When you google how to make a board you get a bunch of Pinterest stuff. Keep going and you get some great ideas on how to make your own board game, how to assemble the perfect charcuterie board and the nine essential steps for manifesting your own personal vision board. But those weren’t the kinds of boards I was interested in making.
I wanted to make a board. The wooden kind. The kind you see stacked up so neatly and nicely at Home Depot or Lowes or the place with the helpful hardware man. Those were the kinds of boards I was interested in.
And the more I thought about making a board the more I wondered: How do you do that? It sounds super easy. But trust me, it’s not. If you want to make a board out of wood without buying a bigger piece of wood to make the board out of, then you’re going to need to find yourself a tree. Preferably one that’s lying down.
I was born smack-dab in the middle of August. I can only imagine how hot it must have been in Houston that day as my father drove my mother to the hospital. I’m sure the humidity didn’t do my mom any favors. Houston is not a dry heat.
The thing about having a mid-August birthday is that it puts you right on the fence in terms of eligibility when it comes to stuff like starting kindergarten, signing up for little league, playing pee-wee football, going off to sleep-away camp and lots of other things. If you’ve got a mid-August birthday, depending on when you begin these types of activities, for the rest of your life you’re either going to be the youngest or the oldest. I was always trying to keep up with the big kids, so I signed up early and ended up being the youngest. Which of course, pretty much guaranteed I’d be the smallest as well.
Around seventh grade, my father started tossing around the idea of holding me back a year. I was doing fine in school. My grades were very good. And in all the extra-curricular sports stuff, not only was I holding my own with the older/bigger kids I had grown up playing with, but I was excelling. Which is why my father started thinking about holding me back.
It’s called red shirting. It’s most commonly practiced with promising freshman quarterbacks at the college level, but there was no law against doing it in junior high. This way, heading into high school I would no longer be the youngest and the smallest. I would be the oldest and the biggest. Which had obvious advantages.
At the end of seventh grade, my father pulled the trigger on his plan. I was disappointed to find out that there was no actual red shirt involved, but none-the-less, the next year when school started, I went back to all my seventh-grade classes from the year before. Which turned out to be fucking awesome. I knew all the answers. In fact, on my first go at seventh grade, I had been in the I.B. Program. I had taken all accelerated classes. So not only would I be learning all the same material again, but because I couldn’t do the I.B. Program for the same grade twice, I had to take the non-accelerated course versions. It was a fucking joke. I didn’t crack a book the entire year.
I don’t know if it works like this anymore, but another thing about leaving the I.B. Program for a year, was I had access to a whole different set of electives to choose from. If you were in I.B. you could only do music, fine art or take an extra foreign language. You weren’t given the option to take courses like auto-mechanics, woodshop or even home-economics. Which is kind of nuts. It’s like they didn’t want the smart kids to learn how to take apart a carburetor. If you got good grades, you had to play the flute. This is how America winds up full of idiots by the way.
I remember walking into woodshop for the first day of class. Preppy was in at the time. I was probably wearing tight-rolled jeans with penny loafers, no socks and a button-down shirt untucked. When I walked in it was totally like Breakfast Club, but everyone was Judd Nelson. Which kinda made me Molly Ringwold.
The awkwardness only lasted a few weeks. After that, I was pretty much friends with everyone. I was also learning how to use a table saw, a drill press, a router and where the best places to smoke cigarettes were. I was learning how to sand and stain. I made a wine rack. A clock. A picture frame. And one day I helped a kid named Hector pull the fire alarm right before third period.
Ultimately, I didn’t wind up becoming the dominating, scholarship winning athlete that my father was hoping for, but I still hold the record at Camp Champions in Marble Falls, TX for being the youngest kid to ever complete the lake swim. When I turned 16, I was the first one in my group of friends to get a driver’s license and later on in college I turned 21 the summer before everyone else did. Goodbye fake ID. But most importantly, because I had gotten to take that woodshop class in seventh grade, I walked away with a lifetime passion for woodworking.
I don’t necessarily have every tool, but my shop is fairly dialed in. I’ve made bookcases, coffee tables, mid-century modern stereo consoles, workbenches, an entire set of outdoor patio furniture including a chaise lounge; I’ve built raised bed garden boxes, done kitchen cabinet make-overs and restored the original wooden shutters on our 75-year-old house. You name it, I’ve built it. Or at least tinkered with it.
During the pandemic, there was a shortage and the price of wood skyrocketed. If you tried to get a fence built or a deck installed, then you know what I mean. They booked you about six-months out. And if you went to some place like Home Depot to buy some lumber for a project you wanted to make, prices were outrageous. Even for the crappy shit that I usually buy.
The decision to make my own lumber wasn’t purely financial though. I like drilling down deeper and deeper into something until you get to the most basic and fundamental principles. We do it all the time in advertising when we’re concepting. At some point you always want to ask, “What’s the absolute simplest way we could say this?” It’s a good exercise and often leads to clever ideas that are easy to flesh out into multiple executions. It’s also a good way to reset your creative path. You do it during those times when you find yourself having gotten to a place that’s too far away from the problem you were originally trying to solve. You took a wrong turn and got yourself lost on some backroads that led to nowhere and now you really have no choice but to turn around and go back to the interstate. In the world of creative, it is often necessary to backtrack. It’s a bummer because it feels like you’re starting over but it usually gets you to a better place in the end.
