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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

loftblogging 2: acoustic boogaloo by Shuli J. '22

turns out that at mit, even the non-academics are incredibly hard and deeply rewarding

I had a plan for this blog post: I was going to build a loft01 Quick loft backstory: East Campus gives us a lot of furniture freedom, and many people build lofts for their beds in order to acquire more floor space for other things. during REX, and then write about it. Then I had another plan for this blog post: I was going to build a loft before school starts, and then write about it. Then I had another plan for this blog post: I was going to build a loft in the first week of school, and then write about it.

And here we are, in the fourth week of school. But hey! I did build that loft! And she is BEAUTIFUL:

The long side of my loft. It is medium brown, with red undertones, and shines in the light. The pillars holding it up, the outside of the frame, and the diagonal cross braces are all in view. Underneath it is some of my other furniture.

The inspiration for this loft started with a really, really old house. An inCREDIBLY COOL old house: the Gamble House, which was built in Pasadena in 1908 by Charles and Henry Greene.02 Who, fun fact, got their architecture degrees from this fine institution! My parents and I were in SoCal last March Break (to visit my four-year-old twin cousins!!!!) and we heard about it through a friend. Because I am a huge architecture/woodworking/crafts nerd, I knew we had to go on a tour; I spent the whole time just f r e a k i n g  o u t about how cool it was and then immediately bought the making-of book, already dreaming about all the things I could build in their beautiful Arts & Crafts style. I still have the loft designs I scribbled on a napkin in the car on the way home.

Six months later, it turns out that, well, it’s difficult to build extremely beautiful and fancy things when you are

  • a full time student
  • living in a dorm
  • who doesn’t have a lot of woodworking experience
  • and owns almost none of their own tools

But all those things considered, I think I didn’t do too badly. One of the features that immediately caught my eye was how every single thing in the Gamble House is rounded (even the mf-ing bricks); there are no sharp edges. You can run your hand over every piece of the house, and it feels like a soft, smooth wooden hug. I didn’t exactly have the proper tools to pull this off (ideally, a wood router), so instead I just used an orbital sander03 An electric spinning tool to which you attach a piece of sandpaper so you can sand wood faster and without getting carpal tunnel to veeeeeeery carefully sand down each individual sharp edge until it blended into a soft corner. This was… difficult.

A small piece of wood that has not been sanded; its edges look sharp.

A small piece of wood with the closest long side sanded. The sanding rounds out the edge, but is visibly uneven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before and after orbital sanding the edge of a piece of test wood. I liked the way the result softened the piece, but really disliked the uneven look (which I mostly managed to refine in later iterations).

 

Another thing I loved was the richness of the wood: everything in the Gamble House is made of very dark-coloured wood, but it shines so beautifully that looking at it immediately brings to mind the warmth of a low fire. Unfortunately, I make student money and am not in a position to just order up a pallet of beautiful teak or mahogany, nor do I have anywhere near the skill required to do those materials the justice they would deserve. So instead, I bought the cheapest dimensional lumber available at Lowe’s and then sanded, stained, and varnished the heck out of it.

 

 

Lastly, I really loved the shapes of things in the Gamble House and the way they fit together. That one particular shape you might’ve already noticed in the photos above is called a cloud lift: the Greene brothers used it everywhere, and I’m in love with the way it turns a simple object into a just very slightly whimsical and elegant design. In the car on that napkin, and later on graph paper, I drew out cloud lift lofts, over and over, trying to get it right and figure out what the relative lengths of everything had to be to make it look like the ones I had seen. And then I switched cutting tools like three times trying to figure out how to actually cut the wood that way. And then I gave up on doing the most complicated and best looking version, simplified it, and switched cutting tools again.

This all took a long. ass. time. And meanwhile, I was trying to

  • run REX
  • install new flooring in my room
  • meet my floor’s new freshmen
  • attend my classes
  • attend a truly horrendous number of extracurricular meetings
  • do my homework
  • and also my other homework
  • and also my other other homework

So… it’s been a long time. There was a week or so, after I realized that finishing “before school starts” was an illusion of the highest order, when I planned to just post before the loft was done. Except, surprise, I was spending all my available free time, energy, and mental space working on the loft!

And to be honest, it was really hard. Of course, I’d started out with lofty goals04 NO PUN INTENDED I SWEAR and had had to scale down, but I hadn’t anticipated having to scale down, and down, and down. And things went wrong, because of course they do; but unlike in a class, where I can always go to office hours or ask my TA, sometimes I was just in the basement, alone, at midnight, trying to varnish the wood, getting dust in it and wiping it off over and over, feeling like I would never be able to finish successfully. (Although, thank god there was someone with me the time I accidentally spilled the wood stain everywhere, and thank you so, so much for helping me clean everything up.) It took so long to get anything done, and afterwards there was always another step, and another mistake to make that I wouldn’t see coming or be able to fix, and another night of falling into bed exhausted, having neglected everything else I was hoping to get done that day and feeling unsatisfied with the work I had accomplished.

Spoiler alert: there’s still some dust in the varnish. And I’ve made… well, I’m in the process of making my peace with that. I can tell you so many things that are wrong in the pictures of my loft: so much I should probably fix in the future, and so much that I didn’t see coming in the past and will never be able to fix now. But I’m trying to set that aside, and appreciate that I turned a pile of plain, straight, white, splintery wood into this:

A shot of the loft from above: I'm sitting on my mattress, grinning widely. You can see the front of the loft and an empty space, showing the bed slats, in front of the mattress.

The empty space is about 18″. There’s going to be a shelf there soon! Photo credits go to Maxwell Yun ’21.

And now I can sleep easy.

A very close-up of the middle of one of the pillars. In the natural light, it is a beautiful deep red, and the edges shine.

  1. Quick loft backstory: East Campus gives us a lot of furniture freedom, and many people build lofts for their beds in order to acquire more floor space for other things. back to text
  2. back to text
  3. An electric spinning tool to which you attach a piece of sandpaper so you can sand wood faster and without getting carpal tunnel back to text
  4. NO PUN INTENDED I SWEAR back to text