Vernacular shelving

Who invented the table?

Who was the first person to make a chair that looked like a chair?

Think about the first person who made a box. Did they have any inkling of how virtually all furniture in the future would be based on their design?

The idea of a thing like a chair, which exists in some form in every culture in the world, having been invented seems strange, because tables and chairs and boxes and shelves and stools didn’t have a singular inventor – they were simultaneously developed by many different people all over the world, and then traveled, infecting others with their designs. And until very recently, most furniture was made by the end user, or at least by someone in their family or village.

Most furniture that has existed in the world was utilitarian in form – they built a chair because they needed a chair – not because they needed something to put in the corner to balance the plant stand in the other corner. And it was made by the end user because until very recently in human history purchased furniture was the province of the very wealthy. Most furniture was made quickly and in a utilitarian manner because the person building it was one bad harvest away from death by starvation.

Utilitarian furniture made by the end user is called “vernacular” furniture by people who study such things. And you need not think it strange that most people could build their own furniture – until a generation or two ago, nearly every house had at least one person in it capable of making a full sit-down supper each night. These are just skills we lost.

But like cooking, they are skills we can reclaim.

I am renovating our 70-year-old unretouched pantry/laundry room right now, which is the first part of the larger kitchen renovation I am planning for this summer. And we needed some new pantry shelves for canned goods. They don’t have to be Instagram-able. They need to hold up cans of food. They need to be painted, in order to protect the shelves and make them easier to clean. They need to be strong.

I need vernacular shelves.

Yesterday afternoon I knocked them out – 60 inches long, 42 inches high, to go under a window in the laundry room. I made them from 1×8 Southern Yellow Pine, the wood of Southern vernacular furniture for generations of my people, acquired from Home Depot. Southern Yellow Pine is stronger than Maple when it has fully dried, and it has a pronounced grain pattern that some people love.

The shelves are spaced 9.5 inches apart, so two normal tin cans will fit on each shelf, stacked on top of each other, and they are 7.25 inches wide, so two cans will fit front to back as well. The top shelf is five inches under the window sill, so the top shelf has room for only one can in height. I used some 3/4inch quarter round as cleats to hold the shelves in place, which were then glued and screwed in place.

Tomorrow I will caulk and paint them so they can cure over the weekend and I can load them up next week.

Literally the only tools it took to make this was a saw, a speed square, a pencil, and a drill/driver, some 2 inch screws and wood glue (These are all simple tools you should probably have as part of a basic DIY kit.). It took an hour to build. It will theoretically hold 266 standard cans of food in a space previously unused, taking up less than 3.5 square feet, and the total cost, not counting paint, even in these inflationary times was less than the cost of a single Billy Bookcase from Ikea, and it will last the rest of my life.

When To Buy Cheap Tools

As someone who likes to make things, I read a lot of websites, forums, and Facebook pages that relate to making things. And a really common question that comes up in those places revolves around buying tools.

Can someone recommend a good table saw?

Which brand of chisels should I buy?

Is the Harbor Freight lathe any good?

When this happens, you will get a lot of answers, but not a lot of help, especially if you have an ADHD brain like mine. Instead, people will berate you for trying to save money, or for not buying the absolute top of the line thing.

“Buy once, cry once,” they will say.

I think this is bullshit, actually. But often well intentioned bullshit. This happens because people forget what it feels like to be a beginner. So they make recommendations based on what they, with lots of experience, would do, not what you, with none, should do.

When you are just beginning a hobby, you don’t know enough to make smart choices. Woodworking is, for example, a huge category that encompasses cabinet making, turning, jointing, carpentry, carving, whittling, and box making, among others. And all of those categories have sub categories: Turning has spindle turning and bowl turning and chuck turning and faceplate turning and… well, you get the point.

And they all require different tools, and often the work area you would need for them is all different.

This is worse for ADHD brains, because we will fall into rabbit holes of hyper-focus, where we want to know everything about a thing. And the temptation to buy the things you are learning about can be overwhelming. But if your focus changes, you are out a lot of money.

As an example: I got into wood working thinking I wanted to make furniture – but found out along the way that I suck at making square things, but I love carving. So I don’t need a table saw, ever, but a band saw is really important. Were I a cabinet maker, those priorities would be reversed. So, it’s a good thing I bought a used, sorta crappy table saw, used, for like $50, instead of a new, top of the line SawStop saw for $3500.

