Vernacular shelving

Who invented the table?

Who was the first person to make a chair that looked like a chair?

Think about the first person who made a box. Did they have any inkling of how virtually all furniture in the future would be based on their design?

The idea of a thing like a chair, which exists in some form in every culture in the world, having been invented seems strange, because tables and chairs and boxes and shelves and stools didn’t have a singular inventor – they were simultaneously developed by many different people all over the world, and then traveled, infecting others with their designs. And until very recently, most furniture was made by the end user, or at least by someone in their family or village.

Most furniture that has existed in the world was utilitarian in form – they built a chair because they needed a chair – not because they needed something to put in the corner to balance the plant stand in the other corner. And it was made by the end user because until very recently in human history purchased furniture was the province of the very wealthy. Most furniture was made quickly and in a utilitarian manner because the person building it was one bad harvest away from death by starvation.

Utilitarian furniture made by the end user is called “vernacular” furniture by people who study such things. And you need not think it strange that most people could build their own furniture – until a generation or two ago, nearly every house had at least one person in it capable of making a full sit-down supper each night. These are just skills we lost.

But like cooking, they are skills we can reclaim.

I am renovating our 70-year-old unretouched pantry/laundry room right now, which is the first part of the larger kitchen renovation I am planning for this summer. And we needed some new pantry shelves for canned goods. They don’t have to be Instagram-able. They need to hold up cans of food. They need to be painted, in order to protect the shelves and make them easier to clean. They need to be strong.

I need vernacular shelves.

Yesterday afternoon I knocked them out – 60 inches long, 42 inches high, to go under a window in the laundry room. I made them from 1×8 Southern Yellow Pine, the wood of Southern vernacular furniture for generations of my people, acquired from Home Depot. Southern Yellow Pine is stronger than Maple when it has fully dried, and it has a pronounced grain pattern that some people love.

The shelves are spaced 9.5 inches apart, so two normal tin cans will fit on each shelf, stacked on top of each other, and they are 7.25 inches wide, so two cans will fit front to back as well. The top shelf is five inches under the window sill, so the top shelf has room for only one can in height. I used some 3/4inch quarter round as cleats to hold the shelves in place, which were then glued and screwed in place.

Tomorrow I will caulk and paint them so they can cure over the weekend and I can load them up next week.

Literally the only tools it took to make this was a saw, a speed square, a pencil, and a drill/driver, some 2 inch screws and wood glue (These are all simple tools you should probably have as part of a basic DIY kit.). It took an hour to build. It will theoretically hold 266 standard cans of food in a space previously unused, taking up less than 3.5 square feet, and the total cost, not counting paint, even in these inflationary times was less than the cost of a single Billy Bookcase from Ikea, and it will last the rest of my life.

When To Buy Cheap Tools

As someone who likes to make things, I read a lot of websites, forums, and Facebook pages that relate to making things. And a really common question that comes up in those places revolves around buying tools.

Can someone recommend a good table saw?

Which brand of chisels should I buy?

Is the Harbor Freight lathe any good?

When this happens, you will get a lot of answers, but not a lot of help, especially if you have an ADHD brain like mine. Instead, people will berate you for trying to save money, or for not buying the absolute top of the line thing.

“Buy once, cry once,” they will say.

I think this is bullshit, actually. But often well intentioned bullshit. This happens because people forget what it feels like to be a beginner. So they make recommendations based on what they, with lots of experience, would do, not what you, with none, should do.

When you are just beginning a hobby, you don’t know enough to make smart choices. Woodworking is, for example, a huge category that encompasses cabinet making, turning, jointing, carpentry, carving, whittling, and box making, among others. And all of those categories have sub categories: Turning has spindle turning and bowl turning and chuck turning and faceplate turning and… well, you get the point.

And they all require different tools, and often the work area you would need for them is all different.

This is worse for ADHD brains, because we will fall into rabbit holes of hyper-focus, where we want to know everything about a thing. And the temptation to buy the things you are learning about can be overwhelming. But if your focus changes, you are out a lot of money.

As an example: I got into wood working thinking I wanted to make furniture – but found out along the way that I suck at making square things, but I love carving. So I don’t need a table saw, ever, but a band saw is really important. Were I a cabinet maker, those priorities would be reversed. So, it’s a good thing I bought a used, sorta crappy table saw, used, for like $50, instead of a new, top of the line SawStop saw for $3500.

On the other hand, I own some carving chisels that are $75 apiece. A furniture maker would never need these. He will be fine with some $10 a piece Buck Brothers chisels from Home Depot (which, by the way, are actually really nice chisels for the price). Lathe’s are pretty inexpensive, but the accessories can break you.

The idea is to lay out as little cash as possible until you decide what part of this hobby you want to pursue, or even if you do, in fact, want to pursue it.

I have a long list of forsaken hobbies.

I flirted with wanting to learn to play the ukulele. But I know me, so I bought the $30 ukulele, which was good, as it has been sitting in the corner for the last 5 years, untouched. I have a really nice high end point and shoot camera sitting in a bag on my bookshelf. I went through a bookbinding phase. The list goes on.

My strategy is to buy the cheapest thing I can get away with in the beginning, to see if this will stick. A good idea is to search Google for “Best budget X”, where X is the thing you need. Best budget harmonica. Best budget wood burning kit. Best budget table saw. Another strategy is to see if you can borrow the thing from someone else, to see if you like it.

A surprising number of times, the “Best budget X” is all you need. The Harbor Freight thickness planer gets amazing reviews – much better than pricy planers costing twice as much. The Casio Duro watch is less than $40, but tons of professional divers wear them (as does, weirdly enough, Bill Gates). The Morakniv Companion is an outstanding sheath knife for under $20.

And even if it isn’t, as you use the free or cheap thing, you will learn if you like doing this activity, you will learn what options your thing lacks, and whether it would be worth it to upgrade or not. And then, you can upgrade smart.

Or, maybe you decide that what you really want to do is basket weaving.