Craft as Contemplative Practice
The warehouse is quiet today. An oldtimer carefully selects maple boards from a small pile at the back. Along the central aisle which stretches into shadow two of the staff move slabs of African bubinga, the vermilion heartwood bright even in this shaded and dusty space. The boards are so massive it takes both men to shift a single piece across from the wood stack to the dolly; each must weigh several hundred pounds. My eyes adjust from the brightness of the late summer sun outside and I begin to settle in. I stand at the entrance with Rowan, my five-year old daughter, and let my gaze drift over the hundred or so stacks of wood arranged on either side of the long, central corridor that rises in two tiers up to a ceiling buttressed by cedar beams wider than my reach.
As we move past the entry doors the stench from the fish plant across the tracks is slowly replaced by the rich, sensuous smells of the wood. This is how it always begins for me, with the smells: faint, dry and pervasive. Scents of every kind, from every place. It feels as though an army has marched across the globe and left the dust of their passing here, motes that hang in the air like luminous talismans buoyed by the sun. Many of those motes, released from the wood by the sawyer’s hand, are eons old, drifting in the air, inconsequential and annoying if I’m in a hurry. Yet if I slow down enough they become gateways to astonishment, the way the smell of sea-salt is a gateway to adventure. I smell honey and earth and rainy mornings as we pass the wood stacks near the entrance. Further down the aroma of dried fruit — figs, or perhaps apricots — drifts up from a ream of seasoned oak.
There’s a world in here, and we start exploring where Rowan wants always to go: the top level, with its precarious walkway and neatly stacked piles of the most exotic woods. Up here we find stacks of padauk, which European convicts, sent to the Andaman islands in the 1600’s, harvested for its deep browns and reds that look and smell like the rich soil of Hawaii. Huge, long boards of Brazilian purpleheart thrust out into the walkway, forcing us to slow down and take in their bright, indigo textures, to pay attention to the scent of dry, crisp apples. There’s ebony here, of course, and rosewood with its smell of smoky oil-lamps. I come across the striped light and shadow hues of zebrano and the shimmering, muted bronze of koa. So much here that is alive and vibrant. All of it breathing, expanding and contracting with the moisture of the seasons; one breath each year in the continuing lives of these ageless giants.
We make our way past the small stack of Mexican cocobolo, the color of black coffee splashed with swirling cream, offering up the distant scent of beach stones and baked black walnuts, to where a ream of balsa awaits the modelers who use it for their architectural renderings. Rowan hefts a large piece with one hand, swinging it gently through an arc out across the floor. This is the only wood she can lift here; her enjoyment shines in her wide smile and giggle.
We climb downstairs to the main floor where domestic woods are kept. Fir and oak and cherry and maple and pine. Workhorse woods, though no less majestic than the woods upstairs. After all, North America boasts both the largest and oldest trees, giant conifers that were alive well before the time of Christ, their ancient intelligence humming silently through DNA more complex than any other being on the planet. Trees are aware in ways we cannot fathom. Their wood, their bones, trace the nature and purpose of that awareness, each knot and every growth ring a secret hieroglyph. Working with wood is, among other things, a means of deciphering those hieroglyphics.
It is by the smell, mostly, that I locate the stack of cherry. I glimpse the cardboard sign as well, with its green stenciled letters, but it feels as though the delicate, mellow waft of a wood at ease leads me here first. That’s how cherry is: relaxed, ready to enter into a relationship with the craftsman. It’s supple, welcoming. It invites calmness and deliberation. Unlike oak, which by contrast is generally belligerent, challenging tools, resisting smoothness, splintering in defiance at the points where its cooperation is most crucial. Oak is tough in all ways. Cherry, on the other hand, waits to be shaped by patient hands.
I perch Rowan on a stack of bird’s eye maple with a tape measure, pad and paper. She begins to measure the boards beneath her, beginning and ending at any place, from the middle of something to a random spot further along, calling out numbers and writing them down. I turn my attention to the cherry, unloading about 20 boards onto the concrete floor for inspection. They are two inches thick, 12 feet long and of varying widths. I select several that have what I’m looking for: rich, dark red grain intermixed with lighter threads of pale, sandstone color. This is what craftsman call “figure.” The language of woodworking is filled with sensual imagery.
I place the slabs of cherry on a nearby dolly. Rowan immediately jumps down to measure them, over and over in different ways. She touches the smooth, pale wood and says it smells like salt.
