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Stern Hobbies: Woodworking

Perhaps some of you have already noticed, but a year of being kept almost exclusively at home can do a number on your social skills (read: patience). I began to realize this the first time I saw lines of people again at the grocery store and waiting to enter an outdoor bar. The ability to be comfortable in social settings is a delicate balance that’s easy to throw off kilter- too much interaction and you could get overwhelmed (like me), too little and you’ve lost all the requisite patience to maintain and build relationships. 

As I struggled with rebuilding that patience, I found myself at times more interested in continuing my stay at home orders rather than adhering to the constantly changing Covid mandates. I suddenly had all the time and space (and money) to entertain a hobby I had only dreamed of as a kid – woodworking.  

Even though my dad is an engineer, please understand I am the definition of an amateur when it comes to building things out of wood. I started out like any millennial – watching  YouTube – and then progressed to asking my more talented friends for their advice. One of the first things I tried was to sand a massive red oak slab into a headboard for my bed. It was a great idea, I thought, but as woodworking has taught me, execution is a different matter. 

You see, I have mounted many things to walls and ceilings (TVs, chandeliers, shelves, etc.) but a massive oak headboard is a bit different. And since I didn’t want to drill on the finished side of the wood, I quickly realized the oak slab was not going to go in my bedroom (nor fit up the stairs). 

So, my partner and I decided to scrap the headboard idea and instead build a small bar table and a long dining table. We had to cut part of the slab off anyway because a large crack had compromised its integrity. After cutting it off, I had to fill it with resin, which also required a long night of research on YouTube. 

One of the great things about woodworking is that the wood does all the work, in terms of beauty. You just need to sand and finish it and the natural grain takes care of the rest. For those less creative minds out there like me who always wanted to create something but never felt “original” enough, I encourage you to try woodworking. And sometimes, you don’t even have to worry about structure. The above was an old bar table I bought from Wayfair that had a less desirable, manufactured wood top. Keep the metal base, change the top, and boom, it’s modern farmhouse fancy. 

Dining Table

The next project was a bit more challenging, both in terms of ensuring a structurally sound design and aesthetics. For this project, instead of just purchasing a crate from petco for my new puppy like a normal human being,  I decided to build my own dog crate. So down to Home Depot I went, asking for the cheapest wood that isn’t ply (it’s generally pine), bought about 150% more power tools than I needed, and off I went. 

Wood burned dog crate

As you can see, Coco originally preferred being on top of the crate instead of inside it, which is slightly problematic. But my partner Tess was able to mitigate that, not only did we build him his own dog crate, but Tess also sewed him a custom bed/pillow for the inside. Once he got his own bed, he liked it 🙂 She would also like you to know the woodburning was her idea. 

At that point, I was slightly addicted to wood burning (it’s pretty cool), so I decided to finish off his home with a custom food and water dish. You might be wondering what those squibbles are at the top. It’s Arabic for Coco, which is كوكو. Yes, my parents were proud. 

Coco’s Dog Dish 

As I started getting more confident using resin (it’s a little intimidating at first), I decided I wanted to make a river table. If you don’t know what that is, Google resin river wood table – it’s pretty awesome. But again, I’m just a pandemic-led woodworking amateur sanding wood in the backyard of my city row home in North Philly (to the chagrin of my neighbors). So what do you do when you’re not sure how to do something big? Start small!

Plywood resin river table

This was a prototype for a larger project (the finale, see below). To build this, you have to build another table – or mold – first to hold the resin in while it cures (when you pour epoxy resin it is usually in two parts and in liquid form initially). The mold holds the other pieces of wood together but does not bond to the resin so you can take it apart after it’s dry, leaving a cleanly bonded piece at the end. This was a bit more difficult because you must be really exact configuring the mold; if you have an open seam or leak anywhere, the epoxy will find it and slowly drip out, not only ruining your project, but also whatever the floor you are operating on (in this case, my basement).

This one came out nicer than I expected. I mixed blue pigment into the epoxy and used plywood because it’s the cheapest wood there is. It holds the center speaker now in my basement, and when people ask how I got a cool table sized to the exact dimensions of the speaker, I say gladly, and with a smile, “‘cause i built it”.

And now my friends, for the finale, the one thing that actually looks decent – my new study desk. I figured if I am going to be working from home for the long haul, I should have a nice desk at home. So again, I used a cheap Wayfair table I bought years ago with decent metal work and replaced the ugly, fabricated wood on top. I did a resin interlay again and, to make it personal, I randomly spread rocks I got from a family trip to Jurassic Park in Universal Studios that I still had. I like wood and metal combos, I don’t know why. 

Resin River Oak Table, with rocks and an axe and horns (because, reasons)

I must say I can’t stop building stuff now. I recently built a wooden border for my neighbors’ sidewalk tree, they just planted flowers in it too. I made a plywood deck box so I can store my tools there and not have to go back and forth from the basement and outside every time I want to build something (until I move out of the city and actually get a garage). And I’m currently building another river inlay end table with an arabic design inside. 

I really do enjoy this new pandemic-born hobby; it wouldn’t be possible without it. When social distancing forces so much staying at home, sometimes you need a release when you work, sleep and eat in the same room. And using my hands outside was more engaging than any Zoom call could ever be – it felt great to actually build physical, tangible things with my own hands and develop my own sense of workmanship. 

Woodworking can also make you think differently. It requires you to immediately move into the action stage after planning. You learn to appreciate the finest details. In other facets, I feel bogged down in the research phase with no satisfaction of execution. Woodworking requires you to start, just start, anywhere – even with a prototype – and you learn by doing instead of research and relentless preparation. 

 Here are a couple quick tips I learned the hard way if you want to get into woodworking:

  • Buy good tools. Makita is expensive but sweet.
    • Caveat – Ryobi is a great place to start for super cheap combination tool/ power tool sets. Once you understand how to use the tool well, get a nice one. For me, this was a belt sander. 
  • Live edge slabs
    • Don’t ever try to “flatten” a slab by yourself, even with a fantastic belt sander. Just take it to a real wood shop and let them plane it. Trust me, it will save you countless hours, dollars, and frustration. Then you can sand and finish it yourself. 
  • Be nice to yourself. You will build something ugly and/or it will break. It happens. Now you know what not to do. 

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