The Magazine

Shop Talk

Jonathan V. Last, closet carpenter

May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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I was never in any danger of succumbing to golf. As a teenager, I worked three summers looping at a local country club and spent a lot of time around the game. I understood its appeal: the satisfaction of precise physical motion, the thrill of hunting for new and better equipment, the quiet and solitary beauty of the fairways. But it didn’t touch me in the deep place that causes people to fall in love.

Cartoon of a man in a wood shop

DAVID CLARK

And so that little corner of my life—the one men reserve for useless, addictive hobbies—sat empty.

About a year ago I started looking for a piece of furniture, a small cabinet to house electronics. It was a simple piece, but I had very precise spatial requirements. I needed my cabinet to be 45″ x 22″ x 18″. After three months searching, I couldn’t find anything that worked.

One afternoon I mentioned this annoyance to my neighbor, Jim. He looked at me the way a professor might look at a particularly daft student and asked, “Why don’t you just make one?”

Which is how it started.

Jim held my hand through that first project. He sketched out the schematics for the design and went with me to Home Depot to pick out the wood and hardware. He set me up in his workshop and walked me through the construction, showing me how to make miter cuts and use a nail punch. We built the piece in maybe six hours.

Jim could have done it in 45 minutes—that’s how simple the design was. But in addition to being on the steep end of the learning curve, I took my time in the shop because I enjoyed it so much. Everyone knows the old saw about measuring twice and cutting once. I measured six times, sometimes seven—not because I was getting it wrong, but because I liked seeing how right I was. Each additional confirmation was a little metaphysical gold star: proof that there are absolutes in life and that these truths are knowable through reason alone.

After the cabinet was built, I spent two weeks finishing it: staining the wood, sanding it with steel wool, rubbing it with tung oil. The finished product wasn’t spectacular—you wouldn’t mistake it for anything from the Restoration Hardware catalog. But neither would you immediately assume that it hadn’t come from a store.

I was proud of the cabinet for a week. Or vainglorious. Take your pick. When I recounted the story of my triumph over nature—and I told it more than twice—I was a latter-day Hephaestus. But the pride was soon displaced by an itch. I wanted to do it again. 

Project number two was even simpler: a wall-mounted bookcase for holding DVDs. I started this one by cribbing a design from a do-it-yourself website. But the itch wouldn’t go away. I found myself doodling schematics any time I had a spare piece of paper. And I started fixating on aspects of my little cabinet that suddenly seemed shabby.

My ambitions grew. The new piece would have dovetailed corners along the main structure, and the interior joints would be accomplished with pocket holes. I considered mixing woods, using both oak and pine. I spent hours researching gluing techniques and the merits of coarse versus fine threads for screws in mixed-wood projects. (All for naught, as it turned out. I settled on using aspen, a nice middle of the road wood, throughout.)

And now the project list is growing. Next up is a mudroom organizer with a bench, shoe-cubbies, and coat hooks. After that, a low-rise bookshelf with an adjustable saw tooth shelf-system. Then a coffee table. Then a library cart. Then a farmhouse bed.

Recently a friend, another writer nursing the same addiction, started passing me magazines. Building Furniture, Fine Woodworking’s 2012 Tool Guide, you know the sort. I smuggle them into the house inside my computer bag and keep them hidden in my sock drawer. Once or twice a day, when I’m alone, I’ll pull them out and leaf through them, drooling over rabbets and dados, box joints and band saws.

I read them for the articles. (My favorite essay is “How many routers do you need?” The answer, obviously, is three. At least.)

But the pictures aren’t bad, either.

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