When I Can’t Work Wood

Recently my professional work has been taking over my free time, and I have had almost no time for woodworking in the last two months. I have several big projects in the planning stages, but I keep pushing them off into the future.

As someone who works primarily with my brain, I need to work regularly with my hands in order to keep my life in balance. Hence, I work wood, tend a garden, do many of my own house repairs, and cook a lot of meals. But when my academic work takes over, as it does from time to time, what can I do?

Here is how I cope with not working wood.

1. I keep reading about woodworking. Lately I’ve been reading Ron Hock’s The Perfect Edge, which I have found to be an excellent resource. Hock has helped me understand the metallurgy behind sound sharpening technique, but more importantly, he has kept me thinking about tools. I even look forward to resharpening now. I still look in on the WoodNet Hand Tools forum, too. Talking about tools keeps me excited about getting back to the workbench.

Two spoons: a serving spoon in the background, and a mini-mixing spoon in my hand. I have made mini-spoons for each of my children.

2. I do little projects. Yeah, all projects take at least three times as long as you think they will. Still, I have a few ten-minute projects in the back of my mind, which I’ve been saving for later. Now is a good time to do one. For example, I had been meaning to replace one of my wooden serving spoons whose bowl had cracked. I had it done in 30 minutes. Then my daughter reminded me that I hadn’t yet made a mini-spoon for my youngest daughter. I picked up a piece of scrap, and 20 minutes later I had a spoon for her, too. I spent longer than I had intended to, but it felt good to get my tools moving again.

3. I organize. I have several boxes of offcuts, shorts, and scraps, all of which need a good cleaning out. None will take very long by itself, but I could spend a whole day getting my offcuts in order. I don’t have all day, but I can at least dig through one of my scrap boxes and separate the shorts from the firewood. Same thing with my hardware. Sorting out a single jar of mixed nails or screws won’t take long. After all, the disorganization of my workspace has been a gradual process. I can organize gradually, too. Or, I could, if my workbench weren’t currently covered with my kids’ school projects…

I haven't built this mini-workbench, but someday I just might. Or maybe somebody else will.

4. I plan. I keep a blank-page journal on my bench for sketching out projects. Some get planned in detail, while others don’t. Flipping through it, I find drawings from completed projects, as well as abortive ideas. There are plenty of blank pages left, too. What would I like to build next month? Next year? Two years from now? I start sketching out the basic lines of a bookcase or a cabinet, or a new marking gauge design. I may never build it, but who knows? Five years from now, I may decided to revive an old idea.  In the meantime, it keeps my mind engaged.

5. I touch my tools. I know I’m not the only person who does this. As I walk by my bench, I’ll pick up my jointer plane or a favorite saw and just hold it for a second. I appreciate its form and function, and I recall all the work it has done for me. I brush off the dust and re-oil it. When I am finally ready for it, it will be ready for me.

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5 Responses to When I Can’t Work Wood

  1. rob campbell says:

    I’ve said this on other sites: I will resort to cutting tenons in cheese or tofu. I am not kidding.

    I am with you on touching tools, drafting plans, organizing, etc. I feel good even just sweeping my shop, which many nights is all I can squeeze in (I have the stay-at-home-dad for my toddler).

    This is a great post, very valid stuff for any modern woodworker.

  2. rob campbell says:

    (er, I -AM- the stay at home dad, above)

  3. Trevor Walsh says:

    Rob, I’ve been meaning to get into cutting M&T’s in cheese. I’m thinking something sturdy like a sharp cheddar would be good?

    This is very similar to the opening page of Schwarz’s Anarchist’s book, the line goes something like “When I’m too tired, busy or ill to work, I like to stand in my shop and look at my tools and wood for a minute. I also agree that sweeping is one of the great tasks to do when you don’t have enough time to work.

    I also like that you keep a notebook. I keep different ones for all different categories of projects, a notebook is also required and graded for my students in model making class, I can tell that most of them don’t get it yet, but someday they will see and they will love their notebooks too.

  4. I wonder if I could do half-blind dovetails in mozzarella and colby, or would the difference in movement make trouble?

    More seriously, though, I should have added #6: Sharpening. Sometimes, when I have five spare minutes, I’ll touch up my chisels or my plane irons. I try to resharpen tools before putting them away, but some days that just doesn’t happen. So at any given time, I always have a couple dull chisels in the drawer. Times like these are great for touching up my edges. So when I DO have time for a project, I’ll be ready.

  5. joecrafted says:

    I’ll also go down into my lair and sharpen. Also small projects with screws or nails can be satisfying. I made a small gate for my deck when my toddler niece was coming for a visit. I spread it out over four days/nights just doing a little at a time using spare pieces of pine I had from previous projects (I work out of my house, so I can squeeze in 10 mins here and there during the day). Crosscut to length, head back to work. Come down and plane to thickness. Layout the arch and rough saw with the coping saw. Rasp to the layout line. I think it turned out better than if I had done it all in an afternoon.

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