The Mayday Experiment: Chip Off the Old Block

My relationship to carpentry is complicated. 

My dad was a master carpenter. He built everything from custom, hand-carved gun stocks to a beautiful easel for my 24th birthday. I grew up with him building dune buggies, sewing fringed buckskin suits with antler buttons from deer he killed himself, and putting custom fireplaces in our home. It was from him that I got my love of good craftsmanship, as well as my borderline obsessive perfectionism. But it was not from him that I learned how to build anything.
Not, mind you, for lack of trying. From a very young age I hung out in his workshop in the garage, putting wood shavings in my hair for extra curls and practicing hammering nails. But every time I tried to get him to teach me to actually build something, he would just take the tools out of my hands and do it, despite my protestations. So I just kept pounding nails and watching him out of the corner of my eye.
When I was ten, I got a pocket knife, and joyfully whittled every twig within reach into a sharp nub, even occasionally attempting to carve particularly nice sticks into things that would never be recognized as their intended likenesses. I would sit behind the barn and whittle for hours, watching the horses eat and listening to the gentle cacophony of the pigs. But a knife was as far as it went – requests to use saws were turned down every time, well into my teens.

Naturally, his paranoia about my touching his power tools extended into my adult life, and it took a lot of years for me to get comfortable around a table saw. In fact, it didn’t really happen until a couple of years ago at grad school, where suddenly I found myself working in the woodshop and teaching undergrads how to use the saw while listening with one ear for the whine of a future broken bandsaw blade or the terrifying clunk of the Sawstop hitting skin. My fear grew into a healthy respect after the first few minor injuries.

But while I’ve become more comfortable with the tools themselves, I haven’t become much more comfortable about building things with wood. My insecurities get the best of me and I second guess…what kind of joint to use? What’s the appropriate lumber? Glue or no glue? Despite having taught students how to construct wooden sculptures, building things from wood feels as if it has more stringent rules than other materials. Which of course, is completely untrue, especially when you consider that there’s no chemistry involved.

Other materials have never intimidated me. I taught myself to fiberglass things by watching Pimp my Ride and shaky YouTube videos. (A skill that will come in handy in the tiny house, as I intend to build my own vertical bathtub.) I learned how to work with resin from website tutorials and material safety data sheets. My approach to art-making has always been to choose the material that best fits the idea, so it’s led to learning a lot of new skills, usually quickly. But wood, I always left to the experts, like my friends Dave Seiler or Philip Spangler, both of whom I’ve hired to build pedestals and crates and even tiny houses, or my friend Dan Jarvis, who helped me build my thesis show.

But the tiny house requires a whole raft of skills with steep learning curves, and I can’t afford to hire other people to do it. And that aforementioned perfectionism won’t allow me to leave one nail out of place. So I’d better get up to speed quickly. To that end, I’ve been puttering away on displays for jewelry and modifications to my warehouse kitchen, practicing on things that matter less than my actual house.

As I work on sketching out the plans that Victoria Salvador left me to play with while away on her honeymoon, I find myself fretting about the tiniest of details and wondering if my skills will be good enough: How will this door slide? What is that kind of hinge called? Are these stairs actually going to support an adult human’s weight? Can I find an actuating, swiveling extending piece of hardware strong enough to hold my computer in the IKEA hardware bargain bin, or am I living in some crazy NASA fantasy world lusting after really expensive or non-existent hardware? Each phase of this project has led closer and closer to reality and away from pie-in-the-sky fantasy. The original sketches of this house included a hanging hydroponics farm near the ceiling (nixed for weight), a chicken coop on the back (Philip finally convinced me that the chickens would be unhappy), and a washing machine (an extravagant indulgence when you are accounting for both water usage and solar load). I still have dreams of a fold-out deck on the tongue and drop-down spice racks in the kitchen ceiling, but more and more I am trying to learn to think practically. Which, when you think about it, is the same process EVERY new homeowner goes through. Each step of the way, groping towards what “home” means and looks like. The dreaming is the fun part. But it has to go through a filter of reality at some point. And reality has never been my strong suit.

Someday, the tiny house will have chickens – when it’s parked somewhere, wherever that is. And I still haven’t given up on the fancy hardware. If I can dream it, I can build it…as long as I keep telling myself that, right?  

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at

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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy