Do Something New: Build Something With Wood

About three-quarters of the way through the process of building this fucking wall-mounted succulent planter, my friend Sidney turned to me and said, “I thought you already knew how to build things like this.” No, I told him, I’ve never actually put something wood-based together myself. Ikea furniture, yes. Something wood-based from scratch, no. “So why do you have so many tools?” He asked.

Good question. I have so many tools because A) Everyone should have a basic toolbox and an electric screwdriver, IMO. I bought those things when I moved into my own apartment for the first time in 2013. Also, B) My mom just sold my childhood home, and a large part of the process was emptying out the basement, where my dad’s leftover hardware and tools had been languishing for a decade (they got divorced a few years ago). I claimed his red toolbox, a bunch of wrenches and pliers (you can never have too many pliers), woodworking tools, various antique oddities, pieces of copper, and several random tools that I thought might come in handy or at least shouldn’t be thrown or given away.

I don’t know how to use them, despite the fact that my dad remodeled the outside of our Victorian house, tearing out concrete stoops and recreating the house’s original wood porches and overseeing the residing of the house from that fake brick stuff to wood siding. My sister and I helped him demolish one of the bathrooms and he built it anew. He told me a few times that he had always wanted to be a carpenter, but that programming had wound up being more lucrative. Just like it was with programming, I barely absorbed whatever knowledge he could’ve imparted to me about building things.

And that knowledge really would’ve helped, this week, because Sidney – who’s worked in carpentry and framing, whose dad was a master carpenter, had a lot to tell me about the things I had done wrong; chiefly, staining the wood before I built the planter. I knew this wasn’t the ideal way to do things, of course, but publishing schedules are tight and I was trying to do everything I could in preparation and yadda yadda. I have an excuse for that, at least, but no excuse for the fact that I didn’t really know how to drill a hole, or how to cut acrylic, or how to use a saw.

I mean by that, by the way, a hand saw. I also don’t know how to use power saws, but since Sidney does framing and lives in Chicago (read: is an apartment-dweller, like most of us), he didn’t have one on hand, so I got to do Carpentry 101 and learn how to manually saw a piece of wood, which seems like a good thing to know. Of course, I’m trying to frame it as “getting to do Carpentry 101” and not “oh my god my shoulder when will this ever end” for the sake of my own sanity, because it turns out that I’ve cultivated deep wells of patience for activities like detailed piping on cakes, baking large batches of cookies, canning things, making jewelry, drawing, outlining, and writing, but not so much for sawing.

This whole thing could easily turn into a rant on how fucking tedious and nerve-wracking it is to work with wood when you’re 28 and you don’t know how to use tools. Truly: As of yesterday afternoon, when the final, touch-up coat of stain was drying on the planter, I told my coworkers that I had created the planter, and now I wanted to destroy it. That if it were a human, I would’ve smacked it upside the head a few times by now. It looked like a simple enough process to me when I looked at Lowes’ instructional video, and that’s probably intentional on their part, and after all, it probably is simple for people who have acrylic and wood and a miter saw and stain and potting soil lying around, who have ample room to build things, and who opt to do the project on a weekend instead of balancing the project between their work hours (it was, after all, for work).

But I should’ve known better, because what I did learn from my dad is that when you’re building things, mistakes happen that you have to figure out how to correct, and if you want to be the kind of person who follows through on things, you have to expect that. He told me that whatever you’re building from scratch, whether that’s a physical object or, say, a business, you should expect it to take 4.5 times longer than you want it to take. That has consistently held true in my life, and generally speaking I’ve learned to start early on projects I care about and give them a lot of breathing room, time-wise. If I finish early, I consider it lucky.

But we did finish the planter. It didn’t feel satisfying right away, to be totally honest, because I was so stressed out about the work I hadn’t done in order to do this work. I took it home, sealed up a few gaps, touched up the stain where necessary, and then this morning I planted the succulents and rigged up a way to hang it on my deck. And then it felt satisfying, because suddenly I had this thing that looked exactly the way I wanted it to, that I made with my own hands, that started in my brain and became manifest in reality, and that’s not a feeling you get to have very much in life, after all. So despite the frustration, it was worth it. And next time, I’ll listen to my dad.
Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook. Check out the Do Something New series, every weekday in the month of June 2015.