1. Tom Watson
Apr 28 2003, 4:42 pm show options
What is woodworking?
I guess it's all sorts of different things to all the different sorts
of folks who do it.
To me, it's having an idea in my head, in some form, rough or
fully-fleshed, and it's taking that idea, or that beginning of an
idea, from its clean and bright little world between my ears, through
the loud and dusty confines of the shop and into the life of whatever
person will use the fruits of my efforts.
It is the thinking and the making that make me happy in my work.
Do we need space to work in? Of course. But we need not be so
consumed by the notion of a shop as to put off our working. (I have
an image in my head of the Andrew Wyeth painting, "Christina's World"
and see the head of myself or of my fellow woodworkers applied to her
body, gazing with such mixed feeling at the shops of their worlds and
I started woodworking in a space under the stairs in my boyhood home.
I was not allowed to extend my footprint beyond that described by the
outline of the stairs. It was dark and it stank. I was always happy
I worked in quite a number of basement shops over the years. Lucky
me, they kept growing in size.
It was a happy day when I moved into a single-car, clapboard garage,
with a leaky roof and a pair of doors that would only close by the
judicious application of force via a digging bar.
In a comparative sense, it was heaven.
I worked in that heavenly garage for two years before tearing it down
and building an eight hundred square foot shop, with a twelve foot
center height and a gaudy eight foot six height at the perimeter.
Was this not heaven? I felt like I was working in the indoor
equivalent of Montana.
Nevertheless, two years ago I added a four hundred square foot
addition to Montana. Montana had become too small. This gave me a
setup area for the libraries, kitchens, etc. that I was building in my
professional life. You see, in the eight hundred square foot shop I
had to have all of my machinery on wheels, so that I could reconfigure
the space when it came time to assemble the work. Building the
addition to Montana also enabled me to construct a spray booth. This
improved the efficiency and quality of my finishing work to no end
but, it did take up a hundred square feet of floor space.
My next building adventure will regain the hundred square feet that
was lost to the spray booth and that will be devoted to the storage of
finish materials and hardware. That will be the addition to the
addition to Montana. You see, it never ends.
We need tools. We must have tools. But there is a danger of the
tools becoming an end in themselves. I know. I have a lot of tools,
some of which were purchased just because, "That is such a cool tool.
If I own that, it will make me a much better woodworker."
I was wrong. So is everyone else who thinks this way.
I know men who have fully tricked out shops full of the latest and
greatest of what the world has to offer in machinery and tooling,
immaculately engineered dust collection systems, shop lighting that
would make the sun itself envious of the brightness and lack of
But they don't make...anything.
Like most, I started with a hodgepodge of hand tools whose only
similarity, one to another, was the rust that coated them.
I made gunstocks with these tools and did a bit of checkering and
detail work. It was great fun. But the tool lust was upon me as it
is with all of us, to one degree or another.
It was a bright and awesome day when I was given a Sears table saw by
a friend of the family whose husband had passed on. It fit in right
well with my other tools. It was rusty as hell.
That saw worked fine for me for about five years. I saved my pennies
and bought a spanky new Rockwell Contractor's Saw.
Was this not heaven? I surely thought so.
But, visions of heaven are a passing thing and five years later I just
had to have a Unisaw. You see, the Sears saw had let me do some
bookcases and such for unsuspecting family members and friends, and
then the Contractor's Saw had let me deal with bigger stock, owing to
its larger blade and motor. I just knew that a Unisaw would let me
enter the hallowed halls of the true professional. And, in a way,
that was right. I was able to do work a good bit faster (it helped
that the newly run, dedicated 220 line did not trip the way the old
fifteen amp 110 line did on the Contractor's Saw.)
Surely this was heaven?
Well, some professional peers have pointed out that a real
professional would have a sliding table saw with a European pedigree
and that would certainly mark me for greatness in the realm of true
ass-kicking casegoods makers. Sigh...once again, it never seems to
My Neander days began in the late seventies, when hippie carpenters
with advanced degrees were getting back to the earth in a big way. The
joke among the boutique builder set in those days was, "Which
carpenter should we hire? This one seems to be a bit better skilled
than the other guy. Yeah, but the other guy has a Doctorate and this
guy only has a BA."
I caressed the pages of the Garrett Wade catalog in pretty much the
same way I had fondled that trifold center section of Playboy when I
was fifteen. I had yellow handled Stanley chisels that were perfectly
adequate for the carpentry work that I was doing. But, certainly
these hyper-groovy Japanese Boxwood handled slamma jammas would lead
me on into new heights of craftsmanship? I bought them. I was wrong.
Just like everyone else who thinks this way.
What made me better was making mistakes.
I have always been the first one to say, "I can do that".
I have also often been the first to whimper when it turned out that I
really couldn't do that. At least not on the first try. Or maybe the
second. And, all too often, the third. Still, things got done. The
customer was not usually in the shop to see the various imperfect
iterations of their project. I made sure that things were presentable
for the client and tried not to show my fearful knowledge of all the
flaws that were still there. "That's lovely", says the client. "That
sucks", says the little builder, but vows to do better next time.
I still make plenty of mistakes every day. Like everything else, it
never seems to end.
So, I've got a nice shop and I have a lot of tools and I have a
business making things for people who still say, "That's lovely" on
Is this not heaven?
Frankly, it is no more or less heavenly than the days of making things
beneath the stairs in my first basement shop. I still come to every
project with a bit of fear and trembling - combined with the arrogant
thought that 'this time' I'll make a perfect thing.
You see the theme here. It never seems to end.
So, what is woodworking?
I'll be damned if I know but I sure do like doing it, whatever it is.
Tom Watson - WoodDorker
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)