On the other hand, I own some carving chisels that are $75 apiece. A furniture maker would never need these. He will be fine with some $10 a piece Buck Brothers chisels from Home Depot (which, by the way, are actually really nice chisels for the price). Lathe’s are pretty inexpensive, but the accessories can break you.

The idea is to lay out as little cash as possible until you decide what part of this hobby you want to pursue, or even if you do, in fact, want to pursue it.

I have a long list of forsaken hobbies.

I flirted with wanting to learn to play the ukulele. But I know me, so I bought the $30 ukulele, which was good, as it has been sitting in the corner for the last 5 years, untouched. I have a really nice high end point and shoot camera sitting in a bag on my bookshelf. I went through a bookbinding phase. The list goes on.

My strategy is to buy the cheapest thing I can get away with in the beginning, to see if this will stick. A good idea is to search Google for “Best budget X”, where X is the thing you need. Best budget harmonica. Best budget wood burning kit. Best budget table saw. Another strategy is to see if you can borrow the thing from someone else, to see if you like it.

A surprising number of times, the “Best budget X” is all you need. The Harbor Freight thickness planer gets amazing reviews – much better than pricy planers costing twice as much. The Casio Duro watch is less than $40, but tons of professional divers wear them (as does, weirdly enough, Bill Gates). The Morakniv Companion is an outstanding sheath knife for under $20.

And even if it isn’t, as you use the free or cheap thing, you will learn if you like doing this activity, you will learn what options your thing lacks, and whether it would be worth it to upgrade or not. And then, you can upgrade smart.

Or, maybe you decide that what you really want to do is basket weaving.

Habits Are Things You Get for Free

Yesterday, my friend Don told me that he admired my output since I began daily blogging. What he didn’t know is that if I don’t do it daily, it pretty much won’t happen at all. I write every day, because if I only write when I get in the mood, I will write never. In the first 9 months of 2021, I wrote 9 blog posts. Since October 1st, I’ve written 72, and since November 1st, I’ve written one every day.

Today I have written more than 2500 words, between two very rough draft blog posts, a newsletter, and this blog post. I have written about 25,000 words in the last 30 days, which is about half the number of words in The Great Gatsby, by writing every day. That is 25,000 more words that I would have written had I written when I felt like writing.

I publish newsletters on Monday and Friday, every week. As a result, I have sent hundreds of newsletters to my lists in the last 5 years. When I had a newsletter that I sent when I had something to say, I sent perhaps 3 in two years.

I was talking to a friend this morning as I was on the way to the gym to swim.

“I really admire your regularity. It’s impressive,” she said.

I told her that regularity was sort of my super power. Regularity can make you unstoppable. My ADHD brain thrives on structure, but has a really difficult time creating structure. Like many ADHD folks though, I thrive in structured environments, because it drastically reduces my choices, and choices are paralyzing for me.

That is why, for example, I wear the same clothes day after day. I don’t wear shirts with letters or graphics. I tend to wear earth tones, and literally I grab whatever shirt is on top of the pile.  When I wore suits for a living I did the same thing, only with blue and white shirts, red ties, and blue suits. I don’t have to worry about what I will wear, or if it matches or is appropriate. I have casual clothes and work clothes and dress clothes and there are rules for all of them, and I only own clothes that follow those rules. As a result, I bet I spend less than two hours a year thinking about clothes.

Some people exercise on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I would exercise Monday, Wednesday, and the forget and it would be Saturday and I would get mad and then forget Monday and say to hell with it.

Doing it every day means you don’t have to remember. How much time do you spend thinking about brushing your teeth? None, because it’s a habit. And as the writer and activist Corey Doctorow said, “Habits are things you get for free”.

I have a habit of exercising, whether that is a walk or a swim, every day. A habit of working in the shop after supper. A habit of reading before bed. A habit of writing. All things I get for free.

In fact, it’s the parts of my life I haven’t figured out how to create structure around that give me fits.

But I’m trying.

My workshop

On the 12th day, I’m grateful for my workshop.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad’s Aunt, Louise. Her husband, Lonnie, had died right before I was born, and so he was someone whose shadow loomed large in my childhood, but who I never met.

