The Hardest Project I've Ever Done

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NOTE: NOT A PROJECT POST

I decided a long time ago to build a traditional woodworking workbench. You know the type…you’ve seen them. They’re beefy, usually have a pretty thick top, some thick legs and often have a couple of vises for holding work and dog holes drilled in the top. 

WHY A TRADITIONAL WORKBENCH?

Let me start with why I would want to have one of these, or anyone would. A plywood and 2x4 workbench is just as good, right? Well, for some things, but for many actions in the shop, no. The plywood and 2x4 workbench is not as good. That’s really just more of an outfeed table or assembly table. 

The solid traditional woodworking workbench is often seen being used with traditional hand tools, and there’s a reason. When you’re using hand tools, you want to make sure the effort you’re putting in is not being wasted. Let me clarify what I mean. When you’re using a hammer and chisel, as you’re hammering on that chisel, if you have a workbench that has a lot of bounce or spring to it, the energy you’re putting into that chisel by your mallet is partially being wasted and not transferring to your workpiece where you need it. Obviously, some of it is still reaching your workpiece, but just not nearly as much of it, therefore causing wasted effort and energy. 

Enter the traditional woodworking workbench. The reason they are made so solid and heavy is so that when you’re hammering on them or pushing a plane, they stay put. They don’t move. That way, your manual effort is mostly transferring to your workpiece. 

A SOLID TRADITIONAL WORKBENCH JUST DOES NOT MOVE AROUND WHEN HAMMERING ON YOUR WORK.

So, for those reasons, I wanted to make one, but also for the fact that I wanted to challenge myself to do it. I want to keep challenging myself in woodworking and in everything I do. To challenge yourself can be a frustrating thing, but I think it is important to do. 

The workbench I decided to build was one from Jay Bates. A couple of years ago, he put out a video and plans showing how he built one for under $150 or something like that. He used southern yellow pine to keep that cost down, and come to find out, it is quite a durable softwood and readily available where I am (same state as him).

So, in a moment of clarity, I went to his website and purchased the plans for the workbench. With the plans, he provides the shopping list of all of the lumber and materials you’ll need. I took that to Lowe’s with me and purchased all of the lumber. I wanted to do this like he did…with dimensional lumber typically used in rough construction. I like the accessibility of that and how it’s so approachable by anyone. 

That’s where I hit a snag. 

I brought that lumber home and stacked it in the floor of my shop near the door, since it was too tall to be stood up. And there it sat for over a year. 

Yeah, a year. Long enough that as I was typing this one night, I looked across the room, and there were family photos from the past on the fridge that had the wood in the background, mocking me.

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I’m not sure why. I’ve tried to figure out why I avoided it for so long, and I really can’t pinpoint why. That’s part of why I’m writing this…just so I can put some of those feelings down and maybe it will help someone else who is struggling with the same thing. 

I think even though I wanted to tackle new things and keep challenging myself, this project was daunting. It’s like I couldn’t even just get started. I’m not sure if I felt like I shouldn’t be showing others how I did something when I wasn’t sure how to do it myself? Maybe that was it?

What is that gap between me saying I wanted to challenge myself and actually doing it? Why was I so scared?

I think part of it was in regards to sharpening chisels. If you’ve looked into it at all, you know there is quite the lore with how to “properly” sharpen chisels, and you pretty much have to be part of the religion to do it right. I know I’m exaggerating…but not by much. I never really felt confident in my sharpening methods, no matter what I tried. I had tried the Paul Sellers way of hand sharpening, not using a jig of any kind. I picked up some diamond stones years ago, but had never really gained the confidence that I was getting them sharp enough and at the right angle.

Then, I tried one of the cheap honing guides you can pick up on Amazon. I’ve seen that some people have success with them by modifying them, but many people are frustrated with them like I have been. For me, I could never get them to reference the same spot on the chisel two times in a row. This resulted in a multi-faceted face/tip of the chisel that not only looked pretty bad, but also didn’t cut well. I finally picked up the Veritas honing guide set, and it seems I can sharpen now with some repeatability. That has given me some confidence and allowed me to continue.

Then there’s the matter of mortise and tenon joinery. If you don’t know, the mortise is the hole and the tenon is the part that fits into the hole. It’s a very old method of joining items in woodworking, and one of the tried and true methods using hand tools. There is a bit of that in this woodworking workbench plan, and I knew that. Was that the hangup?

