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Woodwork Simulator is the Dark Souls of making birdhouses

It's been a minute since I assembled anything with my hands besides computers and sandwiches, so when I saw the free Woodwork Simulator prototype hit itch.io, the latest from PC Building Simulator studio The Irregular Corporation, I figured I'd see if I still had the chops to chop.

Yes, I know how to use a bandsaw. And yes, I had to google whether it was band or fan saw before writing that sentence. I've drafted before. Little blueprints made of shapes and math. I've used the fat pencil to draw lines on planks where I split them with a handsaw, a perfect cut measured three times. That's basic QA. 

I've turned planks, in cooperation with steel clamps and glue, into useful objects: a nightstand and a shelf and a little footstool with my favorite skateboard brand from the year 2004 etched into the top. I'm a woodworker. I've hewn trees into garage sale specials. Not much of that dexterity applies in Woodwork Simulator, but it captures the laborious, cumbersome process of transforming a stubborn tree into a birthday present for grandma. I love it. 

My birdhouse will follow me to hell

The Woodwork Simulator prototype doesn't demand that you put the entire process to the test. You're not drafting or measuring wood, just cutting, planing, chiseling, drilling, and gluing. It's a simple toolset, but those tools are versatile. Of the three projects you can pick from—a birdhouse, table, and chair—I'm going with easy mode, the little bird abode. There's also a freeplay mode that lets you make whatever the hell you want, but I need a smoother runway.

Since measuring and drafting aren't implemented yet, each project comes with the exact amount of wood you'll need with outlines of the various pieces outlined within each board. The birdhouse appears simple enough: a base, the shaft, and a few pieces making up the walls and roof up top. No curves, just straight cuts. Bring it. 

I get started by clamping the larger board down and begin cutting out the pieces with a handsaw. Sawing is simple: just click on the tool then click on the board you want to cut. The saw hovers over the edges of the board with my mouse, projecting a little blue line to show where the cut will go. 

It's easy to get into a hypnotic rhythm just as I would at a real work bench, but I've traded muscle fatigue for sensitive, disorienting camera controls. Once you're start using a tool, Woodwork Simulator pulls you out of the usual mouse and WASD first-person controls and supplants them with something like Total War's 3D RTS controls. I eventually get the hang of them, but the abrupt transition between control methods still makes me queasy, mostly because there's no obvious visual indicator to let you know which mode you're in, free movement or tool mode.

Once cut, I use a hand plane to clean make sure the pieces are cut to precision, shaving off extra wood on edges where I played it safe with the saw. The little wood shavings are a nice touch.

Next up is the pole and my first go with the lathe. I slap a long, narrow piece of wood up there and grab the chisel. The lathe whirs into motion and spins the wood around. The rest is pure ASMR. A cube becomes a cylinder.

Manual chiseling is where things get fucky. I'm trying to cut out a small divot for the pole to sit in on the base, so I use the chisel to chip out the divot's outline. Thing is, the tool seeks any flat surface, so the more I use it, the more surfaces it tries to latch on to. It magnetizes to the increasingly small edges I'm making with the tool itself, which makes precision nearly impossible. 

I get frustrated trying to make a clean spot for the pole and leave behind a jagged geometric nightmare. My eyes cross looking at it. I think I see the devil in there. Hey, buddy. Making the bird hole (the bird hole? the bird passage?) goes much better. 

But because wood glue is magic in Woodwork Simulator, I cover up my shame with ease. Relative ease, that is. Once you apply glue to a surface it'll stick to anything—no compressing and sitting for hours—but the glue camera is particularly difficult to use. 

I eventually slap everything together, though I think I mixed up the base and the birdhouse floor. Whoops. It might fall over a lot, but now there's a little bird porch out front. I rub it down with sandpaper and give it a nice walnut finish. If I were a bird, I'd say 'tweet', which loosely translates to 'I'll never own a home in this economy and with my salary, but in another life I could make it work here. I think.'

(Image credit: Irregular Corporation)

It's looking fine, but not on brand. Let's fix that. 

Much better. 

In this extremely early state, Woodwork Simulator is a dressed up Legos and Labor, a proof of concept that makes you work a bit for your blocks. For someone that misses working with their hands, but can't afford the space or money to tool around with wood at will, I'd love to see a complete version of Woodwork Simulator that goes even further. 

If I can't throw together bookshelves and tables, I'd like to at least practice the process. Take the varying textures and malleability of different kinds of wood into account. Bring in drafting and measuring. Maybe tools can break, wood can split or splinter, thumbs can get chopped off via bandsaw. Throw in the steady nasal breathing of my father watching me work in the rear left audio channel. 

I'm sure The Irregular Corporation has most of this in mind. And what's there already stirs my imagination and motivation to make something. Now I just want it to teach me how to actually make it. 

James is PC Gamer’s bad boy, staying up late to cover Fortnite while cooking up radical ideas for the weekly livestream. He can still kickflip and swears a lot. You’ll find him somewhere in the west growing mushrooms and playing Dark Souls.