Sometimes, I wonder if the closest I get to the experience of God is when I’m making stuff…
I was an artist and a maker as a kid. I’d paint all the time, draw, doodle, make Frankenbikes out of spare parts from the junk yard and built pretty much anything I could imagine. That process takes me somewhere. Always has. It opens a door to something simultaneously internal and primal, yet also expansive and universal.
I’d find that place often in my youth. Then something happened. I grew up.
And I’m not alone. The older we get, the more we leave making and art behind. We trade it for knowledge-work. Which has its own value, but it’s different than the experience of making not just an idea or story, but a thing. One that exists materially in the world. Born of body, sweat, hands and tears. And maybe a bunch of wood, paint, metal or whatever canvas calls you.
There’s something about the smell of fresh-cut wood, WD-40 and danger.
Increasingly, I’ve been missing being in maker mode. So I took our recent move to a new apartment as an opportunity to re-meet my maker-side. We gave away pretty much all of our furniture, so we needed a bunch of new tables. I decided to make them. Not the easiest thing to do in New York City, where parking spaces sell for $100,000 and sighting of bigfoot outnumber listings for workshop-space. But, we’re a highly-adaptable people so why not?
Little did I know that table one, which would come to be known as the concrete behemoth, would end up six feet long and tip the scales at 150 pounds.
We started the hunt for parts online. My wife found these amazing hand-crafted, powder-coated steel legs from a guy in Turkey. We bought a pair of vibrant purple ones and they arrived at our doorstep four days later. Amazing.
Without a maker-space or co-op workshop loaded up with power-tools, you need to do a bit of delegating. So I headed over to Home Depot, had them pre-cut sheets of pine to size, screwed and glued them together to make the “sub-top” and then drilled and screwed the purple powder-coated table legs. So far, so good.
Now, what to do with the top? My wife and I talked about different ideas. Lacquer, oil, wax, paint, but we wanted to do something unique. What about concrete? Wouldn’t it be cool to give the top an artisanal troweled concrete feel? I’ve never worked with concrete before, but hey, how hard could it be?
Famous last words. Oy!
So I went online and searched “how to make a concrete table top.” This led me to a great DIY tutorial on making concrete counter tops and tables. Still this was pretty much all out winging it. And that’s also where I hit my first snag.
Turns out, when you use concrete, the thing you’re covering needs to be a a “stable substrate,” meaning it can’t have any give or flex or expand or contract. If it does, that movement will crack the concrete. Now here’s the thing about any kind of natural wood, except for very expensive hardwoods (which I wasn’t about to buy just to cover with concrete), they flex, expand and contract in response to humidity.
So the pine top I’d planned to coat with concrete was out the window. Bummer. But, not really. One of the best parts of making is winging it, making mistakes and then having the chance to problem-solve. That’s much more fun than just following a set of rules where you’re fairly certain of the outcome, but you also end up learning less and diminishing the possibility of genuine awe and surprise at the end of the process when you step back and say to yourself, “holy shit, it worked!”
It’s a bit like creating your own recipes. You make awful, barely-edible concoctions and then something clicks, you get the mixture right and angels sing. But the fact that you got so much wrong along the way is what makes the angel’s song so transcendent.
I think that’s why master makers never stop experimenting. Because it’s the process, as much as what the process yields, that drops them into the playful pulse of the universe where everything is as it should be.
Tinkering is like a beeline to Source and surrender.
Back to the concrete behemoth. What to do? Much as I don’t like using the stuff, I had to revert to particle board. It’s heavy as hell and some particle boards can “off-gas” volatile compounds (as can some people) that aren’t all that healthy for you. But I also knew the top would be sealed with 1/2 inch of concrete and I’d just have to seal the bottom with something else.
I ended up finding a 1 3/4 inch thick industrial particle board slab designed for warehouse packing tables. Three days and 125 pounds later, I swapped the new top on. With the steel legs, this thing now weighed in at around 140 pounds. And that’s before I poured and troweled three layers of concrete.
For the most part, I was enjoying working with my hands again, problem-solving and seeing something physical starting to emerge. Something I’d use every day. Something my family and friends would gather around for years to come. Something I could step back and think, “I made that.”
Why just “for the most part?” Because making isn’t my one thing these days. I was building in the middle of the total mayhem of our move and the larger gorgeous, yet complex mosaic of being a dad, husband and more than full-time entrepreneur, producer and writer. My mind doesn’t just drop into that special place where the world falls away and it’s just me and my craft. It takes time.
