Design Lab: Finished Workbench

Completed WorkbenchEvery time I say it’s done, I lie.  But now it’s done. Ok, not all of it.  Not every single tiny thing is done exactly the way I like it, in exactly the manner that I want it. But it’s considerably farther along that I could have imagined six months ago.  A year ago.  Back in October, I didn’t even know if it was going to happen: I gave a presentation to the board and to some interested families, after talking to my head of school.  And then I waited.  In December, we didn’t have the money yet.  And then, in January, we did.

French cleat: Set Square HolderAnd now here it is, March.  It’s a week ahead of schedule, and all these pieces are ready to be moved into the new space.  All the materials are ready to be packed up.  All the tools are ready to go onto the pegboard or the French cleats (can I just say, I love saying the words “French cleats”.  It conjures up visions of a super-powered carpentry shop doing amazing and wonderful things. Thank you to our facilities manager (director?) for helping me cut the 45° angles today!  Yeah, I could use another eleven of those boards, maybe fourteen.  But I’m so much farther along that I thought I’d be.

I even built my first French cleat tool racks.  One is a rack for two set-squares, shown in the photograph at right.  If you click through on the picture, you’ll find the other rack in the photo album on Flickr, which is a rather crude shelf for a borer bit.

I’ve already decided on the first project that students will do in the new lab.

“Here is a tool that needs to hang on the tool rack, i the French cleat section. Design and build a French cleat for it, which does the following:

  1. Holds the tool in the minimum amount of space without being at risk of falling, while on the rack;
  2. Allows the tool to be released from the rack in a single hand-movement;
  3. Can hold the tool while standing on a workbench;
  4. Is level and balanced;
  5. Protects the working or cutting edge (if there are any) and shields users from accidental cuts;
  6. Shows off the tool attractively;
  7. Has a label that names the tool.
  8. Is beautiful.

People constantly ask me “how do you assess design work?” And they want to know how I grade design work.  Up until today, I had no idea.  I’ve consistently avoided grading kids for design work or for Maker-style work.  But today, I can tell you how that’s done, I think.

There’s the above categories.  If you meet four of those requirements, your results are going to look a lot like my borer-bit shelf: slap-dash and thrown-together and not particularly high-quality.  If you try for five or six of the above categories, you’re doing well.  If you try for all eight, you’re going to put in twice as much time as anyone else, and the results are going to be spectacular.

Buckminster Fuller said, “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

I now have two wrong cleats. 🙂  They meet five of the eight criteria (they don’t meet 3, 5, or 8, in the case of the set-square one which is shown, and that probably means a B or a B+ grade.

But to build these stupid little French cleats, I had to use two kinds of clamps, glue, screws, two different saws, sand paper in a single weight, a pencil, a set-square, a drill, and a screwdriver.  To build them to meet standard 8, I would have to have used two, maybe three weights of sandpaper, better-quality wood, some linseed oil, a level (maybe two), and perhaps a rasp or a plane. In other words, I’d have to have mastered another three or four tools to do do this effectively.  And that means that the student who does that gets the A.

And now I know how to grade design work:

  • look for evidence of materials mastery.
  • look for evidence of tools mastery.
  • look for evidence of geometric and measured precision.
  • look for evidence of aesthetic care.

There’s the four criteria for grading design work.  And I only had to build a whole workshop to figure it out.

Liked it? Take a second to support Andrew on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. […] Design Lab: Finished Workbench — Someone once told me it would take $50,000 to build a MakerSpace.  I did it for around $5,000, by learning the carpentry necessary to build the first workbenches, sawhorses, and tool racks myself. A MakerSpace that’s all fancy cabinetry and high-tech lighting is nice (if you’ve got the money to build and maintain it), but the truth is you can start anywhere, with anything, and build up/out from that. […]

  2. […] And that means teaching them some of the patterns and borders that you might like to see on their written pages.  It doesn’t matter if you want checkerboards, or egg-and-dart, or vines, or acanthus leaves, or waves, or sea-shells.  If you want this sort of thing in their work, you have to make it beautiful, and you have to hold the students to a standard of beauty, too.  The aesthetics matter. […]

  3. And now, I know how to critique poetry:

    look for evidence of materials mastery (words).
    look for evidence of tools mastery (prosody).
    look for evidence of geometric and measured precision.
    look for evidence of aesthetic care.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.