Uncle Lonnie was Louise’s second husband (y’all gonna make me devote a whole one of these to her before I’m done), after she divorced the drunk sign painter. Lonnie worked for Ford Motor company as a machinist, and had a good union job with benefits, but the thing that made him remarkable was that he was also a mechanical genius.

I don’t say that lightly – there were cars in the 60’s that rolled off Ford’s assembly line due to his patents (well, that Ford owned, that whole work for hire thing, you know). He wired the houses of pretty much everyone I knew growing up. He could plumb, do electrical, weld, build with brick, concrete or wood – he could do it all.

He had a workshop behind their house – a small 10×16 or so shed he had built, with his tools lined up above his workbench, a drill press and a lathe on the other side. And Aunt Louise told me that when he got home, he would eat supper, and then he would go out to his shop and work.

As a ten-year-old boy, I would go out to his shop when I would stay over at her house. It was dusty, having not been used since he died. The tools were gone, but the racks were still there, and so was his workbench. The lights he had wired still worked, and the fixtures he manufactured out of pickle jars still did what he had intended. It was a magical place. I would sometimes just sit there on a milk crate, soaking it in. I have, as an adult, been in gothic cathedrals and felt some of the same feeling, like I was in the presence of some higher intelligence just out of my reach.

Uncle Lonnie was the dominant man in my dad’s life after my grandfather died when Dad was 7.

My dad was a tinkerer – an inch thick but a mile wide when it came to skills. He could rebuild your engine, wire your house, fix your radio, cut down your tree, repair your air conditioner, weld a trailer, build a house. He wasn’t amazing at any of that, but he could do them all, and perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to try something he hadn’t done before.

He told me once that it had all started when he was 8 or so – his father had passed away the year before, and his mom was working at the grocery store on the corner for a dollar an hour – money was hard to come by, and there was none for frivolities. A lady at the church had a bike her daughter no longer used, and was going to throw it out – Dad took it and he and Lonnie rebuilt it.

“It was a girl’s bike, and it was in bad shape when I got it. But I didn’t have anything to lose, so I figured out how it worked, and then I asked him for help, and we fixed it. It was having that bike or have no bike, so I was motivated,” he told me once.

But Dad never had a workshop when I lived at home. We lived in a 1,000 sf home, the five of us, and there wasn’t room for things like that. And there wasn’t any money for things like that, either.

So, his projects would live on the kitchen table, or on the porch, or on the tailgate of his truck as an impromptu workbench. But he really wanted a workshop.

A few years before he died, he finally built one. He knew retirement was coming up, and he planned endlessly for what life was going to be like after he retired. He would build furniture, he would do blacksmithing – he had hundreds of pictures of pieces of furniture he saw out in the wild that he wanted to capture because he liked the way it was shaped, or fastened or was built.

But the shop just filled up with things  – projects he intended to work on in retirement – tools he got on clearance he would need in retirement – bargains on materials he would need in retirement.

My Dad was supposed to retire in June, but then the pandemic hit and he didn’t feel he could ethically leave his job as Emergency Management Director for his county at such a bad time. He died in October, from COVID.

He never got to retire, never got to build things in his shop, never got to while away an afternoon there, never got to actually use it, in any real sense of the word. His shop is nice, and a lot of thought went into it, but it doesn’t feel like anything to be in it, because he didn’t get to really make it his. It’s just a building he built.

After Dad died, I inherited some of his tools. Like Dad, I have always wanted a workshop. I always have projects going, and tools scattered everywhere and…

Then we bought a house. And a pandemic hit. And my Dad died having never used the workshop he longed for and looked forward to.

So this spring and summer, I built a workshop.

It’s small – 10×16. But I mostly use handtools, and I don’t use it for things that aren’t a workshop (like, this isn’t where the freezer or the bikes go), and so it works for me. I also like to tinker, but mostly I’m a woodcarver and small wood furniture maker, and for that it works perfectly.

In some ways it’s nicer than either Dad’s or Lonnie’s. It’s insulated, and I have a window unit air conditioner in it, and led lights and Wi-Fi and clerestory windows and a small TV and an Alexa for music. I really wish Dad could have seen it.

Mostly, I’m glad I get to use it while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I’m glad I get to actually use it, get joy from it, and get to have a creative workspace that I don’t have to clean up when we need to set the table, a space that is mine to shape and be shaped by.

It’s not perfect yet, and in some ways is still unfinished. But most evenings after supper, I go out to the shop and work.