This I Believe: I Believe In Working With My Hands

May 11, 2017

Essayist Stephen Porter.

Like many children, I had a set of blocks and a tree house to play with when I was little. Mine were special, though - my grandfather built them. Dazzled by his ability to work with his hands and obsessed with firefighters, I asked him to build me a working fire truck. Although the finished product did not quite match my dream, it was a mechanical marvel and a testament to my grandfather’s skill. It was made almost entirely of wood, including the steering wheel, axles, and ladder. It was sturdy enough for me to do what I really wanted: fly joyfully down the hill across the street with my lights flashing, siren screaming, and lifesaving equipment clattering along behind.

My last ride ended more than a decade ago, but I still saw the truck, now tiny and tired, every time I walked into my grandfather’s garage. It had been my dream toy, but the passage of time matured my perspective. The firetruck became an inspiration, the origin of my interest in woodworking.

I believe in working with my hands.

I watched my grandfather undertake many projects and witnessed the joy that comes with figuring out how to create something for himself and for others. I took it upon myself to learn similar skills by devouring information from every source I could find. The language was foreign - tenons, rabbets, fillets, mortises, dovetails, dadoes, planes, and routers. But pictures and videos saved me, allowing me to associate words with their physical manifestations in woodworking.

For one of my earliest projects, I built a stool I saw in a magazine. It was a simple piece, but still required far more skill and experience than I had at the time. I clearly remember routing grooves and chiseling joints into a few board-feet of pine. I was proud of that stool at the time because I had built something useful with my own two hands. Now, I see poor wood selection, gappy joints, rough surfaces, and a serious misunderstanding of wood movement. Today, it hides in the darkness under my workbench, to be seen only when needed. But the lessons I learned from it still guide my woodworking today.

Four years later, I am far more skilled, and I just recently finished building another stool to share with my roommate in our dorm room. This one came from my mind’s eye: I selected every board, cut every joint, and smoothed every surface with all the skill I could muster. Once again I am proud of myself: not only did I use my skills to fill a need, but it looks good enough to share with others, too. The sense of self-sufficiency that I started to feel with that first stool has begun to morph into something more: an ability to benefit others with my work, not only in terms of utility, but beauty. I will remember my grandfather, and the fire truck he built me, fondly because they sparked the development of my passion and ability.

I believe in working with my hands.  

Essayist Stephen Porter is a Penn State student studying electrical engineering.