On different types of Carpentry or How I learned to stop worrying, and hit things with hammers

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Blog entry by MDots posted 07-04-2017 09:39 PM 1570 reads 0 times favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch

When I was a kid, I thought that “carpenter” just meant someone who works with wood. A general term, you know?

I always thought of my grandfather as a “carpenter”, since he had a little shop in a garage with a saw and a belt sander, and would help me build my pinewood derby cars. We built other things, and did a lot of simple repairs around the house. He was a child of the Depression, and had an attitude of “Why pay someone to do something you can do yourself?” As such, I learned at a very young age about how to nail together fence boards, or to repair hinges, or to build a trap to catch Leprechauns around Saint Patrick’s Day. Did I mention my grandfather was Irish? But, I digress.

My grandpa taught me a lot about working with basic tools, and making things out of wood. A few years before he died, we built the first thing I considered to be “fine” woodworking: an end grain cutting board. It isn’t flat, It isn’t square, and the whole surface is covered in saw burns, but it is still one of my prized possessions, and I use it every day. My grandpa wasn’t interested in building fancy tables, or fine cabinets, he was mostly interested in being self sufficient, and being able to build things he didn’t consider worth spending money on. He built things like little toys for my brother and I, and for my aunts and uncle when they were young. He kept a polaroid of a hobby horse he built for my uncle way back in the day, and was always so proud of it. I remember him bringing it up the first time we walked into a Woodcraft store together.

It wasn’t until I went to college, and really began researching woodworking that learned that “carpenter” meant more than the kind of work he and I used to do.

In my college library, I began to learn more about joiners, and cabinet makers, and chair makers, and housewrights, and all of the other “old-timey” woodworkers that we lump under the term “Carpenter” Thinking back on it, I wonder why it never occurred to me that there was more to woodworking than making backyard trebuchets and a grape press (which totally didn’t work, but I thought it would be fun to make when I was, like, 8). In my mind, cabinets and tables and stuff just spontaneously grew out of the house when it was built. Come to think of it, I guess I never really thought about the fact that houses had to be built by hand too, since I lived in the same house my whole life.

The real monkey-touch-monolith moment came when I found a television in our university PBS station playing an episode of “The Woodwright’s Shop”. I was studying media production at the time, and at first I was just captivated by all of the colors and textured that showed up on the images. I had never seen anything on the television in so many shades of brown before, save for a Nabisco Cookie advertisement, I guess. After I got over the shock of the colors, I really began to pay attention to what Roy Underhill was doing, and a whole world of woodworking that I never thought possible in my grandpa’s shop, opened up to me!

I probably should have said that accidentally glimpsing the Bob Ross of woodworking was one half of my big, woody revelation. The other half came when I discovered Theater. Originally, I had gone to school to learn to make music, but halfway through, I learned that you could use the same skills to work in live entertainment, and I started working in the production shop at the School of Theater. Here, I learned about another kind of carpentry, one that made absolutely no sense to me, but has been my career for the past 5 years: Scenic Carpentry.

Being a scenic carpenter is a little…odd, if I’m being honest. Partly that is because I end up working in steel as much as I do in wood, but also in that everything we make is meant to be incredibly temporary. We have all been to live shows, and have seen the sets on stage, or seen the gags in Buster Keaton films and Blazing Saddles, where building are only 6 inches deep, and can be pushed over from the back, to hilarious effect (unless it is during construction, and then it is terrifying. those flats are NOT light). That is what I build. In most cases, it is pretty much like framing a house, but with thinner, and much, Much cheaper lumber. I have never pulled more splinters out of my hand than when I had to build a half-dozen Scandinavian-style timber frame facades out of roofing grade pine. Ugh! But we do get to build some interesting things you’d never see made in one of Roubo’s illustrations, like that one time I built most of a 1947 Plymouth Super Deluxe, or that time I faked an entire office building worth of wainscoting and wood panneling with MDF and a crappy paintbrush. And I get to do stuff like build samurai armor, but that isnt made of wood, and therefore I can’t do a project write-up on it, according to the rules of posting on the projects page… This is theater magic, people!

As much fun as it is to build an inflatable junkyard for “Cats!”, I do get bored building flimsy flats, and find far more fulfillment in fabricating finer furnishings. So, in my off time as a scenic carp, I try to do more fine woodworking, since it gives me a chance to make things a little more permanent, and with a nicer finish, that wont be bunged into the dumpster at the end of the show’s run. Nothing quite like taking a sledge hammer to 100+ hours of your life. But, hey, thats show business for ya.

Anyway, I hope this suffices as a sort of introduction to me, and what I do, and why you will find me lurking here on Lumberjocks. Hopefully, the dozen or so of you who sat through that wall of text will have enjoyed it, and here is hoping I can get a few blogs up with some nice pictures and cool projects up in the future!



2 comments so far

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


17831 posts in 4112 days

#1 posted 07-05-2017 06:51 PM

Very nice read, Dan. And great memories of the Old Carpenter in your family. Looking forward to anything you might be posting in the future, and welcome to LJs.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. - OldTools Archive -

View FoundSheep's profile


196 posts in 1950 days

#2 posted 07-09-2017 02:23 PM

I’ll be looking forward to more posts in the future, the change between set scenes and furniture sounds like a lot of fun and challenges.

-- -Will, FoundSheep Designs

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