Your early projects don’t have to end up as firewood.
When people see the Philadelphia-style secretary I built, they inevitably want to know how long I have been making furniture and how many pieces I have completed. The simple answer – 2 1⁄2 years and three pieces. The truth – 3 1⁄2 years and four pieces. If you’re wondering why I always leave out that first piece and that extra year, let’s just say that not everything always turns out as we want it to. Four years ago, I was settling into a career as a sociology professor. My wife and I were thinking about having a child, buying a house and staking our claim in life. On a whim, perhaps in pursuit of a bit of immortality, I decided to build an “heirloom” changing table/dresser. And here we arrive at the crux of the problem.
My “heirloom” has a face only a parent could love. It’s bad. Real bad. Panels out-of-square and cracked, glue splotches all over the thing. Maybe you can begin to understand why I give the “simple” answer. But, that piece represented a life-changing experience for me. I realized that I passionately enjoyed making furniture. I didn’t feel that way about sociology – not even close! So, with a supportive wife, a newborn child and a mortgage payment in hand (literally!), I went to the University of Rio Grande and enrolled in the Fine Woodworking program there.
The program began like most – start easy and work your way up the ladder. For me, it meant forgetting everything I thought I knew about both furniture making and myself –learn the machines, the tools, myself and the wood. I started with a Shaker nightstand and it didn’t turn out too badly. It’s not exactly fine furniture, but the process reminded me of a lesson I had all-but-forgotten: Don’t rush to finish something just because it has to be done. It’s tough to do that in a world that tells us “faster is better” or that “time is money.” But when we rush it is inevitable that we forget important steps – or even where we are going. Furniture making may appear to be a compact endeavor; in reality it is a practice of patience and perseverance.
For my second school project, I built a large flattop highboy. Although I made errors along the way, I sold it and learned another valuable lesson: One’s sense of completion is often defined by one’s sense of honor. When we settle for drawers that almost fit or a finish that’s almost rubbed out, then we do a disservice to others and ourselves.
As my first academic year ended, it was time to decide what I would build as an exit piece. After a few months of research and design, I settled on my own version of an oft-reproduced masterpiece – a Philadelphia style secretary. Overall, it took nine months from conception to completion to build. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy, but had I settled for anything less than a true challenge, I knew I would be disappointed. The beauty of learning is that it’s not always a straightforward linear process, but one that entails a good amount of revision and head scratching.
In early May of 2007, with encouragement from my family and friends, I entered “The Goose” (as I call the piece) into the AWFS/Fresh Wood Student Design Competition. Over the course of the next two months, as judges deliberated and people voted, I was so nervous that I rarely slept more than four hours a night. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, the verdict was in. I not only won first place in the reproduction category, I won both the Best of Show and People’s Choice awards. Winning these awards has been a self-affirming experience and I learned, more clearly than anything else, that it is possible to find not only some small success, but also happiness if one works hard and is willing to listen to the lessons they learn.
In case you are wondering – the secretary is still for sale. But my first piece, the “heirloom” my beautiful daughter owns? Not for a million dollars! -Chris Hedges
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.