Last year I published an “annual project review” blog post called Stuff I made in 2017. I found writing it to be quite a fun exercise (catharsis perhaps). As a middle-manager by trade, I could easily fall into a trap where I spend my entire life using a sad combination of MS Office, Netflix and XBox - never actually doing anything. So, I like to challenge myself to actually make as much stuff as possible both in my spare time and at work. This might be as simple as keeping my GitHub commit rate up or fixing something round the house, but I also like to try something challenging every now and again. It doesn’t always work out, but it’s always a learning experience… here goes…
The Bunk Beds
The first big project of the year made use of the new router I’d got for Christmas and a ton of standard construction timber. The girls had decided they fancied sharing a room and we’d struggled to find a decent set of bunk beds that met our exact specifications, so I decided to build some.
I took far too few photos as I went along. Basically I bought Planed Square Edge (PSE) timber from Wickes in various sizes. I gave every piece a roundover on all the corners and sanded to 150 grit - which gives it a nice soft feel even without varnish or paint.
All the joints are a variation on a mortice and tenon, some glued and some pinned with 1/2inch oak dowels. There are no screws or nails holding the main structure together at all! I made a couple of jigs to follow with the router which allowed me to create consistent mortices many times over.
The jigs are still in the garage, so when the girls want to move back into separate rooms we have the option to make combinations of “high sleepers” with desks underneath, single beds and whathaveyou.
This project almost killed me! Well… OK, maybe I was never at risk of actual death, but hard manual labour, coupled with an unexpected cold snap (right after a boozy trip to Minsk) left me off work for over a week!
The mission at hand: build a patio in the back garden, right where the confused maze of random, overgrown gravel paths and shrubbery was situated. In the middle of the “work site” there’s a nice cherry tree which we wanted to keep, which made the project a bit more exciting!
The “planter” around the tree is made of oak sleepers, joined with through-dowels. Getting the dowels in place was much harder than I expected - I bought a huge forstner bit for my drill which bit into the wood and was almost impossible to hold back! The drill almost twisted my hand off, then started to smoke, and in order to get the bit back out again I had to stand on the sleepers and heave the drill back out in reverse! The result is pretty snazzy though and almost a year on, the oak has faded to a nice silver colour too.
The process of actually building the patio was pretty hard work - especially on my own and over weekends! First I levelled the site, then rented the same cement mixer over three different weekends, mixing 2 tons of cement and lugging a ton of sub-base through the garage to the back garden. The trickiest, but most satisfying part of the job was cutting the L-shaped slab pieces to fit around the planter and the tree.
A very small project that made me inexplicably happy. One afternoon on a warm day in late spring I cobbled together these two boxes from old pallet wood. They live under the barbecue and hold offcuts and kindling for the fire. Big daughter and I created a cool pirate-themed logo which we stencilled onto the side of the box too.
One Saturday morning, YouTube decided to recommend a video by a guy in Canada about carving wizards. Two hours later I was sat in the garden with a coffee, whittling away on some bunkbed offcuts. Since then I’ve bought a little carving knife and a few shaped chisels from eBay - nothing expensive, but enough to crank out a wizard or two. Here’s a selection:
I started this too late in the summer to get really good at it before the weather prevented further work. I can tell you with certainty than sitting in the evening sunshine with a beer, maybe half-participating in a family chat, while sculpting an effigy of a practitioner of the occult arts is exactly as enjoyable as it sounds. It’s also fun to paint them with your daughter’s art supplies!
So I built a new patio and developed an affinity for whittling. Everything should have been fine and dandy for the rest of the summer. Sadly though, our old garden table was really lowering the tone.
Luckily, it turns out you can buy huge slabs of oak on eBay. You can even get free shipping on some of them! Huge slabs of hardwood are not cheap though - the one I bought is badly cupped and “brimming with character” (i.e. woodworm, rotten sapwood and a big hole!) and it still set me back over £200. That sounds pretty harsh - it’s still a beautiful piece of wood with amazing grain, it just needs more love an attention than I managed to give it so far: basically I just planed, sanded and treated it with Danish oil before the rains set in.
The real problem with the table is the legs. I hate them! I welded them together myself, added adjustable levelling feet with PTFE ends to protect the patio, accounted for seasonal wood movement and they’re solid as a rock… they just don’t look right. I think this is partly down to the black finish, which reminds me of office furniture, but also they are too ‘heavy’ looking for a thin-ish slab top. Maybe if the tabletop was 6" thick they’d look OK.
It was great fun building the table and I learned a huge amount. Plus I have another project in the pipeline for this year, involving yacht varnish and welding :)
The Mud Kitchen
One of our neighbours is a teaching assistant in foundation at the local school, where small daughter will be starting in September. She also happened to have a big summer house/shed thing built in her back garden. This led to two things: an abundance of scrap tongue and groove boards and a request for a “mud kitchen” for the foundation playground. Seemed like too good an opportunity to miss!
The sink was donated by another parent (my wife’s big on the school social scene!) and the rest is made from recycled or scrap wood I had knocking about. Extensive testing took place in our garden and apparently it’s a hit with the kids at school too!
It would be hard to talk about what I made in 2018 without mentioning picture frames. I made a lot of picture frames. You see, there is a thing in Karate, and also in Software Engineering, called a Kata: a task you repeat over and over again to hone your skills. Practice makes perfect and the repetition of a task builds subconscious “muscle memory”, making you a powerful warrior, great coder or… erm… adequate picture framer. So I made about 30 picture frames in 2018. I wanted to make 50, but it didn’t pan out that way.
Some were made from skuzzy pallet wood, some from copper sheet, old bench slats, whittled scraps of bunkbed, rusty angle-iron… there are a few the same and many which are different. I don’t know if I’m any better at framing pictures, but I do know there are a lot of nails in the wall of the stairs to the top room!
I’ve kind-of borrowed this one from 2019. I started the work in 2018 (on the 29th December!) and finished a couple of days into the new year. Anyway, I needed a place to store all our garden tools, and free up some space in the garage - and still had some leftover wood from the neighbour’s summer house… so…
It’s the tallest, thinnest shed you’re likely to see, but it fits perfectly into the space we had available and I managed to fit a whole heap of garden gubbins in there. There’s something inherently life-affirming about building sheds too…
All in all, 2018 was a pretty productive year. 2019 promises to be just as busy, with a front garden to sort out and a few indoor DIY projects that need doing. There are more frames to make and wizards to carve, plus I fancy making some wooden boxes, a workbench for the garage and maybe another shed/wood store for the back garden. Super exciting!