Home Eng

Mechanical pencil. Mahogany.

My younger daughter is in middle school. Before things got totally locked down, she had chosen to take “engineering” as one of her second-semester electives. (We would have called this “shop class” back when I was her age.) She’s a sharp kid, though, and once it was obvious she was going to be remote, she realized that the experience would be, shall we say, suboptimal. No discredit to the teachers, who I’m sure would have come up with some sort of creative solution to make the best of the situation. But as my daughter observed, we have a pretty well-equipped shop here (check out my shop tour if you want to see it).

Tea tray. Cherry with waxed string wrapped handles.

And so when second semester arrived, she requested that we spend time each week in the shop. I was, of course, pleased and more than a little flattered. My shop pursuits are generally fairly solitary, as is the nature of these things, but I have always enjoyed it whenever any of the family takes an interest, and especially so if they feel like participating.

I’ve dubbed the time we spend in the shop Home Eng, short for “Home Engineering” and to echo “Home Ec,” itself short for “Home Economics”, which is the term here in the US for the class that teaches topics like cooking and sewing. So far we’ve finished two projects. The first was a tea tray (suggested by my friend Tim) and the second a mechanical pencil, turned on the lathe. They’re both pictured inline, and I’ve included larger images below. I’d call them both definite successes, in that the produced objects are both functional and in my opinion beautiful.

Like anything one does for the first time, there have been a few lessons learned. The first is that projects that take more than a session or two in the shop are a bit more difficult to motivate her on. Hardly surprising – patience is not a virtue the young are known to possess in quantity, although I think my daughter does fairly well on that count. And I myself have definitely had times where I’ve been ready to be done with a project and have hard a hard time pushing through the last little bit. The tea tray project probably took us about six sessions, and the middle part of it was probably the hardest part – once we were on to sanding and putting a finish on it (just some Danish Oil, which is super easy) she could see the finish line and was more motivated. So I intentionally chose the pencil as the second, as lathe projects tend to be quick. And it was – from walking in to the shop not even having picked out a piece of wood until we had the completely finished project was about an hour and a half.

The second thing that surprised me was just how difficult a time she had pushing a hand plane. I make extensive use of hand planes in my way of woodworking, not least because I don’t own a table saw. She had no trouble using the band saw, but the resulting surface needs to be refined, and she had a very difficult time getting the plane to move at all. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the difference in body mass and strength and how much is due to technique. I couldn’t see anything obviously wrong with how she was using it, but as I have never attempted to teach plane usage it’s possible I was missing something. I wound up doing most of the planing for her, which was fine.

Sawing she did great with. I found she had better luck with my eastern-style pull saw than with my other saws, at least in part because with the workpiece clamped in the vise, she could use both hands. She was able to cut right to a line, and her joints fitted very well indeed for a first attempt. I continue to think that pull saws are a great option for the beginner, and a good tool to include in every woodworking shop.

So far it has been a lot of fun. I think she enjoys it as well, at least once I pry her away from reading Aru Shah and we get into the shop. I’m going to continue to look for a mix of longer and shorter projects. I also want to branch out beyond woodworking, into things like machining, 3D printing, and even CAD or CAM work. I think our next one will involve finding or creating a 3D model, printing it on my SLA 3D printer, and then casting it in pewter. I’ll be sure to let you know here how it went.

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