Every Thursday night, for the past five weeks, after finishing the second workout of the day, I have been rushing home, scarfing down a quick dinner and heading out to the Woodwork Shop and School in south Calgary. Having recently graduated from university (finally!), I have been looking for things to do to fill the time I am not training in order to keep myself busy and intellectually stimulated.
In this attempt to strike a balance in my life, as well as hone my rudimentary carpentry skills, I signed up for a woodworking class. I have a keen interest in building things, and while I have built many projects around the house, none have been made using what I would call “exceptional skill”. I figured this would be a good diversion from the demanding training and take my mind elsewhere for a few hours.
I chose to build a Mission style blanket box. When I showed up the first night, my instructor, Darryl, handed me the ‘book’ with all the project instructions and dimensions. It became clear to me rather quickly that this was going to be a self-directed class.
Darryl’s job is to float around and help students with their projects when they need it. As soon I started was completely immersed in cutting, jointing and planing raw lumber. It took me four hours just to cut, joint and plane eight pieces of wood. I finished the night exhausted and covered in sawdust but I had a blast.
Over the next few classes I patiently plodded away with all the little pieces that would become the frame of the box. I glued the legs together, cut and planed all the pieces of the frame and learned how to make mortise and tenon joints as well as cut a dado. Slowly I could see the form of the box take shape. But the first time I tried to put it together, one of the pieces didn’t fit. It turns out that the ‘book’ has a nasty habit of being wrong sometimes and the dimensions for one of the pieces was off by half an inch. All Darryl could do was shrug and say, “looks like the book is wrong again!” Back to square one…
Last week I finally had all the pieces cut and ready to assemble. There I was at the workbench with 24 pieces of meticulously measured and cut wood, trying to fit them all together. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that no matter how perfectly I thought I had cut all the pieces, it wasn’t going to fit together ‘just so’ right away.
It seemed that at every turn something was off by just the smallest of margins and wouldn’t quite fit. So I got out the chisel and the file and started ‘altering’ some of the pieces by ‘a little bit here’ and ‘a little bit there’. After the 5th time chiseling a millimeter of wood off the tenon of one piece my patience began to wane.
After about an hour of playing around with all the pieces, I could tell that there was no way in hell this thing was going to get glued together that night. Darryl suggested I start making the top, instead of trying to play around with all the pieces. I thought this was a great idea. That is until I realized that the jointer in the shop is a piece of crap. The jointer is the machine that is supposed to make the edge of a raw piece of lumber perfectly square. That way you can glue together two pieces of wood and have a tight, square joint.
But no matter how many times I jointed the boards they would not fit together properly. Even Darryl, who by day is a master cabinetmaker, tried his hand at it but every time they would come out off kilter. I started getting exasperated and asked Darryl what I was supposed to do. All he could offer was, “better luck next week!” I couldn’t help but wonder how luck had made it’s way into the woodworking equation, but it didn’t matter anyways, it was 10pm and time to clean up.
So it turns out that this whole experience has been a lesson in patience as much as in woodworking. Every time I go there I run into some sort of obstacle that challenges my abilities and my patience. And I started to think that woodworking is a lot like speed skating, or maybe speed skating is like woodworking.
It reminds me a lot of how everyday I go to training and make all the little pieces I need to put together the perfect race. Every technical cue, every sit up, every back squat and every second I spend skating is me creating the components of my best races. Sometimes I fail, or get tired, or make mistakes, so I keep going back and fixing or changing things in my skating and my races that brings me closer to fitting it all together ‘just so’. Every time I go back and change something, I am learning perfection and patience.
And maybe that’s just how everything in life works; when you have a dream you work and work to fit things together perfectly, always going back to fix mistakes, make things better, all the while keeping sight of the dream. Once it is all put together, it will look and be beautiful and no one but you will see all the little nicks and scratches, or all of the mistakes and corrections that were made along the way. And it will be perfect because of, not in spite of, all those little nicks and scratches and mistakes.
Next week I’ll go back to the shop, my 6th and supposed to be last class, and continue to try and fit it all together. Thankfully there will be more obstacles and more mistakes, if not for them how would I ever learn anything? It will take longer that it should, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.