Brian's Origin Stories

I could build that if I had all those tools

I could build that if I had all those tools

With the rise of YouTube and every marketer saying that video content will help grow your business, I decided to step into the video game and started sharing my builds and build process on YouTube.

This strategy did work.  Traffic flowed to my website, SEO improved, and I even started picking up viewers’ commissions. I’ll be damn, those marketing experts were right, but they missed one thing, how to deal with the internet ass hats.

Armchair woodworkers came out of the woodwork (pun intended) to tell me I was doing it wrong.  One guy even wrote me an essay of over 1000 words telling me what a piece of shit I am and how I am doing it all wrong.  This beratement didn’t bother me so much, as I clicked through to their channels and social media profiles; they had no portfolio of work to back up their claims as one to judge who is an expert woodworker.  Most have never built anything other than a plane-sawn cutting board.  No skills are necessary; cut to length, wipe with oil, use sandpaper optional, and done.

However, one comment pressed the pet peeve button every time it came up.  Their comments showed a lack of understanding of how much work goes into building a woodworking business and how long it takes to acquire the skills and tools to run a successful one.

The comment or some variation of “Would you be as good of a woodworker if you didn’t have all those tools?”, (generally worded in a demeaning way).

While any woodworker worth their salt will tell you, “Yes, good tools make the work easier,” they are not necessary to do good work.

These commenters assume that some fairy flew into my shop one night, sprinkled some fairy dust around, and all these tools grew overnight like Jack’s bean stock.  Alternatively, they assumed some corporate sponsors gave me some free tools.  However, “free” comes with other strings attached. You must dance like a joker to entertain the king, hoping to make a few shillings from the show.  Dance Damnit (whip cracks) Dance!

So, how did I get all these tools?  Let us go back to the 2000ish.  I was in my early twenties, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I had just rented a small 700 sq—foot house with a one-car garage in NE Portland, Oregon.  If you have ever visited the N and NE Portland area, you will notice that many garages are not big enough to park a modern SUV inside.  In that time, they were built for much smaller cars; in fact, in N Portland, many houses were not built with garages at all; instead, you can still find iron rings along the streets to tie the rains of your horse.  (At least the ones the meth heads haven’t cut off to cash in for scrap metal)  The older Portland neighborhoods are beautiful in their history and architecture.

Needless to say, not all older neighborhoods were beautiful. The area I lived in was the kind of neighborhood where you slept with a baseball bat by your bed. We were a few blocks up from the convergence of two major streets, which brought a lot of drug and prostitution activity into the neighborhood.

I remember looking out the front window one day and watching some teenagers acting the thug life walk by.  One kid needed to take a piss, so he pulled down the front of his jogging pants, whipped his dick out, and proceeded to piss on the street.  At first, I was irritated that this ass hat had no respect for the neighborhood, but that quickly was replaced by amazement.  This boy had such control that he could keep walking while keeping a steady, strong stream of piss going.  I don’t think I could have done that, and I surely would have had to stop walking to keep the stream going.  Clearly, this asshole was well-practiced.

To make the best of what house we could afford, I turned the garage into a tiny workshop.  If I had to guess, it was about 12 feet wide by 15 feet long.  However, you have to subtract out 8 square feet or so for an old oil-fired furnace.  That thing was straight out of a horror movie and sounded like a diesel train engine when it started up.  It was a bit oversized for a small 700 sq-foot house, and when it ran, the whole house rumbled throughout the cold winter nights.  The blower generated a small windstorm, blowing the heated air throughout the house.  I am surprised I was able to sleep through a heating cycle.  I guess you just become accustomed to your surroundings.

To say we were poor is an understatement.  When we rented the house, it was not furnished with a stove, so there was no way to cook a proper meal.  We did have an old propane BBQ and a microwave on the back porch.  It may seem like fun to BBQ in the snow, but in Portland, the winter months are longer cold and rainy than beautiful snow-covered, so it got old fast.  We ate a lot of cold sandwiches, BBQ hamburgers, and whatever other creative things we could cook on a BBQ and microwave.  We lived like that for longer than I care to admit before acquiring a stove, but it didn’t matter. I had a one-car garage that was slowly turning to turn it into a shop.  I just needed a few tools.

