Last Monday, my friend Molly reached out to me.
More than 20 years ago, Molly and I were in college together. Being general uninspired, I approached the end of my last semester well short of the requisite physical education credits that come with a well-balanced liberal arts education. With no other options in sight, I signed up for a woodworking class – as I heard the instructor was a fellow student/stoner and would pass me no matter what. For my efforts, I produced this little wooden bench that my mother still has and sits on to put on her shoes everyday. It was nothing special. Shaker in style and simplicity. But Molly loved it and proclaimed that, one day, when she had the means, she would commission me to make something for her.
Our paths diverged as she and her husband moved from LA to NY and back and my path wandered the earth and oceans. Traditional rig sailing in Maine. Fishing in Alaska. Boatbuilding school in Maine. Cooking on sailboats all over the world. Surfing. Private chef work. Yacht work. Selling fish in California. I’d wander through her neighborhood on occasion and we’d host a party together or share some dinner. My path meandered widely but she always saw me as my greater self and encouraged the introspective exploration. I rewarded her encouragement with little pieces of artwork. Artwork that I gave to no one else out of fear and shyness. But with Molly, her belief was stalwart and adamant. She liked what ever I gave her.
Now, 20 years later, she asked about a piece of furniture. This proved somewhat prescient as I had started building stuff again to furnish my apartment in October.
We briefly talked about ideas and she sent me a couple of photos of things that she liked. I had a busy week and reigned in the exchange. “Let’s wait until I can see the space and what needs to happen in it. It will reveal a lot.”
When I got to Molly’s new house – we quickly wandered into the room. Molly wanted somewhere to put her sturdy enough to hold her vinyl collection and something to set the TV on. Oh man, as we talked about ideas, I started to back pedal.
“I’m kind of nervous about starting something that I can’t finish in a couple of days and I have to be back in Santa Cruz on Saturday.”
Molly: “No problem. Just start. I don’t have a bookcase now. So, if you don’t finish, I’ll pretty much be in the same place. I STILL won’t have a case.”
Me (still backpedaling): “I’m not sure, I kind of want to make sure it’s something that you like.”
“I’ll like it. What do we need to get started?”
We needed wood. For a project like this, we could have started with new boards. Molly’s budget had the space for it but I’m much more interested in finding reclaimed wood. The patina. The feel of working with old materials – there’s something about it that feels good. I also didn’t want a bunch of expensive new material to fuck up.
For my last project, I had started to design what I wanted to build and started thinking about how I didn’t want to build it out of new materials. I started the plans then went for a walk around my neighborhood to clear my head. Two blocks from my house, a guy was putting together a new fence. The old redwood fence was in a dusty pile in the yard. I asked him what he was doing with the pile. “Taking it to the dump”. “Can I take a few boards?” “Sure! You’ll save me a trip to the dump.” “Can I borrow a hammer?” I spent the next 2 hours deconstructing the fence into useable boards. Those boards and an old futon frame became the furniture for my bedroom.
Molly’s new home was built in 1907. I wanted her piece to have a similar character. I started looking on Craigslist.
We found a guy that was selling a few repurposed boards out of his backyard. He lived a mere mile from her house. The bad news was that he said he wasn’t available until Saturday to show me the pile.
“Saturday’s too late. My friend is raring for me to go and I’ve only got Friday to build it”
“Can you show up at 6:45 tomorrow morning?”
“I sure can”.
“Don’t be late, I have to go to work then.”
“I sure won’t”.
I showed up at 6:45 and drove home with a pile of dusty and dirty boards. It felt good to have something to start with. I was a little bit sheepish to show Molly the pile though. All along she had been insisting that she could afford to buy new/ “good” wood. This pile wasn’t much to look at. Accumulated dirt, cobwebs and lots of dust. Somewhere in that pile – if you squinted really, really hard – there was a book case.
I had just enough boards for the case and nothing for a frontispiece – nothing to cap it. Because of this, I had to build the shelf from the bottom up rather than the top down. The voices in the back of my head that I had to overcome – the one’s that I could hear were: “She’s not going to like it”, “it’s going to fall apart” and “you’ll never get it done in time”. All I had to do was start though. Just start. Just start. The path reveals itself.
I often build things by feel and don’t know whether something can be done until after I’ve done it or I’ve seen it done. The first iteration is usually a combination of hesitant first steps and bold, bald-faced errors. I’m feeling for the right next steps. On this particular project, I didn’t want Molly to come home and have a rickety old thing – so I started rushing to build in the supports. Rather than measure, I eyed some things. I hurried to see the possibilities take form. I hurried to have it take form before she brought the kids home from school. It was a hot day and I smelled the nervousness in my sweat.
But I moved forward. When I’m working I’m often having a conversation with the material and myself. Muttering verbal notes and repeating measurements to myself. I’ll also ask myself questions or curse myself out. “Dumbass! What were you thinking?” There’s also the occasional encouraging words.
She came home a lot later than I had expected and by then I was working backwards to shore up and reattach some of the pieces that I had fastened a little too hastily. By Saturday morning, I was cutting material off of the piece. Supports that felt too bulky… Screws that were half visible. Yes, the first piece is usually finished by my just feeling around for the right answers. It comes out imperfect but it also has an emotional charge to it that subsequent pieces sometimes lack. Imbued in the piece is the self doubt that keeps me from getting started, the excitement that it may actually be beautiful, the nervousness that it is turning out beautiful but that I could ruin it at any moment and then the surprise and satisfaction that I created something I had envisioned and that it IS beautiful.
On Saturday morning, I still lacked a top. Molly’s husband Mike offered to go to the lumber yard with me. A couple of times he mentioned that we didn’t have to get a too expensive piece of wood because we wanted it to match the pine boards. I was hoping for something in oak – something that would contrast the dark patina that I already had going. He advised that we go to the less expensive lumber yard and I agreed somewhat reluctantly. I wanted to find something nicer for the top. It trns out we ended up inthe pale that I wanted to complete the vision and was a little bit nervous because Mike seemed a little bit hesitant to want to put any more money towards the case.
In the store, we met a man that was as matter of fact and down to earth as we could imagine. As we walked in, there was a white boxer terrier that walked in after us. It was covered in suit from walking underneath cars. When I asked the man how he was doing today, his reply was a, very honest, “Not so good”. He still was eager to help and after describing the project, we went looking for boards. He got the budget part and steered us away from cherry and mahogany… even oak. I had made the shelf wider than an LP record so the top had to be at least 13 inches wide. When we got to the poplar, we slowed down and started to discuss. I was surprised to hear Mike chime in and point a board that had a pool of green grain in the center of it. “How much for that one?” We took a quick measurement. “$40 or so but you’ll have to do a glue up to make it wide enough.” Mike looked at me hopefully.
I said, “Hell yeah!”.
When we checked out, the guy that sold it to us punched in some numbers and told us that it was actually $25.
This project holds the story of the perseverance of friendship and the creative process. It shows what we are capable of when it is insisted that we overcome our self-doubt. It shows that we should stay patient – the results and people will often surprise us. It shows what is possible when we remain flexible to circumstance but hold on to our intention. I went home feeling really fulfilled in friendship, in skill and in creative vision.
This piece isn’t overtly anything special. It’s beautiful but more than the books and LP records it will contain, it contains the energy of the process itself. It feels good.