comfort zone

Editorial, Shop

A Move to the Middle

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.


Challenge Yourself

The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it.
— Chinese proverb

I like to run.  It doesn’t matter what the conditions are:  hot, cold, rain, snow, sleet, daytime, nighttime.  There’s nothing better than being alone with your own thoughts in the dark quiet of the early morning and churning out the miles.  While I’m not really a competitive runner, I’m always looking for ways to improve.  Short of the handful of times that I was chased by some angry wild animals, I was disappointed with my average pace times.  I wanted to run faster and, try as I might, I wasn’t seeing much improvement.  That was when I changed the game by challenging myself.  I signed up for some races and set a goal for my finish times.  With a tangible goal set I was able to improve my speed to levels that I would have thought impossible just a year ago.  It wasn’t easy, but working toward a stretch goal instead of just exercising was what I needed to realize significant improvement in my ability. 

Take a look back at your last five woodworking projects.  How would you characterize them?  Are you basically building the same or similar items over and over again, or are you going outside your comfort zone by taking on projects that challenge your abilities?  If you want to improve your skills, you need to stretch your limits.  Build projects that you aren’t sure you’ll be able to finish.  I promise you that nine times out of ten you will finish them and you’ll be amazed at your accomplishment.

The most obvious way to challenge yourself is by taking on a style of project that you’ve never attempted before.  Do you usually build square casework?  Try a sculpted rocker, instead.  Have you mastered built-in bookcases?  Try building a small box.  Channel your inner George Costanza, and do the complete opposite of everything you would normally do.  A second option is to choose a “simple” project with only basic joinery, but take as much care and time with it as you need to execute every step of the build flawlessly.  Don’t settle for anything short of perfection.  Just make sure it’s a small project to avoid driving yourself crazy.

I often see woodworkers advising others to practice new techniques before trying them on a project.  While this advice is sensible and logical, I’ve often found practicing joinery techniques on throw-away scrap wood to be about as exciting as watching boiled linseed oil dry.  Do you want to master that new technique?  Then challenge yourself, grab ahold of that technique, and jump right into a project with it.  When the fate of your project relies on the proper execution of a brand new technique, you’ll execute it with a laser focus and learn to use it in a practical real-world scenario.

Challenging yourself by moving outside of your comfort zone creates an unbeatable learning experience, adds excitement to your life, and can be a whole lot of fun.  Don’t shy away from opportunities to build something that, on it’s surface, looks too difficult or was assigned an arbitrary difficulty rating of “advanced” by a magazine editor.  Jump right in with both feet and when you come out the other side, you’ll have created something that you can truly be proud of.