When making is your one thing, your profession or at least something you do in a substantial way every day, you build the physical and mental space into your life that allows you to drop into the process on a different level. When you’re making in the margins, though, you don’t. So your inability to fully honor the “ramping time” and preparatory rituals, coupled with the likelihood that you’ll get pulled out of the process prematurely can be frustrating.
Once you’re ready to go, you just want to go. And stay there for a while. You want to get lost in the process. You want to be there long enough to find God in the grain.
It’s harder to get to this place once you’re a bit further into life and you’ve made the call to make on the side. You can fight it. And I have. But reality always wins. A better approach is to own your choice and all that comes with it. Including the gift of having people around you who want so much for you to be a part of their experience that they keep asking for your presence. And you, theirs. Love trumps stuff. Even stuff you make.
So you do the dance, knowing that some days you can drop deep into the maker zone, others you’ll stay surface-level and still others, you’ll bounce back and forth. If there’s a way, bring the people you love into the process. And, there is, of course, the nuclear maker-option. The one that finds you so called by your inner-maker that you decide to make making your life. You turn it into your one-thing. There’s actually a fantastic book about this called Shop Class as Soulcraft, about a rising star in knowledge-work finding salvation as a vintage motorcycle mechanic. I’ve been tempted in this direction more than once. And I can’t rule out someday making a similar call.
That’s why I used the qualifier “for the most part.” But there was also something else. I wanted to do right by my materials and those who’d enjoy what they turned into. You probably get that last part, but what about “my materials?” Why would I want to do right by my wood and concrete and water? Because there’s something inside of me that says, on some level, every resource is worthy of respect. Even inanimate tubs of concrete. Sounds weird, I know, but that’s just how I’m drawn.
Back to the table…
It’s make or break time. My concrete mentor, a/k/a the interwebs, tells me my ability to trowel the concrete in just the right way will make or break the whole project. I learn that the material will only be workable for about 20-minutes, so I have to move quickly. I mix up the first batch.
It’s like a thick gray mud. I pour a long, oozing swath down the middle of the table begin to work it out toward the side. At a certain point, I get frustrated with the trowel so I reach down and use my fingers to spread the stuff around. I don’t realize my paw-marks will be so apparent—you can see them in the picture below—until the first layer dries and I see how much every movement shows.
At first, I think it looks like a big, fat mess. It looks terrible. But I know it’s just the first coat. And, more important, I also feel like a part of me, my imprint, is being layered into the table with every stroke, streak and roll.
Twenty-found hours later, I layer on the second coat. And that’s when the magic begins to happen. It starts to look like concrete. For the first time I start thinking I can pull it off. Create something that people can gather around. And make my girls proud.
Still I notice my trowel work continues to leave all sorts of lines and patterns that will remain in the table. I wonder how much I should leave in and how much I should sand out. Then I think more about what I like about things that are hand-made. And it’s not that they look store-bought.
I like it when you can see and feel the mark of the maker.
So, on the third and final coat, I try to make the marks more evenly spread and multi-faceted, more visually interesting, rather than just a series of long streaks and lines. But I also decide to keep them all visible and tactile. You can run your hand over it and feel the areas of effort and ease.
I sand a bit, then let it all cure for another 72 hours. Then, armed with a thin, 6-inch roller, I layer on three coats of a special food-safe concrete sealer, then seal the bottom of the slab as well. I’m a bit bummed once the sealer goes on, because I love the lighter color color and grainy feel of the unsealed concrete and the sealer darkens and smooths the top. But, in the end, it still looked cool and, if I hadn’t sealed it, the porous nature of the concrete would have left it marked and stained within days. Here’s the finished table…
Over the next few weeks, I find myself working with my wife and daughter to modge-podge and resin-coat a kitchen table. And, as I write this, we’re prepping to make a four-foot mosaic coffee table, built on pine and set atop another set of powder-coated steel legs from Turkey, these in a fun turquoise.
In case you hadn’t guessed by now, this isn’t really about building tables. It’s about reconnecting to Self and Source through the process of making. When we honor that primal desire to turn raw materials into something beautiful. When we strive not for perfection, but connection. Engagement. Absorption. Elevation. That deeply experiential and irreverent full-mind-body-massage that comes from breathing and thinking and sweating and toiling and working something into existence. Not just with your mind, but with your hands.
I need more of that. And, if you’ve read this far, it’s a pretty safe bet, so do you.
Special Note – If you’re interested, we’ve created a powerful opportunity to reconnect with your maker-self, rediscover kid-level fun, moments of awe and melt into amazing new friendships. It’s called Camp GLP. Love to see you there.