Woodworker's Central
Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 11/19/01

by Robert Peterson

My first images in my memories are of my father, standing before his workbench, planing on a board for a piece of hand built furniture. His workbench was a huge, solid looking thing. Built out of hard maple it had end and tail vises on the sides and drawers underneath which locked behind doors to store tools. The bench stood inside a big shed whose sides could be opened and propped up to form an overhead shelter. Inside the shed were the things needed to craft furniture. An old hand cranked drill press, a foot powered spring lathe, and hand tools galore. No power tools or saws. There wasn't any electricity to run them on. Everything had to be hand or foot powered. Overhead in the rafters of the shed my father stored the lumber he needed to make furniture and other things.

You see, my father worked wood where everyone could see, touch and question what he was doing. Down at the end of our drive, where the lane entered the highway, my father created and displayed his wares. Everyday when the sun was out, my father opened his shop and worked, shaped, cut, smoothed, joined and created with wood. Fine wood. From close grained cherry through red and white oak, to birch, beech, ash and butternut. He made everything out of wood. Christmas presents, birthday gifts, and furniture for sale to customers. And he had customers. Every time he stood under that sycamore tree and worked wood, people would turn up. They would be driving by in their big shiny cars and then suddenly slow down and cruise by with the kids leaning out of the windows and pointing. Sometimes people only came to look and watch. Other times they came and discussed their own projects or purchased the items my father made. But they always came. They said it was because my father was a craftsman. To me he was just my father so I didn't understand what they meant.

There were times during my growing years when my father had apprentices who came, stayed awhile, then left to places unknown. I'd climb the branches of that old sycamore tree into the treehouse that was there and watch them. As I grew older, I began to hang around in the shop while my father was working. After a while I asked if he would let me help out.

"Sure," he said. "Pick one of these boards and tell me which one is the best one to use on this bookcase."

I thought he was crazy. All of the boards looked the same to me. I just pointed at one of them.

"Why that one?"

I just looked at him and couldn't answer. That began what was my first lesson about wood and woodworking. After that he began to teach me the things I didn't know. How to use tools, read grain, the best uses for each wood, and a million other things I needed to learn. With those lessons I learned more and asked to help more often. He never refused my help. My father would just smile and ask me to make something he needed for this or that and was always ready to show me how if I needed help.

In the beginning my "help" consisted of making small parts he said he needed for his pieces. Things that I never saw him put into anything he was creating. I was sure that those crude small boxes and breadboards somehow were necessary for my father's fine items. Even if I never could figure out where the boxes went or why he wanted me to cut, joint and glue three small boards together, then hand plane them into a flat panel. Or cut dovetails for a drawer joint. Or what was so important about grain, or color matching. Or any of the many other things he asked me to do when I was hanging around while he worked.

I never saw those efforts of mine installed into anything. When I asked him, my father would smile and say mysteriously "I never let anyone watch".

"But, you let everyone watch you," I countered. "Every time you build something, people show up and you let them watch what you're doing. How come you won't let me watch you put in the things I make?"

He'd just smile and say that it was a secret. And, since it was his secret, he could keep it. After all I didn't want anyone to say that he couldn't keep a secret now would I. I didn't have an answer to that one.

As I grew older, I began to realize that those crude efforts of mine were not really good enough to put into his pieces, but my father would never hurt my feelings by telling me so. Besides, they were practice pieces for me to learn woodworking skills with.

I ran away when I got older and thought I knew something my father didn't. Things didn't work out and a few years later I turned up one morning on my father's doorstep with no money, a son my father hadn't ever met, and two suitcases of clothes. My father welcomed me back with a hug, a smile for his young grandson hiding behind my legs, and asked me to come out to the shop to help with the customers when I was settled in. He left and went out where I could already see customers waiting.

I fixed some breakfast for the two of us, put my things away in my old room, and then my son Tommy and I wandered out to that old woodshop. It was like I'd never been away. My old tools were in their places. Still sharp and without any rust on them. I looked at my father and he looked back at me and I got a lump in my throat. He just pointed at the plans for the chair he was assembling.

"I still need to make the footstool for this chair," he said a bit hoarsely. " Why don't you take a look and see if you can get started on it."

Well, I took a look at the plans and began to look over the raw materials list. After a while, I looked up and saw my father and Tommy looking and pointing up at the old treehouse where I'd spent my early childhood years. When I next looked up Tommy was up in the tree laying on one of the huge branches watching us work. Things were just fine.

My father passed away a couple of years after I came home again. After the funeral, I took over the shop and ran it by myself. A few years after that, Tommy finally came down from the treehouse and asked me in a quiet small voice if he could help.

"Of course," I said. "Why don't you to look at these three boards and tell me which one is the best one to use."

He just looked at me like I was crazy. "Mom," he said, "they're all the same."

I just smiled and began his first lesson in working with wood.

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