In high school I played racquetball every day — sometimes for four or five hours a at a time. But the funny thing was, no matter how much I played, I never got any better unless I was matched against someone who could crush me.
So I would always seek out friends and acquaintances who could wax the floor with me and my little white sweatbands. After playing them for a few weeks (or months), I would edge up on them gradually and (with patience) eventually beat them.
It turned out to be an excellent lesson for woodworking.
When I build and when I write, I’m happiest when I am working at the limits of my skill. Every project and every piece of writing should have some detail or structure that is tricky to execute. If I’m not improving, I’m rotting.
So it is with great trepidation when I build a project for Popular Woodworking’s “I Can Do That Column.” On the one hand, these projects aren’t improving my skills much. They are the simplest joints (glue and nails, generally) and the level of design is generally Shaker, Arts & Crafts or some other straight-line style.
On the other hand, I enjoy the heck out of building these projects. The Pleasant Hill Firewood Box shown here took me about five hours to build all told, from making the first crosscut on a miter saw to rounding over the lid of the kindling box with a block plane.
This weekend I began applying the finish to the piece and I tried to sort out some of this stuff. On the one hand, the project seemed like a waste. As I was building it, I was trying to explain why the column was so important to a couple of readers who came for a visit. That you need to give beginners a way to get started in the craft without forcing them to build a highboy out of the starting gate.
As I was explaining all this, I was getting a look from the readers. Either they were indifferent (they both do very high levels of work) or they were disappointed in me. I felt like I was rotting a bit.
But then something else happened. On Saturday I spent three hours finishing up the construction. I nailed the back and front in place (wood movement be darned). I added the hinged lid (it took 10 minutes to fit it perfectly the first time). And I detailed the carcase with a block plane, softening lines and making this reproduction look as much like the original as I could. In the end, every joint was to my satisfaction. And the lid fit like a glove.
As I drove home Saturday I felt something weird stuck in my beard. It was sizable, hard and stuck firmly. After some digging (and yelping like a little girl at one point), I pulled out a nugget of dried yellow glue that had obviously been stuck there for several hours without my noticing.
There, I thought, that was the point of the day. I had gotten so lost in the project that I hadn’t noticed putting a dime-sized drop of glue in my own beard for several hours. Yet, despite my inattention, I had built this project in record speed and with great precision.
I had learned something I couldn’t quite my finger on. I flicked the dried glue to the floor of my car and turned my attention to the road ahead.