“The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.”
– Robin Sharma
For as long as I can remember I’ve battled against my overthinking brain in a variety of games that were so low stakes that even years later it’s still embarrassing to admit them to myself. What’s more, no matter what’s being fought over in my head, the contest always ends the same way: in exhaustion. Over time, the lesson I’ve come to learn is that I can’t depend on thought to create action, and I can’t think my way to peace of mind. For me, the most practical way forward is identifying avenues in which I can slip out of my mind and into my body.
To that end, uncovering opportunities to work with my hands, no matter how small the task, is something I’ve come to actively search for in life because of the ripe sense of accomplishment frequently associated with the varied ventures.
One of the first examples of this I can remember unearthing was the self-service car wash stalls, replete with individual water guns and foaming brushes. As soon as the quarters enter the machine, the countdown clock begins and there’s no time to ponder trivial questions like whether the car should be cleaned clockwise or counterclockwise, it’s just a mad dash to the finish. The job is only halfway done when the timer expires though, and the drying phase now commences. It’s here that the secondary benefit of this operation kicks in, and I’m able to examine the car closely as I towel it down, noting any specific nicks or dents that have accumulated since its last wash. This motivates me to deal with issues as they arise, which also directs my mind toward more constructive problems that need to be solved. The best part of all though is the entire process never takes more than 20 minutes, which is a discount given the overall gratification my brain is awarded for temporarily living in my fingers.
Unfortunately, the car can only get so clean before I’m washing it for my own sake, and I began searching for a more regular outlet for my hands. I swiftly settled on taking my talents to the kitchen, where I uncovered the satisfaction that comes with putting together a detailed recipe or crafting an entire meal. This journey was more humbling because I thought I knew a considerable amount about ingredients and flavor profiles before I started, but I soon accepted the narrowness of my scope. As I developed my ability though, I learned how to properly arrange tasks in an order that always kept me moving productively, unlocking the fleeting phenomenon of time working with me instead of against me. At the end, when I’m scrubbing a pile of dirty dishes, I’m all too aware that fulfillment in the kitchen is hard-earned, but the quality of the sensation scales up with the difficulty.
However, no matter how thoroughly I washed the car or how perfectly I cooked a meal, both activities carry an expiration date; sooner or later, I have to execute these tasks all over again. Looking back on it now, it was this frustrating recognition of impermanence that I credit with leading me to my next source of dexterous fascination: woodworking.
Having recently moved and in need of furniture and decoration, in years past my first stop would’ve been a certain Swedish furniture store where I could buy a pre-made kit and assemble the pieces according to the attached blueprint. Been there, done that. I was now seeking an upgrade in challenge, and I surmised that I could DIY myself out of this position of need.
As I cycled between options for what my first undertaking would be, I decided that the space next to the front door was perfect for a bench that doubled as shoe storage (it’s almost like the apartment was built that way!) I scoured the internet for inspiration, but the deeper I went the more I realized that no matter what I built first, this was such a new field for me that the learning curve would be substantial and would include mistakes. For that reason, I made the call that instead of starting with my ideal project, I would find a smaller and more manageable structure to build first as a way to better understand the technique of woodworking, while also allowing for flubs to occur. Essentially, I wanted to start with a “practice build”.
As I imagined various secondary projects that I could create for my living space, every option that popped into my head seemed more involved than the shoe storage bench, thus defeating the point of the exercise. As I thought smaller and smaller, I finally settled on a design that fit my self-imposed conditions: a wooden bath mat. The undertaking would be both adequately minor, but still add a certain panache to the decoration of my bathroom (which already featured a fresh eucalyptus plant tied around the neck of the showerhead.)
I located a few instructional wooden bath mat plans online, and I sifted through them until I found the one that seemed easiest for a beginner.
In addition to choosing a modest assignment as a warm-up, I also set a goal for myself to buy the fewest tools necessary to complete the task. For the wooden bath mat, the only major gadgets I’d need to add to my toolbox (which already included a hammer, pliers and screwdriver) were a hand saw and a tape measure. Though I left the saw in its protective sheath, I removed the tape measure from its casing as soon as I paid for it so I could clip it to my waistband and pretend to blend in with the hardware store regulars. The charade definitely worked, and I’ll answer no follow-up questions on the topic at this time.
With the proper preparations now accomplished, I turned my attention toward starting the endeavor in earnest. The woodworking “recipe” suggested cedar for the entire project, but I looked high and low for the lumber for ten whole minutes before I figured wood was wood and I settled on a handsome red oak as a replacement.
In total, the timber I bought consisted of two 2.5” wide boards and nine with a width of 1.5”. The pair of 2.5” boards were each 36” long, and I performed my first bit of woodworkery by using my hand saw to separate three 15” long pieces that were to serve as the base of the bath mat. Aside from sawing a small piece of scrap wood to create temporary spacers to help with the eventual assembly of the mat, I deliberately tried to limit how much I employed the saw overall. For that reason, the nine 1.5” wide boards would remain at their original length, meaning the finished mat would be 24” from side to side.