If you want to make a board, you first need to find yourself some wood from which to make it. In the natural world, the wood from which boards are most commonly made is referred to as a log. The ones we want are lying on the ground. And the place with the best selection of logs lying on the ground is called the woods.
In my neighborhood, behind the houses on the opposite side of the street there’s a small swath of woods that separates us from the next neighborhood over. And it’s a damn good thing it’s there. Those Timber Crest folks think they’re so great. It’s because they have a pond in the center of their neighborhood. They really think they’re hot shit because of that pond. Around here a good pond goes a long way.
Once I enter the woods at the dead end near my house, it only takes a few steps to feel as though you’re in a real forest. The trees quickly surround you with a stillness that encourages careful treading and a heightening of the senses. I go early in the morning. Sometimes there’s a foggy midst and I like to sing “Immigrant Song” from Led Zeppelin III.
“We come from the land of the ice and snow From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…
I keep an eye out for pine trees and power lines. That’s a good combination. Anywhere you see pine trees and power lines there will be nicely cut logs lying on the ground, stacked very neatly by the power company. They come through a couple of times a year and cut down the giant limbs that are too close to the lines. If they have a full crew, someone’s job will be to take the logs away. But these days there is rarely a full crew. And so, the logs remain.
Pine is easy to identify. First of all, it’ll be sticky somewhere. Second, it’ll smell like pine.
I find a ton of maple, cherry, sycamore, walnut and ash. Accurate tree identification gets progressively harder to do when the wood you’re looking at is no longer attached to a tree.
I look for logs that are about 5 – 6 feet in length, 10 – 12 inches in diameter and have been seasoned. That means they’ve had a year or so to dry out. They’re lighter, easier to cut and can be used for pretty much anything right away. Green wood is wood that’s freshly cut. It’s heavier because of all the water content it still has. You can cut green wood, but you’re really not supposed to use it until it’s dried out. There are exceptions, but that’s the general rule. Working with green wood is tricky. As it dries, it tends to warp.
When I find a nice log, I lean it upright against a tree. If you go into the woods in my neighborhood, you’ll see several of my lumber candidates leaning against trees waiting their turns. I try to find nice straight logs that have no signs of rot. You can’t do anything with rotted wood. And sometimes you’ll go home with a really good-looking piece of wood only to start cutting it and find the interior is completely rotted.
I look like Rocky IV coming out of those woods with a big fucking log over my shoulder. I feel kind of weird walking down the street of my suburban neighborhood straining under the weight of a sizeable piece of sycamore, but most of the neighbors know me and have learned to accept this type of behavior.
I use a chainsaw to cut my boards. The lumber mills have these giant table saws that basically slice the logs into perfect boards. I don’t have one of those. I have a regular table saw. It’s a great tool but not for turning logs into lumber. A better option would be a band saw but it’s going to need to be pretty heavy-duty to get through six feet of walnut.
The chainsaw, however, is a good tool for the aspiring DIY lumber maker. I like the electric ones because they’re just as powerful as the gas models and they make a hell of a lot less noise. Plus, you don’t have to worry about keeping a special gas can with the right mix of fuel.
Once you’ve got your log securely in place you take a chalk line and mark the boards lengthwise down the log that you plan to cut. With a steady hand you begin to run the whirling chain saw blade down the line. You keep going over and over it. The blade cuts a bit deeper with every pass.
The key to using a chain saw is to take your time and let the tool do the work. It also helps if you know how to sharpen your chain. It’s pretty damn easy and you can do it in two minutes with a Dremel. Watch a couple of YouTube videos and in no time at all you’ll be wielding a 16-inch thunder sword made of staggered steel razor blades spinning at 22.5 meters per second. Chainsaws are ridiculously dangerous but so fucking cool.
The magic happens when the first board falls from the log. The big gnarly brown tube suddenly opens up and reveals the pristine lumber living inside. Every log is a mystery. The different grain patterns, exposed knots and color variations in the heartwood all tell a story that you’ve been looking forward to reading since you first saw the log laying in the woods. And just like a good book you need to finish it, so once you’ve cut that first board you take it over to the workbench and give it a good going over with the sander. If you really want to see it come to life, put a little bit of a finish on it. Square it up with your table saw and you’ve got yourself a genuine hand-made wooden board.
It's a lot easier to go to Home Depot. And I definitely haven’t bought my last piece of lumber. But these boards are special. They’re mine. I made them. I know them. And everything I make with those boards will be special because of it.
For me, it’s all about getting closer and closer to the basics. The things no one can argue with. It’s something I play around with in the woodshop, but it comes it comes in handy at work too. Especially these days when it’s easy to get caught up in different platforms, and all the creative ways to deliver content. That stuff can make your eyeballs go sideways. It can cause quite a bit of agita. But if you get stuck, try ignoring all the extrinsic bullshit that comes along for the ride on every assignment. Drill it down to the essence. Get molecular. Take out all the extras until the problem you’re trying to solve is in its simplest form possible.
I think there’s always room in life for stripping away the excess layers. There’s merit to be found in the fundamentals. When you drill down into them you find a lot of lessons are there to be learned, techniques to be mastered, details to be discovered and applied elsewhere in your work, your life and your relationships.
So, when you find yourself wandering and wondering how you got so lost, get basic. Make a board. Once you’ve got a few of those you can build just about anything you want.
Thanks for reading and thanks to our sponsor, Partners In Crime, LLC. I’ll see you again real soon.