I Made Something: Memento Box

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My box

Slow is not my normal speed. So, when I signed up for a two-day woodworking class to learn how to make a memento box, naturally I showed up late, running in with my headphones blaring a podcast, one hand holding a spilling coffee cup, the other hand checking my e-mail.

When I had signed up for the class at Heidi Earnshaw’s Junction Workshop in Toronto, we were told by e-mail to arrive at the studio early to get settled in. It was a Saturday, but I was rushing in from a work appointment that morning and was already stressing that I might be late for another appointment afterward. I was off to a great start.

Earnshaw, who has designed furniture that sits alongside artwork by Emily Carr at the Canadian High Commission in London, is co-ordinating a spate of classes including box, stool and table-making at her downtown studio, with a standout lineup of instructors. Though she teaches some classes herself, my memento-box course ($275) was led by her workshop co-founder, Carey Jernigan, and associate Simon Ford, both accomplished makers in their own right.

After each of the seven students (a mix of ages and backgrounds) introduced themselves and explained why they had signed up (curiosity, “therapy,” rekindling an old passion, getting over a bad woodworking experience at university), Jernigan started with a warning. Not about the risks to our fingers as we used the various sharp and fast-moving saws. Not about the dangers of gluing various parts of our body – as opposed to the wood – together.

Instead, she cautioned that at times the class would feel slow. It takes time to set up the equipment properly, let alone learn how to use it and wait as other students take their turn.

True to character, during the first hour or so I struggled with the pace. Ford and Jernigan carefully and deliberately walked us through the materials we would be working with (North American maple and walnut) the design of the box we would be making (roughly the size of a bread box, with keyed mitre joints in the corners and a friction-fit top) and the process we would use to make it. It was a shift from my typically frantic way of learning: jumping through YouTube videos and searching for keywords while flipping between too many websites.

Recently, some of Canada’s top modern-furniture makers – true artisans who typically toil in relative anonymity, painstakingly building their clean-lined, high-cost creations – have adopted an unusual side hustle. They have opened their studios to the public, offering workshops for amateurs. Some are as short as one or two days, like the one I took, others can last up to 10 weeks; all teach the secrets of the craft.

The practitioner-to-professor phenomenon is happening across the country. Union Wood in Vancouver, which normally makes $4,000 credenzas with charming leather drawer pulls, offers a class on making hand-carved spoons. Edmonton’s IZM, whose Iconoclast Table features Daniel Libeskind-esque geometries rendered in wood, hosts classes to make, for instance, side tables shaped like architectural I-beams.

Most are geared to adults, but there are even kid-friendly options. Toronto’s Michael Greenwood, who makes bespoke, beautifully tailored furniture for high-end homes, is starting a series for people as young as 6. “We’re doing one over March break to make skateboard decks,” Greenwood says. “It’s a really fun, accessible project.”

Despite the diversity of options, the studios have common motivations for inviting the public in. The workshops help offset the rising rents in Canadian cities that are pushing creatives farther and farther out of the core. Earnshaw’s space, a rare vestige of light-industrial space downtown, is just minutes from the subway – the kind of location that sadly seems prime for condo developers.

The workshops also offer proprietors the opportunity to “raise awareness,” according to IZM’s Shane Pawluk. “We’re showing you what goes into a $1,500 table,” he says, “and why it costs so much. The things the students build have value.” Pawluk’s table-making class costs $600 for two days, including beverages and food. izm.ca

That value is clear when looking at the output. The workshops purport to enable just about anyone to build the kind of pieces any modern-furniture lover would be proud to display in their home (and not the kind of basic, boring birdhouse commonly produced in high-school shop classes). The joinery and finishing are ambitious. The aesthetic is sharp. The question, however, is can those who have all the skills teach how it’s done? And what is it like for someone with little to no woodworking abilities (that would be me) to learn from them?

This month I found out. As we got started on our memento boxes, it was easy to see that the precision of the instructions would result in a precisely made object. With the raw boards we were given at the start of the workshop beginning to take shape, I felt myself unwind and enjoy the experience.

The space helped. The studio’s tall, sky-lit ceiling flooded the room with soft northern light. The walls were covered in character. Finished, half-finished and never-to-be-finished furniture, both new and old, was stacked on shelves next to chisels, hammers and other tools. The sweet, caramel smell of freshly cut wood filled the air.

It was also inspiring to see the other professional furniture makers who share the space and work there full-time practise their craft. Near our group, furniture maker Peter Coolican, whose work has been touted by interior designer Sarah Richardson and featured by House & Home magazine, spent hour after hour hand-weaving the seat of his Madison chair (which costs $1,390). His dedication and focus on his art was admirable to witness. Each one takes 11 hours just to weave together – an anomalous commitment in our world of instant gratification.

The class was not always easy, but it was a challenge in a good way. Even though Ford and Jernigan took care of many of the hardest parts inherent to woodworking – starting with the design of the object and all the measurements – it still felt as though we were all working toward a high standard, to get the joinery all flush and have the lid fit exactly so that it slid on smoothly, without being too loose or too tight. We all had to focus, take care and sand zealously to get the surfaces perfectly smooth and free of the glue used to secure the corners together.

At one point, pressing too hard on my sandpaper, I accidentally sanded the tips of two of my fingers to the point of bleeding. Jernigan, in an effort to make me feel better, said, “That’s okay. When the revolution comes you’ll be spared because they’ll know you’re a working man.” I felt the ease with which my fingers chafed (I wasn’t sanding that aggressively) suggested just the opposite.

Overall, the experience was a revelation – and I left with a beautiful box, to boot. When I brought it home I felt extremely proud, a feeling shared by my other classmates. I wasn’t sure what to use it for at first but decided on storing a set of silverware that was handed down to me by my grandfather after my grandmother died. When I put the lid on after placing the cutlery inside, and it slid down just so, I felt satisfied. I was storing a family heirloom in an heirloom-to-be that I had made myself.

This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, February 23, 2017.

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