Saturday, December 26, 2009

Better to stick with what one knows

By Michael Wiley

I write. I have a hard time imagining otherwise. But if I weren’t writing, I could content myself (if no one else) with a box of tools, because, aside from writing, one thing I enjoy and succeed at, kind of, at least some of the time, if your taste runs the narrow directions mine does . . . is building furniture.

When I was thirteen, I built a boxy wooden lamp with a secret compartment in which I could hide pot, cigarettes, and bottle rockets from my parents. In hindsight, I realize that I should have made the hinges less conspicuous. Doing so would have made the lamp aesthetically more pleasing and saved me from a month-long grounding.

I tried again more than fifteen years later when my wife and I were living in a small New York apartment. We decided that we needed a spice rack and I declared boldly that I would build one, worrying not at all that I lacked tools beyond the miniatures that came in a four-by-eight-inch leather pouch that my parents gave me shortly before I built my contraband lamp. So, using little more than a tiny hacksaw, a baby hammer, and wood glue, I constructed a set of spice shelves, which my wife painted and we hung on the wall. When I showed the rack to my friends, they generally acknowledged that the paint job was okay, but the rest of it, in their words, “sucked.”

Not to be deterred, I started buying real tools, though my wife worried about allowing me anything with the word “power” connected to it. But I snuck the tools into our apartment – an electric sander first, then a power drill and a couple of real saws – and stacked them in the back of a closet since I knew better than to try the hidden-compartment-lamp trick again.

When we moved to a house in North Florida, I came out of the closet wearing my tool belt and despite my wife’s protestations (no, I assured her, my desire to make furniture was biological and interventions would only screw me up) declared that I would build a combination window seat and daybed to fill an odd-sized nook. With galvanized pipe, plywood, and hardware, I made a piece that would horrify a Victorian but suited us fine. Our kids play and read on it. Guests have slept on it. A few visitors have complimented us on it. A few others have raised their eyebrows, but no one yet has said that it sucks.

Encouraged, I’ve now built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves out of pine planks, steel dowels, and the metal posts usually used for street signs. Again, a few visitors have raised their eyebrows, but my wife and I like the shelves and one of our friends asked me to build similar ones for him.

The moral of all this? There are three morals, really.

1. Encouragement can be a dangerous thing. My latest project includes fishing line and pieces of pumice. Again my wife is protesting.

2. Learn from your mistakes. I’ll never be a master craftsman but my furniture now, for the most part, isn’t dangerous to either myself or others.

3. Always hide the hinges.


Shane Gericke said...

Oh, that stuff is COOL! Working with tools and building stuff is a lot of fun.

Gabi said...

There's absolutely no chance anyone is going to give you anything sharp from the hardware store or anywhere else. We're crazy, not stupid and we know, having read your book, that you are dangerous enough already.

Michael Wiley said...

My eight-year-old son asked for power tools for Christmas. We gave him an electric screwdriver -- nothing that he can harm himself with very badly, we hope. Already he shows more tool savvy than I do.

. . . The sharp tools aren't the ones that cause the most damage; it's the blunt ones.

Sophie Littlefield said...

I am dying to know what one can make with fishing line and pumice. I probably won't be able to sleep until I know.

Michael Wiley said...

I don't suppose you would believe me if I said a sofa?

The goal is a room divider. I would like to use heavier stones -- pieces of granite or river stone -- but my drill isn't strong enough to go through anything so hard, so pumice it'll be, at least as a prototype.

Hope you got a good night's sleep, Sophie.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wow, this is awesome, Michael!! I wish we lived closer 'cause I'd want to commission a piece!!

The furniture is really, really cool ... and I love the idea of the pumice!!


Jen Forbus said...

Can I put in an order for bookshelves? ;) I'm working on renovating a spare bedroom into a library and I could use a furniture builder! Sophie, could you add that to the list of requirements for my husband? LOL

This was fun Michael. Definitely update us when the room divider is done!

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Jen. Next time my wife expresses doubts about my furniture building (doubts that, I have to admit, I've earned), I'll show her your post.

I post a picture of the divider when I complete it.