, I exist solely in the present, and I’m content. Whatever your motivations, always make sure that the “what” that happens in your shop aligns with your “why.” If it doesn’t, what’s the point?
I have a love / hate relationship with social media. Using Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Instagram is like being at a party where thousands of other people are talking, shouting, and cheering simultaneously. It’s tons of fun, but after a while I need to retreat into the cool quiet darkness of my own thoughts to recover. I wonder if this reaction differs between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts tend to get energized by all the interaction on social networks, while introverts, who do enjoy the interaction, nevertheless need to back away at times to recharge their batteries. At any rate, I like to unplug from social media every so often, and I’m in the middle of one of those periods right now.
I’ve found that these quiet periods tend to be my most creative and productive, almost as if all of the information and inspiration that I’ve cached finally gets a chance to organize itself in my brain and become something real in my shop. I recommend periodically unplugging to all woodworkers, but I think new woodworkers can benefit the most. A new woodworker today has a ridiculous number of resources available to learn the craft. So many, in fact, that it can become overwhelming. Learning from the internet is kind of like drinking from a firehose: you get what you were looking for, but if you partake for too long, your eyeballs get driven into the back of your skull. A more effective method is to gather information, and then unplug and put those new skills to work in the shop.
Internet content producers should unplug sometimes, also, just like everyone else. Getting away from the online community, even for just a short time, helps to remind you why you started woodworking in the first place. It wasn’t always about increasing follower counts, sponsors, likes, or re-tweets. At one point, it was just you, alone in your shop, building things. It’s nice to re-center yourself on that fact every once in a while.
Summer is short here in the northern states, and while I may or may not be sitting in a lawn chair right now, soaking my feet in a kiddie pool, wearing sunblock on my nose and an umbrella hat, I’m not sitting idle. My project list continues to grow and the priorities of those projects continue to change. I’ll be starting construction on a side table in the next few days, I’m in the design phase on a coffee table, a small chest of drawers is lurking in the background, and I’m stealing time for my new tool cabinet any chance I get. Unplugging isn’t a vacation… it’s a time to refocus. But the siren song of podcasts, blog posts, memes, and funny cat videos grows ever louder; I think I’ll be plugging back in soon.
I'm not someone who likes to do shameless self-promotion. But, if I were such a person, I would recommend that you run out right now and buy a copy of Wood Magazine's July 2015 issue. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Got it? Okay, great. Now, I'm not a person that likes to impose my methods of reading a magazine on others. But, if I were such a person, I would recommend that you immediately turn to page 12 of your shiny new July 2015 issue and read my article called "Getting Back to Basics." I know you'll like it... and I promise not to give away the M. Night Shyamalan-style surprise ending.
Marshall McLuhan was a 20th century Canadian philosopher who was heavily involved in media, advertising, and television. He’s responsible for several theories and catchphrases that would be familiar to most adults today, but I think his most interesting quote is listed up above. I came across this quote a while back in a photography context, but it’s applicability to woodworking immediately struck me.
We truly do become what we behold. As a woodworker, I’m the product of countless books, magazine articles, TV shows, online videos, audio podcasts, and real-life experiences. Every piece of woodworking information I’ve ever encountered has influenced me, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. And this process never ends; these experiences will continue to influence me throughout the course of my life. What changes as time goes on is the relative weight of their influence. Early on, woodworking media had a huge impact in my work habits. These days, my personal experience carries more weight, but outside input is still a factor.
There’s a symbiotic relationship between the environment, the tools, and the maker. My environment is a basement shop because that is the space available to me. In this environment, certain tools, such as very large machinery, are impractical due to the difficulty of getting them in and out. The way I design my projects is affected, as well, because I need to consider how I will move completed projects up the narrow shop staircase and out the door. Even my workbench was influenced by my environment; I designed it using knockdown joinery so I can get it out of the basement if I ever decide to move.
During the build phase of a project, my tools dictate my workflow. I always look for ways to accomplish my goals using the tools that I already have, and I’m usually successful. If I get blocked, modifying an existing tool is my next step, followed by biting-the-bullet and purchasing something new.
It’s fascinating to think about how our shops and our tools influence our decision-making process. Once you’re aware of this influence, you can use it to understand why you do things the way you do. Can your process be improved to get better or faster results? Will a technique or process change be a success or failure? Either way, don’t sweat it. Once you accept that you are what you behold and that your environment and tooling heavily influence all of your decisions, the pressure’s off. The universe is calling the shots, so just head into the shop and have some fun.
I was driving behind a truck when it kicked up a rock and chipped my windshield. I should’ve had that chip repaired right away, but life got in the way. Winter came, and that chip became a small crack, then a larger crack, and soon I had a crack that spread from one side of my windshield to the other. This happened five or six years ago, and yes, that crack is still in my windshield. Honestly, I don’t even see it anymore; my eyes just naturally look past it when I’m driving. It’s amazing how, given enough time, we can develop workarounds that allow us to live with easily remedied annoyances.
Up until a few months ago, I was a workbench-against-the-wall guy. My shop is long and narrow, so placing the bench against the wall gives me the space I need to move around. The wall also offers some extra support to the bench when I’m using a hand plane. I learned to tolerate the disadvantages of this setup just like the cracked windshield in my car. I can only work comfortably on one side of my bench when it’s against the wall. Any operation that requires access from the ends or the other side has to be done elsewhere. Clamping a workpiece to the front edge of the bench is always inconvenient because I have to pull the bench away from the wall a bit. My concrete basement floor is not level, so pulling my bench out a few inches disturbs the shims under the back left leg of the bench, which then makes it wobble. And don’t even get me started on the kind of damage a 50” parallel jaw clamp can do when it tips over and hits the tool rack hanging on the wall.
When it came time to smooth the top of the curved-front desk, I pulled the bench into the center of my shop to make it easier to plane the entire panel… and it’s still there today. Having 360 degree access to a workpiece was life-changing. Nothing was in my way, I didn’t have to worry about knocking something off the wall while reaching across the workpiece, and lo-and-behold the concrete floor is actually flat in the center of my shop, eliminating the need for shims. I have no plans to ever move the bench back against the wall. It seems that moving out of my comfort zone made me realize how uncomfortable I’d been all along.