Every time we move to a new place – my wife and I are serial movers so I speak from experience – the first thing I do is get my basement workshop up and running. It’s nothing grandiose: just a workbench, a few shelves for tools, and some pegboard on a wall with hooks for those odds and ends, packs of spare fasteners and thingies that you tend to accumulate over the years. After all, any new home is going to need some amount of sorting out and fixing up, right? How could you even get started without the base of operations a workshop provides?
I believe many guys feel a need for some kind of mission-control, command-post, call it what you will, and the currently-fashionable "man cave" is evidence of this. Still, I've never hung out in the workshop with my buddies to watch the hockey game: it would get pretty cramped in there, squeezed between the furnace and the water heater, and a big-screen TV simply wouldn't look right mounted on the studs.
In my case it’s about liking to fix things and having somewhere to do it. The Universe is unfolding as it should when you descend to the workshop with some broken appliance, or break out the files, screwdrivers, hex keys or whatever you need for some household repair. But that doesn’t answer the question about the clear dividing line between those who have workshops and those who don’t. It’s a question I can’t give a general answer to, but in my case I’m sure it goes back to my Dad’s workshop.
Dad was both an artist and an amateur engineer ready to turn his hand to the variety of projects that took his interest. In contrast to my basement-bound incarnations, Dad’s workshop was on the top floor of a 1900s-vintage house in the inner suburbs. I had the great good fortune to be able to mess around there from as early as I can remember to age eleven when we moved away. At the time I took it for granted, as children do, that everyone had a room like this with all kinds of cool stuff.
Of course, the workshop had a fair complement of the usual woodworking and some metalworking tools, and a casual familiarity with these with these was its legacy to me. One of the principal products of the workshop was picture frames for Dad's artwork, because, well, why would you pay a framer an exorbitant amount when you had the skills and tools to do it yourself?
An early offering was a pedal-driven little Jeep that I received for my fourth birthday. The frame was wood, but the bodywork was bright, shiny Aluminum. I would terrorize the pigeons in the local park with this excellent vehicle, until the park-keeper appeared, that is.
The workshop had a lathe, turned by a rubber belt and a treadle-driven flywheel that you could work up to a clanking, whirling frenzy. I'd use the lathe to make grotesque-looking candlesticks - well that’s what I thought they were, and there was a manually-turned grindstone that, when cranked up to suitable revolutions per minute, would generate a spectacular shower of sparks when a nail, gripped in pliers, was pressed to the spinning stone.
Near where Dad worked in downtown Bristol, in England, was a hobby shop that specialized in model trains. Having a young son may not have been the whole motivation but I'm sure it provided a fine justification for the creation of a model railway in, where else, the workshop. This wasn’t the teensy weeny double-O gauge that was becoming popular even then. This layout was O-gauge, twice the size, with locomotives and rolling stock to match. The track ran around the walls, and there was a lifting bridge at the doorway so you didn’t have to duck under when entering the room.
The railway was an electric layout and Dad crafted a control-panel beside the tracks with knobs and switches for me to tinker with. I doubt if the electrical connections would pass inspection these days, 240-volt wiring - twice the voltage employed in Canada - twisted together and finished with liberal applications of insulating tape. Happily, nobody was electrocuted.
We started with a replica of a tank-engine, a short range steam locomotive that carried its coal and water without a tender. Dad christened it “Tanky” and it would scoot around the track like a scared rabbit. There were several goods wagons and later, a passenger car. A set of points, called railroad switches today, allowed Tanky to park in a siding parallel to the main track.
At age nine, I had my tonsils removed. Not a fun operation to recover from. However, on arrival home, Dad took me up to the workshop and there, standing resplendent in the siding, was a shiny purple mainline locomotive made by Basset-Lowke, the acknowledged high end maker of model trains. Like Tanky, this was a metal model, none of your plastic mouldings.
The layout also featured a level-crossing for the many clockwork cars that accumulated as presents or swaps from friends. I would send one down the road to the crossing as a train approached, and do my best to judge matters so that the car just made it across. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes that was on purpose.
Dad’s piece de resistance, I suppose, was a miniature flour-mill by the siding, artfully crafted from cardboard and painted with a stone finish. There was an electric motor inside that drove a rotor through a system of pulleys and wheels. This rotor would drop mini-sacks of flour down a chute into a waiting goods wagon below.
My growing interest in model planes benefited from the workshop’s tolerance for the noxious aromas of cellulose finishes, and best of all for running the tiny diesel engines that were many a schoolboy’s delight. Before mounting a new engine in your model plane you had to run it for an hour or two to bed down the bearings. So, with the engine mounted on a large chunk of wood secured in a vice, I would attach a propeller, fill the fuel tank with a mind-altering mix of ether, paraffin and castor-oil, and flip the propeller until combustion was a achieved. The result was a horrendously loud raspy buzz and a blue haze that smelled exactly like the exhaust of a bus or truck. Wonderful!
Fast forward some years.
Our basement workshop in Oakville was where my son, who needed little encouragement, started out by learning to assemble plastic model kits and more besides Ans soon progressed to the arts of DIY. It soon became clear that he'd inherited the family workshop genes and the ability to turn his hand to pursuits both artistic and practical, just like Grandpa.
Fast forward some more.
My wife and I downsized to a condo last year. No more workshop. Oh, I could keep a few tools in our downstairs locker, and I even had a small toolbox in the unit for those little jobs like replacing a screw or hanging pictures – yes, some of Dad’s fine watercolours – but that was it, and it wasn't the same.
Then we decided we'd really like some crown moulding. Like Dad, I wasn't keen to pay contractor rates for a job I knew how to do, but my miter saw was long gone. What to do? Borrow a friend's and use it on the balcony? That would get me a strongly worded note from the office. There were rumours of a wood shop in the basement. I took the elevator down, found the room, opened the door and turned on the light. A extractor fan whirred to life somewhere above. That warm familiar smell of sawdust and varnish filled my nostrils. A fine selection of tools was arrayed around the walls: planers, grinders, even a lathe, and yes, a miter saw! The crown moulding project was a "go."
It’s not quite like having my own basement workshop, but it comes darn close. One thing I know. Dad would have loved it.
Dave Moores started writing fiction “to see if I could” following a decision to finally retire from the workforce at age 71. Writing in turn is becoming a full-time job and Dave has his first novel, Windward Legs, set in the sailing community in Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe Region where he races his own sailboat and lives with his wife Chris. “Dad’s Workshop” was previously published in the Globe and Mail as a “Facts and Arguments” essay (here). For information on submitting an essay to the Globe & Mail, see here.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.