Building things, creativity and mindfulness: my story on becoming a woodworker.
For the last couple blog posts I’ve talked about my small business philosophy, and a little bit about the qualities that make Messen a special company. Today, I want to talk a little about my journey to starting a custom furniture business.
If one were to compile a list of the top 5 traits that could be used to describe my personality, I’m not entirely sure that “creative” would make the list. My professional education is in economics and business, and more recently law – all black-letter topics where someone’s propensity to be ‘creative’ is used as an insult as often as it is a complement. Notwithstanding, when it comes to being creative my favorite place to do it is when it comes to building something.
When I was a child, you could not get me away from my box of assorted Lego’s. Although I was gifted proper ‘sets’ of them from time to time, I was never really enthralled with the Lego kits and their instructions – those were fun, but mostly I enjoyed them because they gave me new parts to build whatever gadget or spaceship sprung into my imagination. I fondly remember my poor grandmother who I would always task with helping me find the tiny little pieces I needed…
As I grew, I stopped playing with Lego, but I never stopped trying to build things. Although I was never trained as a woodworker or carpenter, over the course of my life it has been one of my most longstanding interests, and over time I have grown to appreciate just how rewarding working with raw materials can be. Fortunately, of the many skills in the world that one can learn, woodworking (especially with the ever-expanding library of online resources), can be learned through practice and experience.
My interest in woodworking was first piqued when my grandfather took me into our garage and showed me how to take fallen branches and, with some imagination and a saw, turn them into little functioning trucks. In principle these were just pieces of 2x4’s with nails hammered into them such that you could take cross-sectional cuts of a tree branch and use them as wheels.
A recipe card box made as a gift for friends.
When I was a bit older, we upgraded the type of projects we did together, until one day I wanted to build a sword. Using a 2x4, a knife, some chisels and a lot of sandpaper, my grandfather taught me to craft a make-shift wooden sword. It was too heavy for me to use to defend myself, but I nonetheless felt powerful wielding it around (safely, of course). Fortunately, wooden swords aren’t very sharp or dangerous. However, this was a step up, and although it wasn’t much, my first experience with a chisel taught me just what could be made from wood.
At around the same time I learned to make swords, I met my childhood best friend who himself was a very adamant builder. Together, we started with little things like marble tracks or simple gadgets. As we grew, however, so did our imagination and our ability to act on that imagination. We first started with a tree fort right behind my house. Using scrap wood and hand tools, we managed to erect a platform and if I remember correctly, it eventually had a roof. Little did we know, however, that the ethical method with which we sourced our wood would eventually be our downfall. My friend one day was walking past a job site, and asked the supervisor if he could have any scraps for our fort. Fortunately they did, and my friend diligently dragged the generously large timber back to our fort for us to use.
Unfortunately, however, a curious neighbor thought we had stolen the wood from the job side, followed the tracks back to our fort and proceeded to notify bylaw officers of our project. A week later it was taken down.
This however, was no worry, as we quickly formulated plans for a second fort, which we did complete, and subsequently a further fort after that was unparalleled in it’s ambition but which unfortunately was also reported to bylaw and ordered removed. These forts collectively formed the backbone of my understanding of building and how to work with lumber.
It took teams of children and teenagers to build this guy, and we took it as a sort of complement when the building inspector told us it didn't meet building code standards. Unfortunately, we never got to complete it.
Spare time and tools.
The central theme to my earlier escapades in building was that I was generally restricted to simple tools. The most powerful (and dangerous) of which was a circular saw. As I grew older, however, I was finally able to invest in tools that would allow me to build more intricate and carefully thought-out pieces. I also read and learned about woods (especially hardwoods) and about joinery. Plus, although time was short, I still had enough of it to continue fostering my creativity.
I drafted this speaker box by hand before learning to use computer software.
On a tight budget, I purchased a table saw, a router, some chisels and several other hand-tools. Together, I had most of what I needed to bring my imagination to life and over the coming years I built jewelry boxes, cutting boards, keepsakes, picture frames, shelving and other items.
My brother and I built a remote control sailboat together from scratch.
The best part of my little workshop, however, was not the utility derived from the items built. Rather, it was the absolute sense of peace and ease that I felt when I was working. Unlike almost any other activity I did in my life, time spent woodworking would simply slip a way in a fog of absolute focus on the task at hand. From planning and design to cutting, drilling, chiseling, carving, glue-up, assembly and final sanding, the pleasure garnered from seeing something come to life was very special to me. I could spend 8 straight hours in my little makeshift workshop, tinkering away at whatever I was building. Even when I was frustrated, there was a general sense of peace and easiness that I was enveloped in. It was a feeling that made even abject failure feel like a worthwhile and enjoyable learning experience.