I had been working in the trades since I was 13, but I still had not acquired many tools. Most days, I used my co-worker’s tools.  Being the kid on the job, the old grandfatherly co-workers took me under their wing and took pride in passing on their knowledge to the next generation, so I acquired a ton of skills but not a ton of tools.  As long as I respected my co-worker’s tools, I was always welcome to use them, so I never needed to buy any.

my first table sawNow a decade later, I had my own shop space, and it was time to buy my own tools.  The first tool I purchased was a benchtop table saw; it was one-step down from a contractor’s saw and was a real piece of shit.  The fence never clamped square to the blade, and the guard/splitter never stayed in plain with the blade.  It was a real kickback nightmare; I had many close calls to some potentially severe injuries with that saw.  When I bought it, it was on sale for $89.00, which at the time was a ton of money for me.  The next month I bought a few sheets of MDF to build a table around the saw.  A co-worker helped me get it home since I didn’t have a truck at the time.  I then added some electrical outlets under the table, as there was only one plugin in the garage.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start.  I built a few boxes for Christmas presents, and that was the start of my portfolio.  That spring my mom and grandma gave me a few bucks to make them some birdhouses, I reinvested that money into the shop and bought a router.  The Following Christmas, I asked for one of those small tabletop drill presses, and a friend gave me a Home Depot set of hand planes.  Those hand planes didn’t hold an edge for shit, but I got very good at sharpening and used them for close to 15 years before I upgraded to a woodriver hand plane.

At this point, I felt I had enough basic tools that I could do almost any handyman-type work and small furniture projects, so I started soliciting work.  My neighbor hired me to do some home repair stuff, and with each job, I reinvested my earnings into my shop; slowly but surely, I built my collection of tools.  I continued to work full-time at my day job and worked after hrs. and on weekends in my hobby woodworking shop.  I am slowly building my skills and tools.

By 2008, I had an OK collection of hobby-quality woodworking tools and a good day job as a project manager for a construction company.  I was getting ready to upgrade to some pro tools when the housing market crises hit, and the construction company I worked for went out of business.  I picked up a shit job selling floor coverings at a big box store, to keep a paycheck coming in.  By 2010, I had had enough of the corporate life.  I was a round hole that they kept trying to drive a square peg through.

I officially launched Benham Design Concepts in 2010 and worked like crazy to get it to a point where I could afford to leave my day job.  It was a year and a few months of vigorous bootstrapping before I was able to quit my job and pursue woodworking as a full-time job.  During that year, I worked around the clock.  I knew nothing about website design, but I knew I needed one.  My first site was rough, to say the least.  I had no idea WordPress was a thing back then, so I spent many late nights teaching myself HTML, and CSS code, as I built my site.

With a small portfolio, it was a struggle to get quality jobs; everyone wanted to know if I had built something like this before, without pictures of something similar it was hard to convince them they should give me any money.  The next five years was a struggle to grow the business or tooling, and I took on every job no matter what it was, for whatever price I could get for it.  I built each project with your basic hobby-style tools, lunch box planer, Home Depot hand planes, etc.

I had been reaching out to interior designers looking for work, most of the jobs from them where small miscellaneous things.  Then finally, one called me and asked if I would give her a bid on a built-in bookshelf.  It would have to be integrated into a tiled wall around a fireplace.  I would have to figure out how to incorporate the gas shut off switch and the exhaust vent into the design.  With all that figured in, my bid seemed high, and I thought they would never buy it, but they did, and I was off.

I needed to join the 7-foot long mahogany panels, and each joint required a miter cut at the corners along the full 7-foot length. The narrower boards needed to be joined together as well to make them wide enough to fit the space.  I did not have a jointer at the time, so I jointed the boards by hand with my Home Depot hand plane-fighting tear out at every switch of grain direction.  It took hours to build, but in the end, the profits from that job allowed me to buy my 8″ Jet jointer.  The next job, I bought my 15″ jet planer, and everything took off from there.  After 20 years of dedication to learning the craft, and having the guts to take on a considerable job armed only with a handful of cheap big box store hand tools, propelled my portfolio, my confidence, and all those tools.

Now when someone leaves their shitty comments on YouTube, implying I wouldn’t be a good woodworker if it were not for all those tools.  I just have to shrug off their ignorance, because the dedication to learn the craft to become a good woodworker is what afforded me all those tools.

I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.