Everything Looks Like a Nail

I have recently, perhaps inevitably, taken up woodworking as a hobby. It’s just clichéd enough to be credible, isn’t it? Web, wood, maybe it’s in the leading “w”.

A programmer friend and I get together Wednesday evenings to try our hand at what is currently best described as rough carpentry. The usual reason to take up a “physical-world” hobby like woodworking is to “get away from the computer for a while, man!” But of course we pull out our iPhones to use as calculators, look up techniques, or find online tools that can help us. The laptops stay indoors, but computers and the internet still smooth our way.

In web terms, we’re past “hello world” and at about the point where we understand the basics of HTML and have set a few colors and faces with beginner CSS. We could put up a single-column fan site if that were the goal, but not much more than that. We’re still at the stage of making a lot of mistakes and not knowing if our problems spring entirely from not knowing how to use our tools, or also from not knowing enough to realize the tools themselves are deficient. We’re figuring things out as we go, hitting up YouTube for how-to guides on just about everything. Wikipedia may aspire to be the site of record for Things of Import, but YouTube holds the sum total of humanity’s practical knowledge, hidden amongst all the pop-star and cat videos.

A lot of the best practices map back and forth, too. Planning ahead is a core competency, and the more you practice, the better you get at it. Measurement is vital, and cleverness is as useful as it is dangerous. The importance of quality tools can’t be overstated. There are a lot of (very) specialized tools available, but you can get really far with the core set of flexible, time-honored basics. As long as you have a boatload of clamps, that is.

The one major difference is that there is no versioning in woodworking. It’s like building a project with only the “Save” command—no milestones, no repositories, no undo. When you do something, you’re committing to altering the project with no take-backs. If you get it wrong, you have to find a way to patch over the problem. If you get it really wrong, you have to scrap what you just did and replace the botched part. And if you get it really, really wrong, all you can do is scrap the whole thing and start over.

So far we haven’t had to scrap anything. Our first couple of projects were the classic starters: a simple bookshelf, a firewood box, a more complex bookshelf. For each, we’ve intentionally stepped up the complexity, a bit at a time. The first bookshelf was just screwed together, but the pieces were all pretty much the right size and properly aligned. The firewood box was also screwed together, but it involved angled cuts and hinges and sealant. The second bookshelf involved a wood router in a variety of ways, both structural and decorative.

As in networking, we swore a lot at the router, but it got us where we needed to be. Eventually, that is, once we figured out how to properly configure it and deal with its quirks.

I can’t deny that there’s a visceral satisfaction in picking up a hammer and whacking on a thing until it’s properly assembled, or disassembled, as the case may be. There’s definitely a triumph in finding out you did all the measuring and cutting and aligning just right, much like the rush you get when your first major coding project does what you meant it to do, except more so because you’ve wrestled atoms into doing your bidding. That’s literal orders of magnitude beyond wrangling electrons.

Our next steps are what I assume is the usual second phase: building a wood shop in order to learn how to use a wood shop. We’re moving up to building fold-down work surfaces with tool storage, custom-fitted wood storage, and braced shelves. That experience will enable us to move into other, more complicated projects. Some we already have in mind. Others will suggest themselves to us. At every step, we’ll look for new skills to try and practice.

And that, I think, is the real ultimate goal here: to teach ourselves new things, to enrich our skill sets and create useful objects thereby.

So it’s pretty much like working on the web.

Well, except for all the staining.