So, what did I do over the holiday vacation? Thanks for asking…

The university closes for the week between Christmas and New Year’s…as both dates fell on Sunday this year, I got a few bonus days (always a plus). This is my time to unplug (almost), relax with my family, not get up at 5 AM (or at least return to bed after feeding the cats), run a little more, eat a little more, etc. It’s also time to have significant, focused time in my wood shop.

This year, I had a special treat. A few weeks ago, I came into possession of a very old church pew…rumored to be 100+ years old, native red oak, and no longer serviceable as a bench…fixing it would have been a major undertaking, and the previous owners had no sentimental value attached to the thing. It did, however, have enough sections of decent wood on it to make something…but what?

My wife had the perfect solution. She suggested that a small hall table would be perfect. We have a spot in our upstairs hallway that begs for some piece of furniture, and a slim table would fit the bill best. After browsing Google for some ideas and rough dimensions, I set out to design it. Initially, the piece was going to be a straight-forward mission style table, but that just didn’t “feel” right, and the space where the table was to go left some interesting dimensional issues. So, I got a little creative, and simply drew what I thought would look good, without much consideration to style or my ability to pull it off.

What I ended up with was – I think – my favorite piece ever. It is a take on arts and crafts style, but with some unique styling…including what I’m calling a “floating” top. Somehow, that 100+ year old wood wanted a more “modern” look.

My woodworking connects me with my dad, who died in August of 2008, in many ways. Dad was the one who taught me about woodworking. I spent countless hours in his shop, watching, asking questions, and providing an extra hand or two when I could. Many of the tools in my shop belonged to Dad, and a few even belonged to his dad (My Great Grandfather came to the United States from Germany, and opened a furniture shop…so it’s in the blood). There have been more than a few times when I have felt Dad’s presence in the shop, and I find myself asking “how would Dad approach this problem?” from time to time.

My Dad taught me patience…a highly useful skill in the shop, and in all aspects of life. He also taught me to balance the precision of measurement with the creativity of design that makes a piece truly unique. He also taught me to “use the right tool for the right job”…I’ve always thought of that as his way of employing the Buddhist principle of skillful means. Of course, the old woodworker’s axiom of “measure twice, cut once” was a constant refrain, as well as the constant reminder to practice safety (he had a couple of minor run-ins with his saw…and I swear he somehow kept my hand in one piece during a biscuit-cutter incident a couple of years ago). Dad took pride in his work, and saw that each piece was ultimately a reflection of him.

There is so much in his lessons that I employ…not only in my shop, but in my job, as a husband, as a father, and as a man. I am starting to teach my little girl some of those lessons in the same way…”what’s the ruler’s measurement there, Syd?”…”safety glasses on?”, “take your time…let’s do it right the first time”…I almost sound like Dad when I say some of those things.

I am not the craftsman my dad was…at least not yet. Perhaps I never will be. But for the shear enjoyment of the experience, the chance to create something tangible (which is so counter to much of my work), and for the opportunity to continue my connection with Dad, it is worth the pursuit.

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