A custom-made cutting board for my mother that has been freshly oiled.
Losing my workshop.
Unfortunately for my woodworking, life would change for me. When I started law school, we had to move to Vancouver and away from my precious garage where I did all my woodworking. The apartment we moved to was tiny – perhaps 550 square feet and on the third floor of an old building. There was, of course, no garage in which to establish a workshop and I didn’t have the finances to rent one. It really put a damper on my favorite way to spend my free time.
This custom cabinet replaced what used to be a microwave, and was designed to maintain access to the electronics behind.
This problem was exacerbated when I had a need to build some custom shelving in our new apartment. In the apartment was a nook almost exactly 40” wide by 40” deep by 95” tall. We couldn’t afford to have someone make something custom to fit in the spot, and finding something affordable in those dimensions simply wasn’t possible. The problem was repeated with our shelving and with our TV-stands too – we didn’t have room to put items where we wanted them to go.
Normally, I would build something that solved my problem. However, building furniture by hand takes time and money – there’s the design, the space, the tools, the material acquisition and, of course, the time to do it. I had few if any of those thing in our new apartment. Plus, I was studying full time and working a part time job, so time wasn’t exactly plentiful. It was really in this situation – when I no longer had access to my workshop – that I realized that other people must be having the same problem.
Solving my problem.
I decided to take matters into my own hands.
The first thing that I knew was that the planning and design phase of furniture construction is quite consuming – if I wanted to design furniture that could be customized affordably, it needed to be easy to modify existing designs. I knew there was technology that could accomplish this, but I hadn’t personally used it before and I knew that few other people were applying it in the way that I envisioned it being used. So I learned everything there is to know about the various machines, techniques and principles that allow for quick manufacturing of designs. This took me nearly a year of constant reading, practice, and learning.
Now that I've learned how to design furniture using computers, I've incorporated it into my personal woodworking. This arbor will be built for our wedding this summer.
From there, I had to model the styles and designs that I would like to use, but this wasn’t as simple as it seems – without my own workshop, I needed to create designs that could be manufactured in a way that the manufacturer didn’t need to know anything about how the furniture is assembled – this way, I would be able to create furniture without access to a shop, which was the original problem I was facing.
After that, I learned about manufacturing processes, principles of furniture design and safety, computer assisted modelling and more. Funnily enough, although I wasn’t in my workshop anymore, visualizing and working on how to bring my concept of customizable furniture to life brought me the same mindfulness and focus that I got when working in my workshop.
Turning a hobby into a business
It’s not the case that Messen replaced my hobby, even though Messen was inspired by my favorite pastime. Nothing will ever replace the focus and feeling of Zen that I get when I’m able to craft beautiful pieces for myself, my friends and my family. Although to this day I still don’t have my workshop back, I look forward to when I have the space, resources and time to recommit myself to woodworking on a more regular basis.
As Messen grows, I look forward to continually learning and improving to create beautiful furniture that is obtainable by most Canadians.
Learning to woodwork
For anyone with an interest in learning to woodwork, don’t hesitate to send me an email or leave a comment. Below, I've included my favorite resources for anyone interested in learning themselves.
I love these YouTube channels, and they provide valuable, high-quality production in a digestible form.
- Stumpy Nubs – Great, easy to follow videos on everything from project plans to safety.
- The Wood Whisperer – high production videos on manufacturing beautiful furniture.
- Check out this video on the basic power tools you might consider to get started! I started with all of these minus the router.
One of the things I didn't know when I first started working is that dust generated from wood can be a dangerous to your health. Bill Pentz has a great website dedicated to dust safety that anyone should read. Although he sells a propriety dust collector, don't feel that you need to buy one - a respirator and a few other precautions are enough to get started safely. I still don't own a full-size dust collector.
- Bill Pentz - How to safely collect dust and why.
If you prefer something, in paper, some of the woodworking magazines are great place to get started.
- Fine Woodworking Magazine - Great articles that include plans and how-to's.
Lastly, I didn't really use a book to learn to woodwork, but there is one book I have that clearly lays out hundreds of types of joints and when to use them. Joints, or how to connect wood pieces, are a staple of the craft and cutting tight joints is a very rewarding feeling.
- The Joint Book: The Complete Guide to Wood Joinery, by Terrie Noll. The hardcover version is made of very durable paper so you can bring it with you in the shop.
Thanks for reading!
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