I will say, I was worried about it even before I began cutting the first mortise in the workbench top. Would I be able to cut through there cleanly? (that goes back to the sharpening thing) Will it be square or will it be all crooked? Will the tenon fit in there properly and have a nice tight fit, or will I have to all kinds of shimming and cover-up?

So, over that year or more that the wood was laying there, on my shop floor, I would look at it occasionally, but let’s face it, after you’ve seen something daily for a while, it kind of just becomes part of the landscape. You know what I’m talking about, pretty soon, I was not even really noticing that the wood was over there behind the lathe. And when I would notice it, I would think about the steps I would need to take to start on the workbench build, and I would just say it is too involved for the moment, and I would move on to something else.

I often state that I didn’t want to be “the cutting board guy” since I make and sell a lot of cutting boards, but I do make other things. The reason I make cutting boards is that they sell well for me, and I have made some pretty decent side hustle type of income from those. As I thought about it more, I would find myself saying things like, “I could cut up a bunch of cutting board blanks so I’m ahead when another order comes in. (I often get about 3 or 4 orders at a time.)” Well, I would find myself doing that when I had some things I need to do…like the workbench!

Further, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention the YouTube side of the equation. I don’t know that it is this way in all cases, but in much of the YouTube maker community, there is kind of this upload-every-week kind of mentality, and that’s what causes success. I do think consistent uploading to YouTube causes success, but the verdict is still out about the interval that causes that success.

So, I’ve got this pressure that I put on myself to try to stick as close to a weekly schedule as possible. It’s true…it is self-imposed. The pressure from self-imposed stuff is still quite great though. And let’s face it, I’ve NEVER been able to hit a weekly schedule. I think I might have uploaded 3 weeks in a row, and that’s the max. I just can’t seem to do it. There is too much else going on, and that’s fine, but I was always still pushing myself to upload to YouTube weekly.

I think that played into the delay on the workbench. This project, a project that I know will take me more than a week, is just too much. “I’ll just push it off until I get ahead a little bit,” I would tell myself. “Once I get a little ahead, I’ll be able to tackle larger projects like a workbench build.”

I never got ahead. I could just not seem to make it happen.

It’s not like I didn’t have anything else going on. I was still very busy with a full-time job, making cutting boards for sale, photography on the side, and still making projects and producing videos for my YouTube channel. Oh, and I sought out other people to start a podcast with, and we started a regular podcast last year in 2018. 

Shameless plug…if you don’t already know about my podcast, We Built A Thing, it’s a unique podcast in the making community. Our casual conversations are between three guys that are all dads, work full-time jobs other than YouTube, make videos for YouTube, and talk about all of it. I think you’ll like it if you give it a listen. 

It was actually through discussions on the podcast that I got the kick in the pants to just build the workbench already. So I started a few months ago.

I was going strong for a while. I was documenting the whole process and obviously videoing all of it. I was sharing some videos of what I was doing with Instagram stories, and even saving those as a highlight so people could reference it again.

And I’ve gotta say it was going pretty well for a while, but I’ve gotten bogged down again. I’m not sure if it is intimidation, if I feel like it won’t be as good as Jay Bates’, if I feel it won’t be perfect or what? I’ve had moments of clarity where I’ll go out and get a lot done on it, but it will wane and it’ll just sit there again. 

Mark, one of my friends and co-hosts on the podcast told it to me like this, “When I give someone a cutting board, they usually say something like, ‘I couldn’t possibly use that…it’s too nice,’ so I just grab one of their knives and make a slice right in the surface of it. Then, they have no excuse. Now, go make a cut in that workbench so that you’re not worried about messing it up any more.”

I really think eliminating the small doubts or obstacles that you have in the way of completing a project really help you to get through it. For instance, I mentioned that the consistent sharpening of my chisels was a hangup for me, which was a much needed thing for chopping the mortises properly in the workbench top. Once I solved that small hangup, I could move on to another thing that was holding me back from finishing, but it definitely brought me closer to facing the project.

I am bound and determined to finish it soon. I just wanted to spill some of what I was feeling about this process and hope that it will encourage you to just do that thing you’re putting off. Don’t let it sit there! Be prolific in what you make…you won’t regret it. 

Did this speak to you? Can you relate with struggling on a project? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Bruce A. UlrichComment