The Shop Teacher

Memories are fickle. Why do you remember some life events and others are left to the wind? Before heading to Junior High, all students (at least at the time) were subject to a quarterly curriculum of what I like to call life skills. Quarter 1, cooking/sewing. Quarter 2, typing. Quarter 3, foreign languages (French or Spanish, pick your poison). Quarter 4, Shop. Today, we only talk about math, which computers do for us. In the modern day education system, critical thinking is becoming lost in the wind. Grades and test scores rule the day.

At the time, languages and typing I could deal with, but home economics just wasn’t for me. I spent most of the time getting my good friend, Johnny Appleseed in trouble and vice versa. Actually, he started it. Give him credit. He was a grand master of creative chaos. In class, I think I burnt my dessert and my pillow, which I still have, came out a bit lumpy. And then there was shop class. We were fortunate to have the most understanding and patient shop teacher in the universe. I’d be a nervous wreck giving power tools to eighth graders. Ha, ha, ha, here comes the power saw. I’m still amazed nobody lost a finger (at least, I can’t remember anyone losing any limbs).

Note, I didn’t know how to use a saw, measure, or hammer a nail. These were things I didn’t care much for when growing up. I liked books, baseball, and computers.

And Bill, my shop teacher, had to teach me. Well, he tried. In reality, I was more concerned that I might lose a finger or worse. It also didn’t help that I sat by Johnny Appleseed. Good lord, he was a great friend. Few had his sense of humor. Well, after a few weeks, my lack of measuring skills finally caught up to me. My bird house came out a bit slanted. I was told to measure, measure, and measure again. And then do it one more time just to be sure. It didn’t work out. To top it off, the hole for the bird to fly through had a nail sticking about a quarter the way through it. Even Johnny Appleseed’s turned out better than mine.

To this day, my mother calls it the house of death. Come sparrows, robins, and birds of all types to my carnival of terror. There is food inside, I promise. You just might not make it out alive.

But the shop teacher, looking down at me, smiling, told me, “Nice job. And if you know what’s good for you, I probably wouldn’t major in wood working.” It was good advice at the time. I think I was lucky to get out of there alive. I never came back to the shop.

Yet, many years later, I have taken up wood working. I’m not good at it. I don’t have enough tools. I get by on what I have. YouTube is a life line most of the time. Still, I work at it. I measure (I’m still terrible at it). I cut. I saw. And I come up with solutions when nothing goes as planned. Most of the time, nothing goes as planned. I figure out what to do as I go.

I’ve always wanted to build my own table. It could be the writer in me speaking out. If feels Hemingwayish to write at the table you constructed with your own two hands. I’m not sure Hemingway ever built a table. It just sounds like something he would do. I’m sure he wrote the Old Man in the Sea on a table he built out of wood from a washed up boat.

In building my dream table, I learned the following:

(1) You can find most anything on Pinterest. You type in “build a table” and the world opens up to you. I went to the lumberyard and the guy at the counter asked, “Is this a honeydo project from Pinterest?” No, it’s not. It’s my table, just fill the order.

(2) Pocket holes are incredible. I read a website that said this was a cheap/quick means to build and to avoide at all cost. The internet is like that. Opinions. Few concrete answers. I avoided this for weeks and then decided to give it a try. Yes, there is a special drill bit to cut a pocket hole and it’s amazing what they can do. I’m not sure if it’s the angle, screw type, etc., but the underneath of the table just locked into place. No wiggle. It just worked. Take that internet handyman. Quick and dirty can work.

(3) Measure. Measure. Measure. The lumberyard didn’t listen to their high school shop teacher either. Despite giving exact measurements, I had to redo it home. Like some things in the world, it’s always good to double-check. And then check again because some folks don’t do things the right way.

(4) So, I’ve been building picture frames for years. They are probably twice as heavy as anything you find at Michaels. But I built these frames. So, there. And I’ve learned a few things experimenting with wood stain. For my table, I used a staining method that didn’t work well on frames but it looks incredible with table legs. But if I didn’t try and fail multiple times building heavy frames, I wouldn’t have a cool table. I listened to a podcast where Robert Rodriguez talked about filming Four Rooms. It’s not a great movie. But by doing it, he came up with the idea for Spy Kids, which made a few hundred million. Now, I just need to open a furniture factory that sells imperfect tables.

(5) I used hanger nails to make the legs detachable. The table top is solid oak. This was a requirement to get it into the house. It’s one heavy table (just like the frames I build).

(6) When I put the legs on, sadly, my table wobbled. The wood I used for the legs isn’t oak strong. Yes, I was angry. But I found a way to fix it, sort of. Long story but it ended up working. I’ll probably swap out the legs down the road. Is my table perfect? No. I didn’t measure correctly in places. Some of the pocket holes are off. The legs are attached odd in spots (I’m skill kicking myself on where I drilled a couple of holes for the hanger nails) but it sure looks epic.

In the end, I figure my table cost about a quarter of what you can find for an equivalent version in the best furniture shops. Take that Restoration Hardware, Pier One and Ethan Allen. That doesn’t include my time, nor can I take back some of the words that came out of mouth during the project. I now know why builders curse so much. Yet, I made the adjustments. And it’s my table.

Bill, you will be missed. You were a great teacher, and I was a terrible student. My measuring is still off, and I make many mistakes. There is a poor saying, Those that can’t do, teach. It’s a dumb quote. The entire point of life is to share what we’ve learned. I like to think you’ll live forever. Your impact will go on and on. Even your all-time worst student, built a solid table (in my humble opinion). And one of these days, I’ll figure out how to use that measuring tape.

Thank you, shop teacher. Sorry, I didn’t pay more attention in class. But it was Johnny Appleseed’s fault. I swear.

Other Notes:

Here is a video I used to model Pocket Holes. I didn’t buy the fancy angle tool from Home Depot or Lowes and this worked fairly well.