Kidding in the Shop

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This article is from Issue 90 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Tooling around with the future

As a kid, I never let the ankle-biting tiger lurking in the shadows beneath the cellar stairs deter me from getting to my dad’s workbench. With its top of 2 × 10’s and its steel pipe legs, the bench was simply outfitted with a tool pegboard, an old machinist’s vise, and a hand-cranked grinding wheel. Nothing fancy, but it was just the thing when there was work to be done. 

Early on, I mostly needed to change the shape of stuff. You know, maybe squash a bottle cap in the vise or grind some nicks in an old file, which made great sparks! I eventually moved on to defunct radios and clocks that begged to be taken apart. While learning to wield pliers and screwdrivers, I also picked up an idea of how these devices worked. As I got older, projects often involved advance planning and a “product” as a goal that awaited on the other side of many botched efforts. A stubborn kid, I guess I was determined to make every mistake myself before I realized that when Dad said “That’s not going to work”, he knew what he was talking about. 

Fast-forward about 60 years, during which time two daughters, a couple of their cousins, and sundry other kids found their way to my own bench. And now my grandson Kai has joined their ranks. It’s been fascinating to watch each recent arrival to the world develop tool skills that will help arm them for their future. 

It’s not hard to help kids get comfortable with real-world tools. For example, to encourage hand-eye coordination, you might set up a youngster with a ball peen hammer, a can of miscellaneous nails, and a section of log standing on end. Show her how to hold and tap a nail to start it before letting go and pounding away into the friendly end grain. To develop dexterity, let a kid have a go at disassembling an old fax machine. Or clamp a 1 × 1" stick in a vise and demonstrate cutting off an inch with a small, stiff back saw. Let a kid try it, and see how quickly that stick disappears into a pile of pieces. Before you know it, he’ll be using a spokeshave!

While you’re at it, teaching shop etiquette is important for everyone’s safety and happiness, so make sure it’s understood which tools are off-limits, which are up for grabs, and where they all live. And whatever tools are in play, make sure they’re sharp, tuned, and in good shape, or they’ll be useless for skill-building. Don’t forget to keep a close eye on li’l cutter-wielding newbies to gauge their developing motor skills and mental readiness before they advance to the next step.

It’s a beautiful thing, watching kids grow the kind of skills that will help them make the most of a world that can be cut up, put together, reshaped, taken apart, and reassembled to your liking if you know how. Once you slip past the tiger, that is...


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