Canadian Woodworking

Sometimes simple is best

Blog by Rob Brown
Zen garden rake

I’ve competed lots of complex, large jobs, and almost always look back on them fondly. Finishing a project that’s technically difficult is pretty satisfying, especially if you weren’t sure if you had the skills to complete it in the first place. But finishing a small job can also be very rewarding, though the reasons are much different. There’s something nice about starting and finishing a project on the same day. When you started there was just a plank or two of lumber sitting on the shelf. Once complete, the lumber has been turned into a beautiful, functional object, with quality joinery and smooth surfaces that encourages you to smile. It’s a good feeling.

It’s satisfying to complete a project that pushes your skills, and looks impressive, but simple projects, completed in a Zen-like state, also have a lot going for them.

That “Zen” feeling

Maybe Zen is too big a word to use for this little woodworking project I just finished, but it was hard not to think of a Japanese Zen garden — raked sand rings surrounding a rock — while making this simple project the other day. That was mainly because that’s where this project – a Zen garden rake – is going to be used. I’ve always loved the look of a Zen garden, but with young kids and a big dog, I knew I was dreaming. This rake was for Scott Bullock, who helps advise CW&HI on our cover designs.

It took me about three hours to make, and even the process was somewhat Zen-like. I had some flexibility with the design details and there were only three workpieces to concern myself with. This simplified the project a lot. I broke out the handle and machined it square, then notched the head to accept the handle so the top of the handle and head were flush. Next, I spent a bit of time shaping a large portion of the handle with an octagonal cross-section, then added a few tiny details close to where the handle and head meet before I cut the large tines into the head. I was almost there. I glued these two parts together, then shaped and glued a third part directly on top of the head to strengthen the joint between the handle and the head. A bit of sanding, some chamfering with a small block plane, and I was ready for a finish.

It’s with simple projects like these, when the time outside your shop seems to slow and you almost act on instincts alone, that working wood is really enjoyable. Joinery isn’t complex. The design is nice. Things go smoothly. The finished project looks great and works well. I think we should all do a project like this from time-to-time to remind ourselves how enjoyable and meditative woodworking can be. Advanced woodworkers have a lot of projects to choose from, but even beginners have many options. If you have a few basic tools, chopsticks are pretty easy. A simple cutting or serving board will get used regularly and put a smile on your face. A wall-mounted coat rack? Dress a piece of wood, then screw a few coat hooks onto it before mounting it to the wall. I bet you’ll get a surprising amount of satisfaction from the simple act of hanging your coat up every night.

What’s your idea of simple?

Rather than sending me the most complex, impressive project you’ve ever completed, why not send me a few photos of the simplest one? Include a few details about what you enjoyed about making it, and why you like it so much now. I’ll include a few in a future post.

Until Zen, keep things simple.

Need an Extra Hand?

Drive a few screws into the offcut portions of the workpiece, then flex a thin piece of wood to the desired curve before tracing the arc you want.

Zen garden rake

Cutting tines on the table saw

Ripping on the table saw

Hand planing

Gluing up

The Little Details

It’s fairly easy to turn an otherwise plain project into something with a bit of character by adding a few details. Here, heavily chamfered edges will not only stop the wood from splintering during use, but they also look good.

Chamfering edges
Last modified: May 15, 2022

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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