The next step was to thoroughly sand down the edges of all twelve boards, and I found this manual labor to be as rigorous as I anticipated. As much of a strain as it put on my hands though, I also recognized it as an act that required very little focused concentration, and I quickly discovered the useful hack of doing it while watching TV. Obviously the goal was to avoid a carpet covered in sawdust, so the secret to this hack is Bluetooth headphones, so the mess can be brought outside while the entertainment was still being intimately experienced inside.
In all, it took a couple of evenings (and the better part of the Ken Burns “The Civil War” docuseries) to fully sand down the rough corners of the lumber, and when I completed this checkpoint I felt like I’d built all the momentum I’d need to see myself through to the end of the project.
It was easy to move along to the next phase because assembling the mat made the whole enterprise finally feel real. I laid out the polished wood and used the spacers I’d previously cut to ensure uniform distance between each piece. I hadn’t used wood glue since building a rubber band-powered balsa wood airplane in middle school Tech Ed, and its value in this adventure differed in the sense that the glue was used as a prelude to a hammer and nails. I applied the paste to the wood and assembled the bath mat in its final form for the last time, giving it ample time to become sturdy.
When I returned to it the following day, the project survived my timid poking and prodding, and I dared to lift up the whole entity for the first time. I was impressed by the strength of the wood glue, and when I placed the mat back on the ground and stood on it, I found it to be downright robust. It had been less than a week since I’d found this project online, and now I’d practically finished making one of my own. My feelings of triumph grew larger still, and I pictured myself rounding third base and dashing for home, neglecting the danger of a collision on a play at the plate.
A sizable portion of my confidence came from the fact that the next step would revolve around a hammer and nails, which I had plenty of previous experience with. In total, the depth of the wood pieces that needed combining was a uniform 1.5” thick, so I purchased nails with an eye on the length and paid no mind to the width. I spent the better part of an hour getting frustrated with my inability to pound even one nail fully into the boards before I earned the thumb-throbbing knowledge that the thickness of the nail matters as much as the length. On my return trip to the hardware store I upgraded to a more appropriate box nail, but I kept the receipt just in case.
My spirits sunk lower when my struggling persisted despite the thicker nail, and the only difference now was the numerous bent nails left wider false start holes in the bottom of the planks. As I learned later, if I owned a drill I could’ve made pilot holes for myself to ease the nailing process, but it was this class of mistake that I had planned for, and any ugly dents in the wood were of little consequence to me because I’d chosen to hammer from the underside.
Another error I made with the nails was choosing to drive them into the ends of the boards first, which I eventually grasped is both more onerous, and it puts the plank at an increased risk of splitting. When I finally transitioned to pounding in the middle of the boards, the thicker nails subsequently began living up to their potential, and from there they all slipped right into the wood.
Once the dark cloud of the nails passed, it hit me that I was now in the final stage of the project. The only action left to perform was staining the wood, which would essentially prevent it from deterioration, while also furnishing it with a deeper and more rich color. I bought a strong teak oil to handle this job, and, this being my first time staining anything, I followed the directions on the container and lathered on the oil in two separate waves. Just like with the wood glue, I then gave ample time for the project to dry outside.
When I returned to check on my work, I was dismayed to find that some of the planks still held small pools of teak oil which hadn’t been absorbed into the wood, and the portions that were dry were particularly sticky. After some light Internet research, I’d realized the dual mistakes that I’d made: 1) The stain that I’d chosen was much stronger than what I needed, and 2) I applied too much of it. I did my best to remove the excess puddles of oil, but when I finally stood on the fully dried finished product my bare feet gripped like Velcro. Despite this project now technically being complete, I couldn’t help but presume that this failure was, by definition, final.
After a few moments of feeling sorry about my effort, I snapped out of it when I remembered that this was still just a “practice build”, and that I had nothing to lose by experimenting with remedies. I grabbed a sponge and took the bath mat into the shower and began working water onto every inch of the wood, and when I was satisfied I left it to dry out. When I returned a few hours later, I found the mat still too tacky to use outside the shower, but I sensed that I’d made fractional progress toward my goal. I determined that if these sessions were going to be successful, it would require many soaking cycles in order to be achieved. To avoid dedicating time explicitly to this cause, I chose to simply re-purpose the exterior bath mat as an interior one for use while I showered.
After about a week and a half of daily use inside the shower, I decided to place the mat back outside to sit in the sun and fully dry out again so I could measure the progress. To my delight, when I checked on it the following morning I detected very little stickiness. I removed it from the sun and brought it back inside, and a few hours later I tested it with bare feet and confirmed that the red oak was ready to finally be placed onto its intended location outside of the shower.
Though my feet scarcely spend more than twenty seconds of the day perched on that wooden bath mat, those seconds are among my waking best because I’m reminded of the hard work I devoted to its creation. Without a shadow of a doubt, I’d gladly make the trade for the various (but temporary) headaches again.
More importantly though, I accomplished my primary aim of learning the beginning aspects of woodworking, while allowing myself leeway to commit gaffes along the way.
I’ll take just one more moment to be proud of myself, but I’m eager for the next challenge: Bring on the shoe storage bench.