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Chicks with tools


I’ve always had a healthy interest in using my hands – in MAKING stuff – be it cooking, fixing a fence, growing a garden and other such pursuits. I took shop in high school and occasionally help James in his work as a hardwood installer.


But while I have enthusiasm in spades, I have an appalling lack of experience and know-how. My father is reasonably competent at building/making/fixing stuff but he’s not a good teacher, lacking all patience. My uncle is a cross between MacGyver and an artisan, and can build or make anything, including a full blown house, a sauna, a patio, etc. but alas, most of my life we were on separate continents, and I lacked say, a reitred neighbor with a woodshop next door, or something equally convenient.


So a Lee Valley Woodworking For Women course seemed like the answer to my prayers – the course was taught by an experienced carpenter, was geared towards newbies, and promised to teach many handy skills while accomplishing a fully finished product – in this case a lovely bench.  And my intrepid adventurer of a friend Jean and I, promptly signed up.


The course took two evenings and an entire Saturday, which was not nearly long enough for eight teams of women to accomplish such a lofty goal as a full blown bench, I’m sorry to say. Apparently what takes an experienced carpenter about six hours, takes easily three times as long with inexperienced people tripping all over themselves, asking questions and sharing tools.


The course started out peachy – with lovely intros, a crash course on power tool safely, a handing out of supplies, and a tour to the power shop in the back which contained one of them amazing table saws that stop when they hit flesh, you seen those ads on YouTube? Apparently it’s like magic, and they demo them with hot dogs. Luckily we didn’t have to test that feature of the table saw, although we did learn all about kickbacks the hard way.



The first day we mainly chopped up our pieces of wood into some of the required parts, glued the bench legs together, and went home. The time flew by obscenely fast, and it was lots of fun.




The second day we finished chopping up the pieces (just about), and did something else and the day was over. That quickly. Seriously, they could teach the theory of relativity at that workshop. Poof, and it’s over, what three hours?


The final day promised to be busy from the get go – we were to finish cutting ALL the pieces now, plane some of them, give them a three second sanding, glue the frames together (using biscuit joints), jigsaw some decorative arcs, put everything together, build the cushion, and stain the bench. Sounds like much? It was a marathon mixed with a comedy of errors.




First there was the ridiculous instructions of the bench blueprint that had to be ignored, and new ones written on the board. Then there was the wrong cutting of the holes with the biscuit jointer, resulting in some unnecessary wood removal, then there was the not quite precisely cut pieces that had to be held together with hope, prayer, buckets of glue and an obsene amount of clamps.  The list goes on and on. At first we were all precise and such, and as the day went on we threw perfection in the toilet and had fun just clamping and gluing stuff until it held, racing against the clock the entire time.



One of the major challenges was the lack of adequate supplies for all the students, which made getting everyone through all the steps incredibly frustrating. There were only a couple of sanders, two jigsaws, and NOT ENOUGH CLAMPS! Now I know why all those woodworking forums all say ‘buy lots of clamps heh heh’.  Those supplies would have been barely sufficient if there was a master plan that divided the class into two groups, and applied each half to different parts of the project from the get go, with military precision.  But as self-organized as we tried to be, there are major logistical difficulties in getting everyone through the single miter saw, table saw, planer with any degree of speed. Basically the project chosen by the instructor was a bit ambitious given the size of the group and the equipment, and it could have been done better if there was much more organization and pre-design of a game plan.




Overall Jean and I both enjoyed the course, but certainly more in retrospect than at the time. At the time there was only a frenzy of sanding, gluing, clamping, swearing, staining, and stapling.  There is a certain trade off between building something useful, in the amount of time given, and learning new skills. For those of you who speak woodworking, the bench was held together with bisquit joints, which is great, but I’d rather have learned a mortise tenon or a dovetail joint. It’s unlikely that I’d have a bench, but that’s the trade off, I guess.



But at the end of a really long day, the benches were finally finished.  I am quite sure that mine at least, should not support a full sized person, but the cat sure approves.  🙂





Here’s Jean’s masterpiece – her chosen stain was absolutely stunning, giving the wood a weathered, old finish, reminiscent of an ‘old barn by the sea’. And she chose outdoor fabric so that the bench can be outside.





9 comments to Chicks with tools

  • That is so cool! If I was there, I would have joined you! Your bench looks great. Is it the first thing you’ve made? Your cat is so adorable on it 🙂

    Before my dad came to Canada, he built houses; had his own crew and everything. When he came here in his 20s, the opportunities for an immigrant weren’t quite the same. He worker as a cabinet maker and spent over 30 years building furniture. In addition to building furniture at work, he made almost all of the furniture in our home when I was a kid, and he built our kitchen cabinets when I was a teen. And there were so many things before and after that. He was also a handyman in all other areas like cement work, installing floors, etc, even gardening. I did take an interest in some of the things he did, but I will always regret not having spent more time hanging around when he was working on stuff. I would have been a jack of all trades today. Still. I do like to get my hands dirty. I’d like to take some courses here to learn a few things, particularly because we own a home now. It’s good to be handy when you’re a homeowner.

    So good for you! Skills are always an asset.

  • admin

    I would have loved to have you join us Martha 🙂

    You are so lucky to have a handy dad. James’s grandfather was also a home builder, and we still have a table that he made in our basement that could use some TLC. Unfortunately much of his knowledge was lost as well, but the family still has lots of well used and loved hand tools that I hope to use someday. I wish I had an opportunity to pick up on some knowledge and skills before they were lost. And yes, every home owner should have some basics, I have none, sadly. This bench is the first thing I built since the high school shop class, and it did produce a cute bench, but I didn’t learn as much about jointing, which is the mortar of woodworking, as I hoped.

  • jen

    Wow that is amazing. That’s so great that they offer courses like that especially for women. Your bench is beautiful! 🙂 Great job and your kitty seems to adore it.

  • Sounds like fun! I love putting stuff together.

  • admin

    @jen – thanks! It does look good, even though it’s structurally shaky… 🙂 at least until tool wielding James stepped in and fixed her up. The cat approved from the get go.

    @Teena – it was fun, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and will probably take another one.

  • I think your bench looks great. I would love to learn woodworking someday.

  • admin

    Thanks! And yeah, I’d need many more skills before I can says ‘I’m a woodworker’ 🙂

  • JeannieD

    As per usual, you crack me up. LOVE the pics with Tweak. Indeed, that was a fun, frustrating, rewarding, head-bang-against-wall couple of days. LOVED doing that with you. Probably prefer just going out for dinner though next time. Oh, what the heck, I’d throw myself out of a plane with you, just ask. ;p

  • admin

    Tee hee 🙂 I don’t know if I’m ready for a plane, but we’ll see how school goes… might just get frustrated enough to try. Now there’s at least one cat or another sleeping on it daily, so it was time well spent.

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