No space to work

When I started on my journey, I watched several woodworking videos online, usually posted by highly skilled woodworkers in the US or UK. Almost always, it was a very confident white man in a large, well-equipped workshop, with a massive workbench and an impressive array of hand tools neatly arranged on shelves behind him. I thought to myself, okay so that’s what a ‘real’ workshop looks like, and I need to have something like that if I want to make anything worthwhile or be taken seriously.

As a woman over forty, living in rented accommodation in India, trying to learn woodworking on my own. I could only dream of having a workshop like the ones I had seen online. But I had to make a start somewhere, somehow. I live in a small apartment in a fair-sized building with neighbours on all sides. Woodworking can be noisy and dusty work, and I needed a space with enough ventilation and light. Working indoors was out of the question, and the only space left was the balcony. But very soon, I realized that I couldn’t just start working in the balcony. I had to deal with some practical problems first:

  • The balcony was small- just 3′ x 11′. Plus, the balcony entrance was right in the middle, which effectively gave me just 4′ feet on either side.
  • It was the only place I could dry my laundry in.
  • Mosquitos! It was impossible to stay out there longer than a few minutes without getting bitten several times. I had no idea how I was going to get around this on a shoe-string budget.
  • There was no awning and I needed a way to keep most of the rain water out, since I would be working with wood.

I knew the solutions to these challenges would not all be very obvious or straightforward, and it took me a few days to work through each one in a way that was practical, effective and very low-cost. Each time I hit a dead-end, I guess it was natural for me to feel a bit dejected. At these times, I feel some aspects of my upbringing would come into play almost subconsciously. And with them would come a sort of doggedness to be resourceful, to think laterally, and to keep trying till I had it figured out.

I grew up in a joint family of ten, living in a 1000-square foot apartment in Bombay. Space was a luxury we didn’t have. My mother had several creative interests including architecture and interiors, and she had a book called ‘Living in Small Spaces’, which was all about loft homes and tiny homes abroad. The book was full of innovative ways to optimize space, creative storage solutions, and multi-functional furniture that made it possible to have a tiny but fully-functional home. It helped me believe that with out-of-the-box thinking and resourcefulness, you could get a lot done in a small space.

I think resourcefulness and the ability to adapt to constraints were hardwired into me quite early. I can recall several instances of how we did this as a family. We usually ate our meals informal buffet style- all of us sitting together in the living room with pots and pans on the floor, watching the prime time show of the day. Wardrobe space was always shared, and I had a small drawer, one long shelf and half of a short shelf for my clothes. We had just one wash basin, one bathroom and one loo (which were all separate, thankfully) between the ten of us. It seems to me a miracle that we all managed to bathe and get dressed for school or work on time, every day.

Even our games were tailored for small spaces. Apart from the usual indoor games like carrom, card games and board games, we modified outdoor games to make them work in a small indoor space. We had our own version of cricket for example, which three or four of us usually played together in the living room or in one of the bedrooms, in a space that was barely eight feet long and five feet wide. We changed the rules of the game (even gave it a new name) to make it interesting, challenging and fun in that tight space.

Many of these experiences allowed me to develop more flexible ideas of how much or how little (space or resources) you really need in order to get something done. This approach helped me tackle the constraints I mentioned earlier, and set up a basic yet functional workshop in my little balcony. More on this in my next post!