Painful Reality of Unchecked Growth

Robert Szabo
7 min readAug 3, 2022

This is a lesson for the workshop, for the office job, for the school teacher, for the military service members, for life.

If there’s time to grow, there’s time to learn and prepare. Crawl, walk, then run.

Every new tool comes with a variety of excitement. “I can cut this easier”, “I can make that quicker”, “I can now do this!”. My first major workshop upgrade was buying a table saw in 2018. No more trying to make cutting boards with a circular saw. I was so excited for this, in fact, that I didn’t really know how to use it and nearly dulled the blade out against the fence because I didn’t set it up right. Who needs to read the manual?

Blade marks from improper use.

I was deployed and gone all of 2019 but made use of my down time with woodworking videos on Instagram and YouTube University¹. When I got back I had a fervor to buy new tools make an exponentially growing list of projects and gifts. I eagerly skipped straight to finding “the best tools for the job”. I should have been considering patience and really learning some of the needed skills before paying for the tool, or what I considered the solution.

It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t drop top dollar for these but I also didn’t settle for the cheapest I could find. My most expensive tool at the time ended up being my 450$ Rigid Planer. Admittedly, I bought these tools because I was addicted to the excitement of what each new tool could do for me rather than taking time to build skill with the tools I had. For example, I had a perfectly capable 12" Porter Cable planer that my parents got me for Christmas. It shot saw dust and shavings everywhere and made me consider starting a hamster cage bedding business, though I was fine trying to make coasters! I would prep a 4' long strip of hard maple smashed between strips of walnut. When feeding it through the planer I’d start hearing it chip, hard, and destroying anywhere from 6" to 10" of the end of the strips. I rotated the blades, still chipping, I changed the blades, still chipping. I eventually accepted that I’m going to either lose the ends of my coaster strips, or turn them into Disaster Coasters. Feeling good about turning apples into lemonade I kept with the same process. After a few months I had enough and decided a better planer would do the job I needed. I decided to sell this in favor of the 13" Rigid planer. It was bigger, badder, more efficient, and also chewed up the ends of my coaster strips! What the heck! Eventually I realized I was trying to make the coasters too thin (less than 1/4"). The planer was doing exactly what it was going to do, I just wasn’t using it right.

Chewed up coaster planks.

There’s another reason for my intense drive to buy tools, quickly expand my capabilities and build the next thing. That’s related to my mental state at the time. I’ll write another post about that later, but to make it short: I needed to do everything as fast as I could. I was thinking about doing everything today in case I wasn’t around to do it tomorrow. Turns out spending years on-site and with a back-of-mind thought that an enemy will drop a missile on you and your friends has an effect. 1 2 3

From the start of 2020 to the summer of 2021, I grew and filled every space of my 1.5 car garage (roughly 18' x 19'). I added a Miter saw and left it on the mobile stand, tool cabinet, built new cabinets, small drill press, planer, table saw, random free cabinets to hold sand paper, orbital sanders, oscillating sander, overhead storage for “stuff”, for wood, drill battery station. Many other little odds and ends in addition to my home gym, a squat rack and my weight storage cabinet.

State of the messiest shop on earth
State of the messiest shop on earth

At this point I could feel that I had the capabilities to build so many things, and yet I wanted more! I could also feel that I couldn’t fit any more and I also needed to develop better workshop habits and practices. Though, still needing to do everything now, I didn’t let myself stop to develop those thoughts. I took on new projects and stayed busy. When I was building the reception desk, I was stressed. Partly because I was designing and building the largest piece to-date, but also because I felt like I just couldn’t move inside my workshop. I cleaned regularly between projects, but didn’t do well during projects. And additionally I never took time to optimize my flow in the workshop. Tools, materials, and junk went where they fit. I was stepping over power cords, edging my way around the table saw to get my tape measure. It wasn’t fun.

Once the project was finished I knew I wanted to slow down, take a breather and revamp my workshop. The Summer of 2021 I wasn’t in the greatest headspace though, so instead of reorganizing the workshop I bought an Omtech 60 watt laser. Oh the things I could do now!! On top of trying to learn the new tool, Community Impact ran a story about me timed with Veteran’s day. This ran in their local newspapers and online. Over a weekend I had enough requests for projects to last me a year, into late 2022. This exposure was more than I could have dreamed of and I was pumped to get to work.

I was so excited that I quickly neglected cleaning up the shop between activities. The place became a mess with tripping hazards everywhere. I became careless, even more so than before. “It’s okay”, I thought to myself. With a backlog of clients there’s no room to slow down.

One weekend in early December 2021, I was tired, stepping over cables, squeezing myself between tools to cut a sheet of 1/8" thick plywood. I was using a 4,500 RPM Hitachi Table saw with a 10" blade. Each saw tooth has a theoretical speed of about 134 MPH (yes that’s miles-per-hour)². The table surface was barely over a foot on either side of the blade and I was trying to cut this near 4 ft long sheet in half, so the fence was way off to the right and exposed a gap between the table saw and the fence. I pushed the sheet along and when it got about 2/3 through the back right corner of the sheet dipped below the fence. I was putting just enough pressure to keep the sheet against the fence, so when it dipped underneath, the front of the sheet angled just enough into the blade. The blade caught it and sent it swiftly and violently in my direction.³

When I tell this story, my abdomen starts hurting again. I know it’s all in the mind though. It’s an effect of a major accident. It landed the largest and darkest bruise I’ve ever had on my lower abdomen, about 2" from having a life altering accident. The way the blade pulled the wood I could have easily lost fingers. I got out lucky.

Viewer Discretion Advised: Blunt Force Injury Video

Within a few weeks after this accident I had cancelled all of my upcoming projects so I could slow down and ensure I was being safe and moving forward with a clear plan. This story isn’t about table saw safety, although I could write an entire article based on what I did wrong with the tool (hint always use a riving knife). There’s a pattern here of wanting to do the next thing and have the tools for the job without planning for growth or learning how to use my existing capabilities to their full potential. I “hired first” and asked questions later. I started my next endeavor before reorganizing and regrouping. That’s a lot of words to describe impatience.

If there’s time to grow, there’s time to learn and prepare. Crawl, walk, then run.

Originally published at Szabo Woodworks.

  1. YouTube University, not the specific channel but the concept of watching videos on YouTube to soak up knowledge.
  2. Saw tooth speed calculation.
    31.4 Blade circumference = 10" blade*Pi (i.e 3.14)
    141,300 inches per minute = 31.4*4500
    11,775 feet per minute = 141,300 / 12
    706,500 feet per hour = 11,775*60
    133.8 miles per hour = 706,500 / 5280
    or 59.8 meters per second
  3. Table saw kickback is when the blade bites a piece of wood and accelerates it in the direction of the blade.