I’ve recently joined a makerspace, which is essentially an extensive workshop that you can subscribe to just as you would a gym or a library. I pay a monthly fee to have basically free range in a wood shop, a metal shop, a sewing room, an electronics lab, a laser printer, a 3d printer, and more (after taking the appropriate classes or getting checked out on specific machines). I’ve only been approved to work in the wood shop so far, and that’s enough for me for the time being. Although I’ve spent wonderful time using manual hand tools to assist my parents with home and furniture projects, it’s a very different thing to take on a project of your own – especially with unfamiliar machines.
My first day was the scariest. I started off with an introductory class, where we got a bit of a tour, and then a brief overview of the sanders, saws, drills, and other things like that. The class finished with the instructor handing each student a little pile of wood slabs and telling us to make a shelf that was different from the finished sample he showed us.
Since my husband had taken this class a few months ago, I knew this was coming and yet still, I was stumped. I grabbed a pencil and started to sketch out some shapes. I had barely finished when I realized several other students were already on the saws and the sanders, working like experts. I later learned that a few were actually professionals – one was a shop teacher, another a contractor, another a construction worker, and another a jewelry designer familiar with tools. I took a deep breath, and headed over to the saw.
These professionals walked up to the saw and shoved the wood through, looked at it once, and then went on working. I, on the other hand, immediately messed up my first cut. I started to panic a little, which of course made it all worse, and then I gave up and walked away, completely unsure what to do. The instructor came over to see what I was up to, because obviously I looked lost, and gave me some pointers about spacing my exit cuts more effectively, and saying a few other things that – once he said them – were suddenly incredibly obvious. I redrew my shapes to work around my terrible first attempt at the saw, and went back to the saw a few more times.
Of course, I messed up again. My shelf was growing smaller and smaller as I ran out of wood to reshape. Occasionally I would pretend to be finished when there was a line queuing up behind me. In between turns, I hid at a back bench and pretended to measure things while I watched the others. One of my classmates made a shelf that looked like a surfer riding a wave. Another made a whale. I was desperately trying to make something vaguely symmetrical.
The instructor noticed my shrinking shelf pieces, and very kindly advised me to sand out the curves instead of cutting them, which seemed, once again, so obvious once he mentioned it. I blushed, mumbled something incoherent that I hoped sounded like a thank you, and then headed to the radial sander. I put down my slabs of wood, and looked for the on/off button. After about 20 seconds of watching me panic in silence, the instructor took pity on me and nudged my shelf pieces an inch to the right, revealing the large, brightly colored switch.
There were several other moments like this during the assembly portion, but eventually my plain materials became a shelf that now hangs by my desk.
I’m not typically someone who is easily shaken by learning new things. I don’t mind messing up, asking base-level questions, requesting demonstrations, or taking notes. I’m typically happy to admit when I’m having trouble with a concept or a dance step in class, or to request a break when I’m struggling up a hill on a hike. But this was just so foreign. It felt like there was an insurmountable wall between what I wanted to do and what would actually happen when I touched the material to the machine. I was so disconnected to my external aim.
Writing is a bit like making, but there’s a marked difference. Obviously, one is a mostly mental and emotional exercise while the other is explicitly physical, but what is truly different is the focus. With writing, my focus is internal. I make the rules, set my parameters, and define my scope. With woodworking, I’m navigating my own intentions, the materials in front of me, and the machines – my focus is primarily external, at least in the execution of a design. There’s no delete button, no undo or redo buttons, and no adding back material once it’s been sanded away. In my other physical activities – mainly dancing and hiking – I’m really only battling my own body and working immanently, focusing on myself as an object of my own intention. In the wood shop, I have to connect not just to another object, but do so through large and dangerous machines.
So the next time I went in, I decided to just play, with no aim in mind. I grabbed some scraps from the discard pile, and just did whatever I felt like doing. I spent some time at the band saw, just cutting straight lines until I got the feel for the machine, and then spent some time on curves and angles. I played on the various sanders too, smoothing out my curves and tackling trickier shapes. Slowly, I was getting control of things, and finding a way to shift my focus outward.
To finish off my day of playing, I decided to make another shelf. Since I was using scraps, this was going to be a very tiny shelf. I drew shapes at random, measured my pieces against each other, and just sort of let it come together based on what I knew I could actually accomplish – I had no design in mind. I calmed down, I asked the instructor (who is always on hand in the shop) questions, and by the end, I came up with a neat little shelf of glued-together scrap wood.
And then, for good measure, I headed into the spray lab and slopped on some paint. I wanted to end the day in my comfort zone.
While I still obviously have a lot to learn, I feel like I’m now past that initial fear (for the most part – I’m sure it’ll come back again at some point) which held me back. I think that continuing to play and develop this external focus will open up possibilities not just in making, but in my other art forms as well. I can’t say how, exactly, but I think it will give me a different perspective in writing and painting, perhaps to help me get outside of my own head see my projects through to completion.
And maybe I’ll even develop enough skills to craft the farmhouse table of my dreams.