From Lutz U

Remedial Woodshop

Hey Neil,

Hello. How have you been? It’s been a long time, I know. I’m still living in upstate New York, in a house that I have now come to accept will always be a work in progress.

I kind of thought by this time that I’d have found a Neil replacement (not that you can be replaced)—a reliable carpenter that I can call on for advice and jobs, big or small. I’ve even managed my expectations and let go of the idea that I'll want to have drinks or talk movies and books with my Neil replacement. I just figured I’d find a decent carpenter (not necessarily named Neil) that I could trust to build cool things like that ladder you did in my last place. In the absence of you and your replacement, I’ve tried to handle some stuff on my own, but it’s mostly been limited to drilling things. No woodwork has been involved. I do have this shelf in my kitchen that constantly falls down and I put it back on these pegs that look like the end of a screwdriver. But since it keeps falling, I’m clearly doing something wrong.

So, here’s the thing. I have a lot of books, as one might expect, and no good place to put them. I also have this room that is mostly empty and I thought it would be cool to build a library in there. In my fantasy it looks like a library that a character played by James Mason would frequent.

I always see DIY books on how to build a deck, how to build your own log cabin, how to rebuild a carburetor. I don’t want to do any of those things, but I wouldn’t mind having bookshelves built into this room.

So here’s my question, and I’m pretty sure I know the gist of your answer: How impossible would it be for me to build the bookshelves into the wall myself? I assume I would need wood, a hammer, a tape measure and a saw. What else? If I bought a book on building bookshelves, do you think this would be possible? Or am I just insane? Second question: If it would be impossible, or probably result in a Dali-like rendering of a library, what should I know before I try to track down a new Neil? Like what kind of wood would you use, in case the new Neil wants to use particleboard? Also, just out of curiosity, how many years practicing carpentry do you think it would take until I could build a library in my house?

One final question: I can’t find any woodshop classes around here, but if I were to start on a project just to get my hands dusty, where should I begin?

Answers to any of these questions would be very much appreciated. I look forward to seeing you on my next trip to the Bay Area.

Best wishes,
Lisa

Hi Lisa,

Great to hear from you. Things are good in California but we miss you, of course. Let me know when you're heading back this way; our next dinner is on me. 

So, you're never going to let this carpenter dream go, eh? I understand the allure, but I figured when they started publishing your work you'd give it up. I remember a couple of decades ago when you first proposed the idea of my teaching you the ins and outs of the trade. I liked the thought of you wrestling with the daily problems we carpenters face. I imagined you speaking directly to the lumber, angry and confounded, hoping to reason with it or even bully it into doing what you had assumed it would do with relative ease. I've worked with wood since I was very young, and I've spent my career around contractors and tradesmen who you wouldn't necessarily describe as the cerebral type, save a few exceptions. So it's amusing to picture you operating under the assumption that your intellect should circumvent years of training. To be honest, I thought the same thing for the first few years as a professional. You can't imagine how humbling it is to struggle and even fail at the same task a still-drunk mouth-breather is effortlessly accomplishing a few feet away. 

I'd encourage you to keep searching for my replacement. You're really just looking for someone with some years of experience, an honest face, and a reference or two. These days we carpenters take a lot of photos of our work (I still send out that ship's ladder I built for you as an example), so I'd ask to see pictures of some comparable things he or she has built. Most of the time I figure I'm getting the job because I can string a few sentences together (thanks, college) and I don't look like a 1980s serial killer. My advice to carpenters everywhere is to leave the squarish, wire-frame glasses at home when bidding a job. Virtually all of my clients have kids, too, and I'm pretty good at entertaining them. You'd be amazed at how quickly they stop screaming at their mothers when you run the cordless drill. 

Your bookshelves sound like what we would call built-ins. Basically this just means that we build custom-fitting bookshelves and wrap them in the baseboards and potentially the molding that may already be in the room, giving the appearance that they are part of the wall and therefore have always been there. I do a ton of these. I think people get so burned by IKEA shelves (between assembling them, looking at them and watching them later fall apart) that they come to understand the multiple benefits of paying a furniture maker to help design and build something that will work well in their space. I'm grateful to IKEA for this and should send them a little thank-you note—wordless, of course, with crudely drawn pictures of me pointing at things to poorly convey my appreciation. 

You really have two directions you can go as far as the wood choice and the finished look of your library: stain-grade or paint-grade. Using a wood that takes stain well and requires plugs and other tricks to hide the fasteners will cost you significantly more money. If you're constructing a built-in unit that connects with baseboards and crown molding that have been painted, and your walls are typical (sheetrock, flat paint), then you're probably going to decide to take the easier route and use a combination of shop plywood and hardwood facing. These can be dinged up and drilled out and patched before getting sanded, primed, and painted. In other words, mistakes can be made and no one is any the wiser. When someone asks me to do a stain-grade piece I have a moment of panic, imagining the screw-ups I may make along the way that could eat into my profit. But if that is the look you're going for, then by all means give some poor schlep a little anxiety! 

I'll humor you a little and pretend like it's not an awful idea for you to take this project on yourself. You had a good idea there about starting with something small, maybe a tiny version of the wall-to-wall bookshelves you intend to have in your study. The writer in me hates to admit it, but you can quickly learn enough from watching a few "how-to" videos on the YouTube than you can poring over some book from Home Depot.

The problem here, aside from the money you'll spend buying all the tools necessary to build anything, is the safety concern, as in I am REALLY concerned for your safety, Lutz. Trying to cut a board unsupervised is a terrible idea that could make typing your next novel a hell of a lot harder. I think I speak for fans of Izzy Spellman everywhere when I implore you to stay out of the power tool aisle. A screw gun, on the other hand, is fairly harmless, so keep trying to stabilize that kitchen shelf. 

Write another book, make some decent money and pay some personable enough fella to build you your James Mason study. If you start making furniture, I swear, Lisa, I will have to finish my novel. And that sounds like a lot of work, and possibly just as dangerous. 

Neil 

Neil,

Yep, that was the answer I was expecting. Thanks for crushing my dreams. I’m still going to get a saw, but maybe just a handsaw. I’m sure I can figure out some use for it.

I do appreciate your thoughtful response. Let me be clear about something. I never thought that my intellect could circumvent my lack of skills, but I did kinda think that my insane willfulness might. But measuring shit and being precise, in general, has never been my thing, so I’m almost relieved that you told me to let my DIY fantasy go. I’ll find a new Neil upstate somewhere and hopefully he can give me the library of my dreams.

But I’m itching to build something. I’m not going to ask you if you know anything about masonry or whether you think it’s a good idea.

I’m just going to announce to the world that I’m going to build my very own fire pit.

These directions seem not so hard, and there’s no dangerous sawing involved. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thanks again for your sound but predictable advice.

Best,
Lisa

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