In construction school, as in many other aspects of life, I find that it is better to be doing something—no matter how seemingly futile—than to be doing nothing. Doing something usually leads to something else, whereas doing nothing leads nowhere.
When it comes to the workshop at school, if I’m not building something, I feel anxious. Because, if I can’t think of something to make, with infinite lumber and tools at my disposal, something must be wrong with me. That’s what I was thinking recently as I stared at the boundless bin of scrap lumber and couldn’t dream up a project.
So with no plan in mind, I decided to dabble in hexagons. I’m particularly interested in hexagons, because I love the shape of hexagonal garden pavilions. And since I’d like to make a garden pavilion, shingled with cedar and laced with moss, I thought I’d have a go at making a six-sided frame that could ultimately translate into a template for a larger flooring system.
It takes only a few minutes of trying to but square ends of wood up against each other to realize you’re going to have to calculate some angles if you want anything other than a rectangle. Brace yourself for some math:
To calculate angles in a regular polygon, take the number of sides and subtract two. In the case of a hexagon, N-2=4, which we multiply by 180°. Now divide 720° by N, which yields 120° per angle in the hexagon.
That means we’re going to mate two 60° angles. In order to cut boards at 60°, we set a miter saw to 30° to cut down the 90° angle.
This makes my head hurt, but it also made for a great learning experience for me and my new shop friend Ethan, as we stood at the whiteboard recalling geometry from the dark recesses of our brains.
Once I mitered all my angles, Ethan patiently taught me how to sink screws into the vertices, then mix sawdust and wood glue to make filler to hide the screws.
As is their habit, the rest of the guys in class teased me for pouring so much geometry and fine-motor energy into a wooden doodle with no clear application. They asked what I was going to do with my miniature stop sign.
Y’all, stop signs have eight sides. Garden pavilions have six sides. As do honeycomb cells in a beehive.
Before I knew it, I was waxing metaphorical about bees and thinking about the benefits of working in a hive, because the next day, two of my classmates were hard at work on hexagons of their own. One classmate was following my tiny template, though attempting to improve on my joinery by building a jig that would let him cut slots in the vertices to insert a “biscuit” for a seamless joint. I would never have thought of that on my own.
Meanwhile, Ethan the English joiner, had exploded my tiny hexagon study into a large-scale furniture project. He is now fully engaged in building a massive hexagonal table that will be stunning.
I told him that I will take partial credit for his beautiful work, because my tiny and ridiculously pointless hexagon sparked the idea. “You see, I’m not so useless after all,” I said, for the benefit of everyone who had mocked my insufficient stop sign.
At that moment, another classmate buzzed past the hexagonal table and delivered a classic stinger: “You can tell yourself that,” he said, “if it helps you sleep at night.