8 totally free ways to become an even happier woodworker

What gives you the most joy from woodworking? I want you to think about that for a second.

I’ve conducted a number of surveys in the past couple years that thousands of people have responded to. When asked, “What gives you the most joy from woodworking?” a common response is, “The satisfaction of completing a project.”

Other common responses are, “I enjoy the time to myself” and “I like to use my hands to create things.”

“My workshop is my escape from my very monotonous day job in an office. It is

a place of flowing creativity and where I can make things for others.”

— 33 y/o Male Survey Responder

What I almost never hear is “Buying things gives me the most joy”. Sure, there are some people who simply love to acquire and collect tools, but for the most part, tools factor low on the woodworking enjoyment scale.

I know, you’ve probably heard people say, “Yeah, but having good, quality tools makes your woodworking better and more enjoyable”. This myth has to be something started by tool companies. Or, maybe this is just a retroactive way we justify expensive purchases. I have never had expensive tools and yet I’ve always loved woodworking. If you chase contentment based on things you don’t have, or on what other people have, you will forever be unsatisfied. This tablesaw is better than the little Craftsman saw I used for years, but I don’t enjoy my time in the shop any more than I did in 2008. There are tons of saws that are better than this one, but dropping 2 grand on one probably wouldn’t make me a happier woodworker. Personally, spending money actually has the opposite effect on me.

Of course if you are a professional carpenter, high-end equipment makes sense. But as hobbyists, there are lots of things you can do without spending a dime that will add to your joy of being a woodworker and maybe even improve your life a little.

Every time I even suggest this tip, a lot of people have a knee-jerk defensive reaction, but hear me out. For some reason a lot of woodworkers have this manic belief that tools are sacred. These are holy objects not to be shared with others. You’ve probably seen cutesy signs like this one all over the internet and in people’s shops:

Tool rules:

  • Don’t touch them
  • Don’t borrow them
  • Don’t move them
  • Don’t even look at them.

Frankly, I can think of few sentiments crankier, and less inclusive than that. Why not just get a lock and make your shop off limits to everyone if you are so worried about sharing your toys.

For years, I’ve been proposing a paradigm shift with a better sign that puts friendships ahead of material things.

Tool rules:

  • Touch them
  • Borrow them
  • Move them
  • Please look at them.

Friends and neighbors ask to borrow tools because they need to fix or do something themselves, not to make you grumpy and ruin your day. But your simple act of kindness will make you a hero and make another human’s day. I think we need more of this in the world. In other words, Wheaton’s Law.

If a friend asks to borrow other things in your world do you also refuse? A cup of sugar? A rake? A flashlight? How about jumper cables? Your car?

“I once let someone borrow a circular saw and never got it back.”

Well, try again. Don’t define your worldview based on a single person or incident. Most people who borrow tools will return them in a timely manner. If someone doesn’t, maybe just ask for it back? They probably just forgot and feel terrible about it.

“If I lend someone a tool, I won’t have it when I need it.”

I guess if you are working in your shop 24/7 and it’s a tool you use a lot, this could be an issue. But again, you are probably thinking about worst case scenario. Ask for the tool back.

“Whenever I lend a tool, it comes back in worse condition, or broken.”

I doubt this happens “whenever you lend a tool”. In my experience, people usually return tools cleaned and in better condition. Sometimes with new blades or sanding discs or whatever. Most people in the world are good.

 

And there are other excuses like these that all share a common theme of fear. Fear of what might happen if we help someone out. And I know some of you are already typing out your one anecdotal story about a beloved tool that traumatized you for life, but try focusing on the good in people rather than the rare what-ifs. It’s kind of like how we define YouTube by negative comments, when easily 98-99% are positive.

But if lending tools is something you’re working on, try lending your time instead. In many ways it’s even more satisfying. If a friend or neighbor asks for a tool, your expertise might actually be more valuable, but they may be afraid to ask. Take the time to help with their project. Working on a common goal is always a great way to cement friendships.

You can also lend your time in your shop. Show someone how to use a router table. Give your non-woodworker neighbor a quick rundown on how to use a random orbit sander.

If someone asks to borrow a certain tool, try responding with something like this.

“Hey can I borrow your hammer and a couple nails?”

“Sure…what you got going on?”

“Oh, I’m trying to fix a railing that’s wobbly on the porch.”

“Hmmm…sounds like you might need a drill or something a little stronger. Do you mind if I take a look at it with you?”

I’ve encountered lots of situations like this…usually from people who aren’t very handy to begin with, and don’t want to impose on your time. Don’t ask if they need help, ask how you can help. Not only will it be a great way build a friendship, but you are helping to pass on your skills and knowledge.

Another great way to lend your time is to volunteer at non-profit institutions. When Wyatt was in high school, I used to build stuff for his theater group. It was interesting to build props and things I wouldn’t otherwise make. They had a very limited budget, so I got to think outside the box and come up with creative, inexpensive solutions and I got to build stuff for free. Organizations like these are always so appreciative of your time and efforts and never critical of your work.

Try forcing yourself to make a few projects using nothing but the scraps that are already in your shop. There are a couple benefits from this.

  1. First, it will help you use up some of that excess material you’ve been saving before you officially become a hoarder.
  2. And second, it challenges your creativity by forcing you to build within constraints.

Maybe make some tiny boxes or picture frames or drink coasters. Shop jigs are great scrap projects. How about some key chains or signs? If you can’t think of anything, make an art piece. I made this mosaic just by cutting down scraps of all different wood species and fitting them together.

Donate excess lumber

Even after making a few scrap projects, you may be left with way more wood than you need. I like to make a yearly shop purge and get rid of stuff that I haven’t used and realistically won’t use for anything. Clearing out this clutter can go a long way in making your time in the shop more productive.

Clean your shop

A tidy shop is so much more enjoyable to work in than a messy one. If you are between projects, spend an afternoon cleaning up the place. Put away tools, sweep up sawdust that accumulates in the corners, oil your tools, wash the windows.

I’m really bad about drill bits and drivers. For some reason, my brain refuses to put these back while I’m working on a project. Same goes for sanding discs. I seem to have a weird pathological reluctance to throw them away, even when they are probably used up.

Spend time in your shop in the early morning.

I find that nothing centers me more than being in my shop early in the morning when the sun splashes through the window. It’s a quiet, reflective time that’s great for planning out your day.

Change things around

A workshop is an evolving space. Spend an afternoon moving things around and experiment with how your workflow might be improved.

Get inspired offline

Believe it or not, there are amazing things you can do away from the internet and woodworking inspiration is all around us. Here are some ideas:

  • Go to an antique store or even a thrift store and look at all the furniture. Look closely at how things were constructed. You might not want to replicate any of it, but take lots of pictures of things you like and bring those features into your projects. Keep an idea file on your computer, or what I do, keep an idea folder on Google photos.
  • Go to Ikea. I know, I know, cheap knock-down furniture. But a lot of their designs are really cool and can be easily replicated in actual wood quality workmanship. Again, borrow elements you like.
  • Visit a library. When’s the last time you went to a library? Surprisingly, they are really popular these days. Check out the woodworking section or course, but also the design and art sections. Borrow a bunch of books and take pictures of all the stuff you like.
  • Visit a museum. These might not be free, but are a wealth of inspiration. If you are in San Francisco, check out the Legion of Honor Museum for some awe-inspiring examples of exquisite 16th and 17th century furniture. Be careful though…most museums won’t let you take pictures.
  • Take the time to get out of the house and observe the world around you. It’s an amazing place filled with ideas and inspiration, even motivation.

Let me know what brings you the most joy from woodworking? Leave a comment below!

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