Everyone remembers their first.


I spent New Year’s Day with my family eating*, retelling stories, and laughing. Not far from the table we crowded around, hung the shelf that I made for my mother as a Christmas gift when I was twelve years old. In the past I had looked at this same shelf with criticism, nit-picking the things I didn’t like about it. This time was different. When I looked at it I remembered the pride I felt when I completed it.

I had laid out the curved shapes with a coffee can and some small cans of stain. Of course, I didn’t know about proportions, so I just eyeballed everything. I cut those out with a coping saw that held a rusty blade and cleaned everything up with a rasp.

I rounded everything over with a router that belonged to my uncle. I can still remember how badly my hands were sweating; I was both terrified and amazed by the router.

The shelf and support are screwed together with some drywall screws and plugged with a dowel (Nothing better than end-grain plugs you know?).  The pegs I bought at the hardware store with lunch money I had saved.

This was before I knew there was a “right” way to do things. I didn’t know what a dovetail was or what a good finish was supposed to look like. I didn’t care if it was made of the “right” wood—it was all the same. I certainly didn’t consider wood movement or grain orientation. The finish is a stain/top coat combination.

I don’t regret learning more about the craft and moving on to more advanced projects, but I don’t think I have ever been as proud of another project as I was when I made this one. Mom gave a lot and often received little. This was my way of giving back. The gesture of the object became greater than the object itself. And it is still hanging around to remind me that the reasons we create can be greater than the things we create.


Do you remember your first woodworking project?


* We have an annual tradition of getting together to eat cabbage and black-eyed peas. I’ve been told they’re supposed to bring you good luck and money. After thirty-seven years I’m not convinced but the food is good anyway.


10 Comments Add yours

  1. nbreidinger says:

    My first “woodworking” project was a small toolbox nailed together when I was part of a Cub Scout-like group. I had to be 8 or 9 at the oldest. I used it to store comic books (it was just long enough to store to stacks upright and side by side) and I’m pretty sure it and the comic books are still in my parents’ basement! I got into woodworking in adulthood when I started smoking pipes (no not those pipes, these were the tobacco variety) and decided I wanted to make pipes. Before I embarked on that endeavor I decided I needed to build a pipe rack. I wish you could’ve seen the look on the lumberyard guy’s face when I told him I needed a 12″ long piece of walnut!


    1. Eric Key says:

      Lol. When I worked at the lumberyard we would have people come by all the time to ask for small pieces of wood. Almost everything under 3′ got sent down a conveyor to a grinder, so we gave anything we had away. You might have to go dig through your comics…maybe there is one in the box that could be sold to finance your new endeavor. I wouldn’t mind seeing the box either!


  2. meanmna says:

    Black-eyed peas and cabbage. Here in South Carolina, we do the traditional Hoppin’ John and collards. The Hoppin’ John (mixture of black-eyed peas and rice) are for luck in the new year and the collards are for prosperity (represent dollar bills). Great to see the variations of these trends with other people.


    1. Eric Key says:

      I haven’t had collard greens since I was a kid! That’s really cool to know that others have a similar tradition. My family is from Tennessee; makes me wonder if this is a Southern thing or if this tradition is celebrated in the elsewhere? Does mixing the black-eyed peas with rice make them taste less like dirt?


  3. meanmna says:

    Eric – Check out this link. A good history on Hoppin’ John.

    As for making them taste less like dirt (lol), that is all in how you flavor and cook them (not to mention if you tend to like beans/peas). I don’t like them like mush for sure, but cooking them with a ham hock, and some flavoring vegetables (onion, celery and peppers).


    1. Eric Key says:

      That was a fascinating read! A little sad that it was so closely related to slavery. However, on the other side I can see how the meal was more a symbol of hope. I know I’ll not eat it again without thinking of what it has meant to so many. Also, I’ve never heard anyone in my family call them Hoppin’ John but it’s catchy. I think I’ll have to make it stick for the generations under me. Thanks for taking the time to post a link!


  4. Village Woodwright says:

    At the family Christmas dinner this year I was sitting in a Victorian-era, woven cane seat chair. That chair was my first restoration project as a boy, including weaving the seat (grandma exhumed it from her attic for me to play with), 40 years later it serves well at my dining table.


    1. Eric Key says:

      That is awesome! You are one of a few who can say something like that, especially in a world where most people replace their furniture every few years.


  5. Mike Wasson says:

    That is one of my favorite meal of the years, simple and good for soul and body. My first was a sort of birdhouse with a flat board and 2 pieces of an old wooden Venetian blind nailed on top as a roof, for my 6th grade girlfriend. I too, have learned a bit in the last 55 years about what good woodwork should look like. Good memories anyway.


    1. Eric Key says:

      I bet if we conducted a survey, bird houses would be at the top of the list for first projects. That must have been one special girl to get a gift like that in the 6th grade!


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