In End Grain

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How one woodworker got over her fear of dismemberment: more fear.

Industrial Technology. That was the name of the course I took in the autumn of 1993. Beats me as to why it was entitled thus, because anyone with two brain cells to rub together could easily see that it was really woodshop, but I’m guessing that it was an offering to the gods of political correctness. The two capital letters and the extra six syllables weren’t long enough to hide the power tools, the piles of lumber or remove the scent of freshly cut wood from the air. This was woodshop, no doubt about it.

When I first entered the shop, I was a scrawny little kid, on the verge of turning 13. I hadn’t worked with tools before, because my dad was not a mechanically inclined kind of guy; and even if he were, as one of a multitude of girls, I wouldn’t have been expected to help him. Also, thanks to the vigilant efforts of the teacher, Mr. Ferguson, who had spent several class periods beforehand instilling in us what he called “a respect for the machines,” I was scared stiff. Tales of hair being ripped from scalps, fingers crushed or clipped, blades flying free and slicing through bodies like a hot knife through butter haunted me for several hours after the bell had rung.

It didn’t help matters that he had ever-so-thoughtfully gored his own thumb with the drill press earlier that semester. This was supposed to be the guy who was to teach us kids to properly use the tools, and here he’d gone and given his thumbnail a skylight. To my pre-teen mind, that was a sound basis for a healthy amount of hesitance.

So it was with that frame of mind that I walked into the woodshop for the first time, bearing a 6″ x 6″ piece of plywood. If I’d gripped that square any harder, I’m pretty sure that I would’ve gone down in history as the first person to have successfully juiced lumber. At least I wasn’t dealing with the aforementioned drill press at that time; my assignment was to make a jigsaw puzzle, which meant dealing with the band saw.

Fifteen years later, I still see that as some sort of bait-and-switch. Here I’d been thinking that jigsaw puzzles were made with a jigsaw, but what can you do?

In any event, you can imagine the trepidation with which I approached my task. As I lined up the wood with the blade, images of maimed hands flew unbidden across my mind. One slip-up, and I’d be relegated to a lifetime of counting to only 9 12. Or less.

Considering how on-edge I was, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I was gripping the wood a bit tightly. Fear has that effect – the irrational need to hold fast to something, even if it’s not likely to be of any great help. And sometimes giving in to that need results in more damage being done than not.

In this particular case, it would certainly explain why I jerked the wood violently off to the side in response to Mr. Ferguson dropping a stack of wood, making a loud, clattering noise. I didn’t lose a finger, but I did cut a massive swath through the plywood. In retrospect, I’m lucky I didn’t break the blade. However, I did manage to cut through several of the layout marks I had made, effectively fouling up the puzzle beyond all recognition.

When your nerves are already dialed up to 11, there are two ways you can go: You can either delve into a level-five freak-out, or your anxiety can be transferred to something else. I went for the latter. I had to turn some assignments in at the end of the class, and I had several of my peers in line behind me, waiting for their turn at the band saw. My puzzle was shot. What to do?

Looking at the wreckage, I figured that I had at least done myself a favor by plotting the puzzle pieces so large, in that they provided me with some sizeable chunks to work with. The spare pieces of wood were big enough that I could fashion some little figurines. Quickly, I began to guide the wood through the blade, and I managed to churn out some crudely shaped objects in silhouette, with no lines to guide my way. Any worries about losing any part of my hands were now gone. My goal was to turn something in, even if it meant that some of it was stained with a generous portion of my DNA.

In the end, I had four figurines: a bird, a cat, an apple, something that had started out as a daisy but ended up resembling an asterisk on steroids. And I had all 10 of my fingers. As projects go, that looked like a success to me. Mr. Ferguson must have thought so too; he gave me credit anyway, and I wound up being one of his best students.

But even so, I still didn’t want him to help with my next project – wiring a soda pop can lamp. I did that at home instead. –Micaela Evans 

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