On Making and Letting Go

I’ve been a member of the Metafilter community for over fifteen years now. In that time I’ve made many friends, some just on-line, never-actually-met-them kind of friends, but a few real-life ones. My last three (four by the time you read this) birthdays have been spent celebrating with “MeFites”, four of us born on the same day. It’s safe to say that Metafilter has become a significant part of my life.

One of the annual traditions over at Metafilter is a holiday Secret Santa gift exchange. For reasons I’m not actually sure of, the exchange is known as the Secret Quonsar Swap. A couple of volunteers who will no doubt one day be entered into the sainthood, or at least the on-line community Hall of Fame, connect several hundred users to one another to exchange a small holiday gift. I’ve been doing the swap for about six years now.

What I discovered my first year doing the swap is that picking out a $20 gift for an internet stranger is far more stressful than picking out gifts for my family. Even though I wasn’t going to be around when they opened the gift, and I could even send it anonymously if I wanted, it was terrifying to think they might open a box, find a few Lego or some Candy and be disappointed.

The truth is nobody is ever disappointed. You get a box in the mail from an internet stranger. That right there is amazing. You’ve connected with someone across the country or across the world and that’s what the exchange is really about. In my opinion anyway.

A few years ago I was scanning the posting history of my Quonsee, spying on one’s posting history is a great way to get ideas for a gift, when I discovered they were a musician. Around this time I had just started to build an interest in guitar building so I decided I would build them a cigar box guitar. I had already built one, something I slapped together in an hour or so, but I thought I’d put a little more care into one I built for a stranger.

The result of my efforts was a very attractive, though very poorly made, cigar box ukulele. I had screwed up the headstock and had to compensate by using a piece of aluminum to hold the strings back, one of the frets was clearly in the wrong position, and, while playable, the intonation made even the worst banjo sound like a finely tuned instrument by comparison.


It looks better than it sounds.

Still, I was proud of it.

Then I realized I had put all this effort into making something and I would now have to put  it in a box and just… give it away. To a stranger. From the Internet.

So that’s what I did.

And it felt fucking great.

I had never made anything for anyone before and now the act of taking what I’d made and dropping it in the mail felt really good. Like “and that’s what Quonsmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” sort of good.

After a few days I received an email from my Quonsee that said, in its entirety, “Speechless.”

That was nice of them, but, seriously dude? That’s all you’ve got?

Then a few days later a song appeared on Metafilter. They took my their ukulele, went into a recording studio, and wrote and recorded a thank you song. Now who was speechless?

It turns out building something for a total stranger paid off more than I could ever have imagined. Warm fuzzies lasted for weeks.

My interest in guitar building has since taken off, at the time of this writing I’m finishing up my third electric guitar. These are “real” instruments, taking months rather than hours, and my skills in lutherie and woodworking get better every day. Some day I’ll tackle an acoustic.

For the 2015 Secret Quonsar I built a pine box for my Quonsee. This was the first purely woodworking project I’d ever undertaken. Much like the ukulele, it was full of mistakes and scratches but it still came out ok. I filled it with pictures of cats because, well, what else would I put in a box for an internet stranger? It was similarly well received.

I was emailed the name of my 2016 Quonsee just a few days after the US Presidential election. I think it’s safe to say it was a pretty shitty week. I’d been in a funk, enraged at both the election outcome and the fact that I was related to people who voted for Donald Trump. (look, I’m a filthy hippie liberal so if you don’t like my politics just go away now, thanks) So when I opened the email and the “wish list” suggestions included the word “owl” I immediately knew what I’d be doing. I went out and did an image search for some design ideas (I’m not a designer at all), found something that looked exactly like what I had in mind, and ventured down to the basement.

I can’t watch a TV show, see a movie, or read a book without spacing out ten minutes into it, but when I get to building something I am in the mother-effin’ zone.

I glued up a sandwich of some poplar and cherry and cut a shape out on the bandsaw.


Sandwich on the bandsaw

I then cut off the back of the head, cut out the “drawers” and glued the head back together.


Archeologists think they’ve found an ancient owl skull.

Once that was done I cut the off back and front from all the drawers, hollowed out the insides, and glued the front and back back on.

Now I had some shapes to cut. I dug up various pieces of scrap wood, including walnut, maple, oak, cherry, and mahogany, and cut out the pieces to make the face.


Rough cut shapes, yet to be sanded, shaped and glued.

Then I sanded and shaped them until I was satisfied with how they looked and glued them onto the drawer fronts. When all the glue was dry I sanded the entire thing to 220 and applied a mixture of boiled linseed oil, mineral spirits, and wipe-on poly.


An eye and whatever the hell the top of an owl’s head is called.

I flocked the insides of the drawers, which involves painting them with an adhesive and shooting powdered felt out of a little pump device. When the adhesive dries you blow out the excess felt and then you have a nice little felt-lined drawer. It makes it feel like your mom’s jewelry box, the one she keeps her charm bracelet and those fake pearls in.


Flocking up a drawer.

Once the oil was dry I rubbed some wax into the wood, which turned into a near disaster. Maybe I have old wax or, very possibly I have no idea what I’m doing, because when the wax dried it covered the entire thing with a flakey white film, which really stood out against the dark mahogany and walnut. I had to apply mineral oil and sand the thing several times before reapplying a coat of oil. Luckily, this worked and Quonsmas was saved!

The end result was something I was pretty proud of. Like the other things I’ve made, there are plenty of mistakes and imperfections, but it looks really good, the drawers slide easily, and hopefully it will go over well with the recipient.


Insert cartoony “boing” sound effect.

Today I put it in a box and by the time of this writing my wife will have dropped it off at the post office. It’s on its way.


Confession: this is not an original design. I found it on the Googles.

I no longer have to be concerned with putting effort into something only to just give it away. I’ve learned that doing so does just as much for me, if not more, than it does for the recipient of the gift.  I certainly hope some day I’m skilled enough to charge actual money for the things I’ve made, but even then I know I’ll still just let something go once in a while.

I wish I could say everything is better now, but we’re still looking at four or more years of… who knows. Nothing good. But buckling down, figuring things out, crafting with my hands, smoothing with sandpaper, wiping on oil… was very healing. By the time the weekend was over I was out of my funk and ready to, I dunno, maybe become more politically active than I ever have in my life because fuck this noise.

I was well into my 40s before I realized, after years of going from one hobby to the next, making things is what I love to do more than anything. And while I enjoy making something that I can use around the house, be it a guitar, an arcade machine, or a shelf, the act of making something and shipping it off to a stranger on the internet is surprisingly satisfying.

I highly recommend it.


“…and you can put your weed in here.”


About Jim

Just a guy who likes to make stuff.
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1 Response to On Making and Letting Go

  1. jessamyn says:

    I never knew how they did flocking until today!!


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