Benched

Somewhere in my book collection, quite possibly still in this house, resided a Weekly Reader book selection entitled A Place By the Fire, about a gruff old sheepherder and his border collie that was getting too old to be a working dog. As is true on a lot of real-life farms and ranches, it’s not cost-effective to carry dead weight, and this sheepherder booted his trusted old herding dog out of the way in favor of the new young dog.

I think I only read this one once long ago, so I don’t recall: maybe the young dog did something wrong, and the old dog came to the rescue. Or there was a kid in the story, probably a boy, who may have made the old shepherd see the error of his ways. At the risk of ruining the ending for you, eventually the old dog was restored to his evening place of honor by the fire.

Well, now I have my own melon-collie story in this same vein, and I’m the old dog who apparently can’t be taught new tricks.

Since I was little I have started my day sitting directly in front of a natural gas heat register, blocking it not only with my body but my blankie, making a cozy little heat tent for me and keeping the room from heating up efficiently. I did this late fall through spring up until two years ago, when Lynn and I exchanged forced air for under-floor heat.

There was also that period during my teen years when we had a round fireplace with glass panels, surrounded by a wooden bench that I could lay on, almost right under the fireplace.

Now we have a natural gas fireplace, and we did have it put on a wooden pedestal, the lip of which isn’t even wide enough for a narrow cat (not that we have any of those) to repose on. We do have two chairs and Lynn’s bistro table near the fireplace, but it’s not on the television side.

Then one day at my chiropractor’s office, there was a hearth bench. It turns out everyone I know is a woodworker on the side, and this little bench was a work of art, with lots of intricate design carved into the wood. My chiropractor said he brought it to work because his wife told him there wasn’t room for it in their house.

I did ask him — this was before my days of self-reliance — about making one for me, and he sounded enthused enough, but he never brought it up again and the couple of times I asked about it it seemed like he had no recollection of our previous conversations. And then I embarked on my self-reliance program, and determined to make my own hearth bench.

But I couldn’t find anything on the internet when I searched for “hearth bench.” I gave up and searched strictly for “benches,” and found one with alternating pieces of wood that I liked. Plus, it was a chance to learn to use the joiner and “biscuits.”

That’s when things started going wrong. The furnace went out at my makers’ space, with no one in any hurry to repair it. DJ, long on promises but short on follow-through, stopped putting in appearances, and Branden was busy working side jobs to keep paying the rent. And now Travis, the intern, has decided to leave school and take a full-time job.

Branden did show me how to use the joiner and biscuits, little football-shaped pieces of wood that will hold two boards together without nails or screws. But mostly I was on my own in a freezing, empty building where more tools have disappeared every time I go there.

I had to ask for more help when I glued boards together and clamped them, only to have them “cup,” or bend slightly. Branden, who is a nice guy who gets more done in an hour than I can manage in a week, can explain things well, but he is not the craftsman DJ is, and he has an unfortunate tendency to grab the tools and go, instead of doing the frustrating work of standing around watching someone take five times longer than they should to manage the most basic of woodworking tasks.

He created a clamp by screwing boards to one of the shop’s work surfaces two weeks ago, but when I went to release my bench legs I couldn’t find a phillips head bit anywhere in the shop. I found a set of 20 screwdrivers, none of them a phillips, and the sleeve holding drill screw bits now only holds half as many as it should.

So yesterday I brought my own drill, with the phillips head, from home. And then realized the glue that Branden slathered on (after my original glue attempt broke apart) is now a permanent fixture on the surfaces of my bench that will face out.

This bench is six boards pieced together. It has taken me two months to get this far. It is covered in glue and some of the wood has water stains on it. It looks worse than the bench I made for my grandparents in seventh-grade woodshop.

I was going to use the joiner and more biscuits to fuse the top to the legs, but as I stood there in the cold, empty room — the furnace finally got fixed last week, but it’s kept at low temperatures when no one is there — using my own drill from home, wondering why I wasn’t moving this entire project to my garage, which was the same temperature, with the drill and sander I needed, I realized this bench needs to be a prototype and rather than wasting more weeks trying to get the biscuits to fit properly, I could just put screws in and be done with it.

The battery packs for the shop drill weren’t where they were supposed to be, under the sign that instructs us to leave woodshop tools in the woodshop, so I had to wade through an incredible mess in the metal shop, stepping over a jack and an engine block in the one narrow place of passage to find one. I live and work in a lot of clutter, but this space looks more and more like people are giving up on it every week.

Including maybe me. I loved working on my bookshelves, even when I couldn’t master the nail gun and when I realized I’d bought the most warped wood I could possibly find. But this little bench, even if it leads to a coveted place by the fire, has been an unfun, lonely project.

The makers’ space doesn’t have the same sense of camaraderie it did before: it’s just a cold, empty shell of a building where it’s too much trouble to replace tools where they belong and easy enough to walk off with them. And my bench, with its glue clumps and visible screw heads, looks like it was done by a seventh grader.

Really, what I need to do is start over from scratch. But it kind of feels like that’s what needs to happen to the entire makers’ space as well.

Glue oozed out all the seams, and the screws do nothing for the finished look I wanted.

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