Monday, July 1, 2019

Out of the Box

I was the first person in my extended family to complete post-secondary education. Our family really didn't have a lot materially. I got started with a pretty good scholarship to a small drafting and design technical school, but even with that scholarship, it would have been unlikely I could have attended without the aid of my Aunt and Uncle, who let me move into their home while I went to school. At the time 25 years ago, I didn't realize what it meant to take an awkward teenager they barely knew into their family. Now, as an adult and parent I realize what a thing it is they did for me, and by extension so many of my family. 

See, while my extended family hasn't had a lot of formal education, they are for the most part a very intelligent and capable lot, though such talents had largely not helped them get ahead in their construction jobs. So when the contract drafting agency I started with was looking for people, I was able to get first one, then another cousin started on with my reputation. As they proved more than capable even without degrees, my then boss would eventually be quoted as saying "you got anymore of them cousins?" All told, I count at least a dozen of "us" that over the years have a career in engineering with a dotted line pointing to this one act of kindness by my Aunt and Uncle. One of the proudest moments in my career was seeing my dad become a capable tool designer after decades of back-breaking manual labor in the elements. He had finally gotten his foot in the door, given the chance to try something anyone who knew him would've guessed he'd excel at.

What does this project have to do with any of this? Nothing directly other than I thought about this carry on effect a lot as I worked on this project. My nephew recently graduated from high school and is going to pursue a career in the culinary arts. Knowing what to do "when I grow up" is a challenge for many and to see him latch on to something with the interest he has shown is heartening. Months ago, several family members planned a combined gift of a complete set of nice knives housed in a box/roll that would allow such tools to be transported easily to whatever kitchen he will cook in. It fell to me to provide the box. I thought about this project a bit and then did what all good hobbyist woodworkers do, I procrastinated... It was less than a week away, and I still hadn't gotten the stock needed. The design morphed from a simple pencil box to something with integral hinges, lots of joinery, magnets and spaces for what it would house...all the while the calendar window closed. 

The problem with procrastination, is when it works. Because forever thereafter you think of that one time you were able to get everything done in such a short time and make it all happen. I'm hopeful I'll be able put this project aside as an anomaly in my mind, lest I death march myself on some other commitment. After an all-nighter, I completed the last joinery glue up at 5am on the day of delivery, forty quick winks then finishing it up and applying the last coat of spray lacquer (a life saver) at 2:00 pm for a 3:30 pm delivery. I ignored everyone and everything for a week. it was both a glorious and a horrible race against the clock. I really didn't know if I would have anything to contribute. Any misstep would have completely derailed me. I somehow made it without any serious flubs. 

I am proud of how this turned out especially given the time constraints (of course I'll dumbly point out all the flaws/gaps to any one looking too close). I can't get over how the grain flows and book matches in this colorful air dried walnut, and how important managing all that plays into the design. If you know me, over the more recent years, my tools have gotten more "aspirational" less merely "serviceable". For me, using exceptional tools pushes me to higher levels, even if I will never attain to their full capability. I'm hoping that this box and the fine cutlery it houses, will likewise push him to new and greater skills and pride in his craft. At any rate we were both happy with how it turned out which says a lot.

It's hubris on anyone's part to believe we can map ourselves onto an inflection point in someone else's life. Still, no doubt you can think of those that proved to be a jumping off point for you, a person that did something that helped get to the next level. How did they do it? Perhaps it was an all-their-eggs-in-one-basket grand gesture; more likely, they had a habit of putting themselves in a place to make a difference whenever they could hoping it would help someone else along the way and it did. So as you reflect on those people that made you the best of who you are (please do, there are many) don't forget to pay it forward.

Apple bearing pins, is there any process more satisfying in woodworking than pounding dowels?

Sometimes the best bits are invisible (bottom panel is my favorite)

doubled up joinery adds beef to thin ~1/4" box components

It's a shame this goes unseen on the bottom

White pencil and lots of light is a must for walnut (at least for my ancient eyes)

Love these end grain shavings off my shoot board

Magnets keep things in place while traveling...and are just cool

My knives standing in for layout purposes

Delivery day!

High stakes drilling fixture, no room for error


  1. "...especially given the time constraints."

    Months, wasn't it? I thought you said you had a few months to work on it. ;)

    Hey, we didn't make you the secretary of the Procrastmanship Guild for nothing.


  2. Haha, you're right, given the actual time constraints, it turned out about as it should have..
    Yeah I've been meaning to ask about my official Secretary Sash... maybe the big wigs in the Procrastmanship Guild haven't gotten around to sending it yet?

  3. Beautiful story, beautiful project. Inspiration to come for many years.

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    1. Thanks, yes I believe this would sell for "megabucks" to the right person, I would certainly have to charge for the amount of time I have invested, which is significant. The challenge for capable craftspeople is almost always connecting with those people that actually buy high quality things. At this point in my life, I enjoy having a day job that pays the bills and allows me to make things without a specific price/time point.

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