Confessions of a late-30’s woodworking student: It All Began With a Toy Box

I was never a “handy” kind of guy. Artistically and musically inclined, sure, but not the guy you’d go to if your sink backed up. My uncles are all builders, electricians, contractors; Dad was always the handyman in our house. He owned his own camera repair shop and was great with mechanical things. He could fix just about anything, build almost anything and considered it a personal failure to have to call in a professional.

After Dad passed away it suddenly fell on my shoulders to be the “fixer of things” not only for my own home but for my mother’s as well. Nothing like trial by fire! I soon found, much to my surprise, that I must have been paying more attention to the old man than I thought. I had inherited (read: Mom said, “Get this all of this junk out of my basement or I’m pitching it) all my father’s old tools and found that I knew more about using them than I had previously thought.

Then came my son… Soon after taking him home from the hospital I was overtaken by this urge. I had this new little person in my life and became obsessed with making and providing things for him like my dad had done for me. My creative outlets had always been music and theatre, but suddenly there was this need to make tangible objects; to be creative in a different way. And thus, the descent into woodworking madness began.

First came the toy box. Then for his first Christmas, it was a rocking horse. I had no experience or really even the proper equipment. I burned out my dad’s old Black and Decker jigsaw cutting 6/4 oak to make the horse’s legs, bought a new one and kept cutting. Tool-itis set in. A small table saw, then a bench-top drill press… you can see where it was all going. I found myself backing out of doing theatre stuff to have more time to spend in my basement making huge piles of sawdust. The TiVO began filling up with Norm, David, Scott and Roy. The mailbox was choked with issues of woodworking magazines.

About four years ago I decided I really wanted to get serious. I had watched enough shows, read enough books and magazines to have a good knowledge of terminology, tools and their uses, and the basic principles of different joints and how they were made. What I really needed was some real hands-on experience with an experienced craftsman to guide me along, saying, “Yes, that’s right” or “Maybe you could try it this way…”

My local Woodcraft offered classes, but I wanted something more than a two day “make a Shaker side table and go home” experience. After doing some asking around I found that the University of Cincinnati offered a 2-year degree in what they referred to as “Wood Technology.” And so at 35 years old I found myself a college student once again, only this time my school bag contained safety gear, a square, a tape measure and a pair of calipers. I’m in my fourth year of the program and loving every sawdust covered minute of it, though at current college tuition prices I am taking one class at a time so it will likely take me 6 years to finish the 2-year program. Still, I’ve never been this engrossed in something since I was five and first laid my fingers on a piano keyboard. It’s hard to describe the feeling, and I’m sure we all have it… from the first pass of rough lumber over a jointer to the last coat of finish on a project it feels a little bit like it did when I first saw my son. Creating a piece of furniture may not hold quite the same weight as creating a new life, but the satisfaction and is undeniable, and a lot less likely to poop on you.

Oh, and how bad has it gotten? Well after 12 years working as a paralegal I got out of the rat race and now earn my keep working for the local Woodcraft and doing side jobs, commissions, trim carpentry and other such woodish pursuits.

Coming up next post: “The beginning of my schooling – you want me to hand cut WHAT?!”

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Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 10:51 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Welcome to the blogosphere. Your story rings a bell with many of us but I can especially relate having gotten my degree in voice performance and spending a lot of time in theaters and opera houses. Woodworking was like a coming home for me and stuck in a way that nothing ever has. My tools came from a grandfather but the rest of the story is the same. So glad you decided to share with the rest of us and looking forward to your future posts.

  2. I, too was bitten by the woodworking bug in my 30’s and, although my path was a bit different, the result was the same: The more I do it, the more I love it.

    My edcation was, like yours, expensive. I did not go to too many woodworking classes: Instead, I attended the School of Hard Knocks. I bought the wrong tools, tried bad techniques, got sawdust in my finish, etc., etc. Over time, however, I noticed that the failures were becomining infrequent and the successes were appearing with more regularity. I was learning from my own mistakes.

    After more years as a professional cabinet maker than I can count, I find myself sharing what I have learned from my mistakes with other woodworkers so they won’t have to attend the same school I did. Is it really possible to learn from the mistakes of another or do you have to make the mistakes yourself?


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