Woodworking for the Gender Impaired

Outhouse workbench

Outhouse Workbench

As we pause for a brief word from our sponsors (or lack thereof) on the kitchen project, I’ll segue (ok the proper word here is digress, but I’ll be brief.  Then it’s back to the kitchen to face the heat.  Or electricity.  Or something.) into the other projects that occupy my time when I’m not obsessing about the bookstore – including building what I now lovingly call the Outhouse Workbench (more on that later).
Our story begins thirty years ago.  I’m 9 years old and have salvaged every scrap of wood and discarded tool from which my dad walked away on his side of the basement.  There were easy pickin’s such as the 2×8 slabs of timber left over from some project or another, and when a saw broke, it was mine.  “Mine” is a very fluid thing when you’re nine.  Undoubtedly “my” tool pile was Dad’s “not thrown away yet” pile and Mom’s “for the love of god do you have to keep everything/I’m going to throw that away when you’re not looking” pile.  I had to stake my claim, so I asked Dad if I could have a tool box, thinking if I put the tools in something that was mine the tools would become less “mine” and more MINE.

Dad said he could “probably think of something,” which I knew to mean he would make one for me at work.  Work was Merz Sheet Metal, where Dad fabricated and installed heating and air conditioning and then came home and washed his hands with Lava soap.  He could build the Sistine Chapel if it were made of sheet metal.  This is the same man who, when he was laid off and bored (and in retrospect horribly depressed), built a two story furnished carpeted, painted and wallpapered Barbie house for my sister and me completely out of a cardboard box, scraps, and old washrags pinned around foam.  It. Was. Awesome.  Plus, Dad always did what he said he was going to do.  I had complete faith.

A couple of days later he walked in the back door with a stack of pieces of sheet metal cut out and bent, for what I couldn’t tell.  He grinned and handed the stack to me.  “Here it is!”

Yep. There it was.  And here we are.  I was too embarrassed to ask him how it went together because obviously People Who Have Tools know how to put things together, and my excitement curdled into despair.  This habit of mine – to mumble, nod my head and smile like I know what I’m doing, then privately jam my nose into a book to learn what I missed – began there in the kitchen with Dad asking the back of my retreating head if I wanted him to show me.  It persists today.

I recognize it in the way my brother and sister-in-law nod and smile in noisy crowds when their hearing-aids become useless, or when the person they’re talking to turns away and mumbles.  When you miss half the joke, the other half isn’t nearly as funny, and I clearly had missed the first part of Dad’s joke.  I didn’t have to be a boy to get it, but I knew my watery eyes and wobbly, “Sure, I’ll figure it out” cemented in his brain (and mine) that a.) I wouldn’t figure it out and b.) even if I had been born a boy, the two of us would have had a hard time bonding over sand paper and wood screws.

The next time I saw the pile of metal, it had been magically assembled into my very own tool box – empty of course, but only for the briefest of moments.  I took it downstairs and filled it with bent nails that could be straightened, saws that weren’t too rusty and a hammer that wasn’t quite broken.  It was a gold mine.

My first project was a bookshelf for Jo Anna, a person who not only didn’t read, but spent most of her time outside.  I was undeterred.  I sawed the 2x8s with the handsaw (yes, it took for flipping ever) and thwacked it together with my straightened nails.  I haven’t seen that bookshelf in many years, but I’m sure it’s being admired in a museum of fine furniture somewhere.

So, back to the Outhouse Workbench.

Kris woke me up one morning, handed me a cup of coffee and proceeded to lace her tennis shoes, talking in one long, continuous sentence about the unbelievable bounty of treasures in our alley that morning.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Kleindienst-Steele household, this is not an uncommon method of awakening.  When the landlords across the alley evict the latest tenant, there’s typically an avalanche of household stuff dumped unceremoniously beside the dumpster.  “Beadboard!” and “Bathroom!” and “Too heavy!” were repeated patterns in this morning’s report.

Indeed, there was a mountain of beadboard affixed to various 2x4s leaning against one another.  It wasn’t until we had most of it in the garage that I noticed the smell.  Upon closer inspection, there was not only a toilet paper holder mounted to the wall, but evidence of the explosion of some sort of bodily function.  Our find was in fact the disassembled parts of a very unfortunate bathroom stall.

It has sat in our garage for some time now, but I had to move it this weekend because I broke the tool fairy’s router.

Perhaps I should explain.

I’ve  been working like a fiend to get the most out of the tools bestowed upon me by the tool fairy before they turn into pumpkins and he needs them back, so I’ve made the following:

Two – count them two – deck planter boxes from an old fence.

pencil box thing for Kathleen

Sculpture type thing with a melted bottle and Kathleen’s wrought iron thing. The base is from the old fence.

even more planter boxes

even more planter boxes

Kris went out of town, leaving me with time on my hands and nary a project in site.  She called our friend Kathleen and asked her to Jaysit (which really means just give me something to do so I don’t tear down the bathroom wall and install a whirlpool).  Kathleen obliged and told me she wanted a hutch for her desk.  I gleefully bought wood, router bits and stain and took a three day weekend in which to build my masterpiece.

Mid-dado cut (the groove where you put the shelf), the router shuddered and stopped.  I did the most obvious thing and shook it, hoping it would start working again.  Nope.

Lori, the most awesome neighbor in the world, saw me sitting in the driveway with my head in my hands and rushed over to ask me what was wrong, which made me decide that she’s several notches above the most awesome neighbor in the world.

I begged the tool fairy’s forgiveness, and in true tool fairy fashion, he forgave me via voice mail, email, and message conveyed in person through his wife, Pam.  I, of course needed all these forms of forgiveness because even though the router was 25 years old, the old dear died on my watch.

I had to have a router to finish the bookshelves and my new project (hopefully) of building a cabinet for some drawers Kathleen bought, which were salvaged out of the old St. Louis City Library building.  I stalked Craig’s List for a week until I found a man willing to part with his router, router table and a box full of brand new bits for a reasonable price.

Isn’t she pretty?

By now, you know me and have no doubt guessed that I talked louder and dropped the g’s on my gerunds to sound less soft handed and bookish on the phone, then drove all the way to Belleville, IL rehearsing how I would introduce myself and making a list of relevant topics to discuss while pretending to examine the tool before buying it.

In the end, the bookshelves weren’t up to snuff, but the tool breakage and purchase and prospect of more woodworking projects lead me to this past weekend, wherein I cleaned out my garage, which had started to look like a four year old organized it.

Amongst all the detritus was the disassembled bathroom stall, toilet paper holder still attached.  I threw away the feces stained portion and broke apart the rest, then reassembled it into a work bench.

I have waited my entire life for this small room in heaven.

When we finally get back to the kitchen project, my workshop will rock!

It is thirty years after Dad brought home the disassembled tool box and a bajillion household projects later.  I like to think he would be jealous of my garage, and sometimes when I’m alone out there I share it with him in spirit.

I still wouldn’t know how to put together the tool box, and I totally straightened out the old nails on the bathroom stall to make the workbench.