Standing at the counter, waiting for two other customers to pay, I become aware of the muted excitement that drifts through this moment. It’s evident behind the brisk facades of the men in front, standing at the shipping counter, shifting on their feet, ready to go. One of them pauses, with a gesture that is both appraising and reverential, to examine the swirl of grain on a piece before loading it into the truck. There are often such quiet rituals in this work, moments of simplicity that pass as stillness passes over the sea. Wood is a mystery, and it beckons to the mysterious in us.
We pay for our treasures and head back home. I unload the wood from the roof of our station wagon and into the garage, which hasn’t housed a car in several years. It has become increasingly stuffed with boards of all kinds, tools and workbenches; a film of fine sawdust that coats every exposed surface defeats all my efforts at cleaning. A half hour at the table saw creates enough dust to undo an entire morning of careful vacuuming. Nonetheless I spend the rest of the afternoon organizing and cleaning the shop in preparation for beginning a new project; another chance to explore this material which seems so inert and yet breathes life into everything it touches, especially into those who work it with a caring touch.
The next day, as bright clouds unfurl across the sky, promising but not delivering rain, I lay out my provisional plan for the piece on my main work table. The clean lines of the drawing are so precise and accurate, yet I know the wood will not come together so smoothly. I pause to examine the design. This is the second formal furniture piece I’ve built for my sister-in-law. We’ve decided on a large dining table in the Craftsman style, popular in the early 1900’s. Craftsman furniture reflects a philosophy of workmanship, of human hands building with care and meaning as opposed to machines stamping out impersonal objects. The first piece, to which this table will be a companion, was a china cabinet in solid cherry in the Shaker style: sparse, simple, virtually free of ornamentation. I adapted some of the Shaker elements for that piece to give a warmer, more intimate feel and plan the same thing for the table. Much Craftsman furniture is blocky, with square edges and heavy, solid parts. I’ve decided to make this rectangular table softer and more fluid, to use a warm, amber finish and a contrasting wood for accent. These changes from the standard format will bring the two pieces, the table and the cabinet, into harmony with each other. That’s what I’m always looking for in this work, a kind of harmony that seems to emerge only after I slice my fingers, miscut the wood, take disastrous shortcuts. Woodworking is an initiation into mystery, and like other initiations it does not come without its ordeals.
There’s a neatness in the way woodworking articles in magazines describe the activity of building furniture, as though it fits a linear and exact procedure. That may be how some craftsmen work, but it is not how I experience the process. In those magazines pieces fit together without slack, measurements are accurate and are reflected in the finished cuts, finishing proceeds smoothly and clearly. In my shop, conversely, I always cut at least one piece too short, usually the piece with the finest grain, rendering it unusable. I finish many slicing cuts with very sharp chisels in the pads of my fingers (even now, the little finger of my left hand sports one of Rowan’s Minnie Mouse band-aids from just such a mishap). I am plagued by dust in my finishes. I often buy wood in the wrong size, or buy the wrong wood altogether. Yet none of these mistakes, or oversights, or reckless accidents made in enthusiastic moments, can destroy my joy in the work nor result in a finished piece of inferior quality. They are, rather, aspects of the process which I expect and which I attribute to the richness of my experience, even when I hammer furiously away, in panic and terror, at two pieces that won’t fit together as the glue on them is drying, drying. There are highlights of great euphoria in this work, as when I plane a surface shimmeringly smooth and the shavings are like transparent gossamer, and there are moments of intense despair. I try to use these moments as a guide to my own life, to learn from the wood and from the tools things about myself that I would not otherwise see.
It’s the spirit of this current piece that draws me, the spirit of family and community through which any dining table fulfills its purpose. A table of this kind is a hub, a centre around which people will gather throughout the many shades that the life of a family presents. It will help hold them together, will be a solid base for their intimacies and their quarrels and their daily struggles. Many of the resonant experiences of my early life took place around a simple teak kitchen table we had in our home. As the maker of this new table I play a role in how it will fulfill its purpose in the family. My own intent, my purpose and clarity of meaning, will flow out into the wood itself and shape the final result. I want that result to stand for something. For what I believe, at least, and for what I envision in my own life as well.
I start with the base: planing, sawing and laminating boards together to make strong, graceful supports. Using a combination of hand and power tools I fashion joints to accept the various pieces of the connecting frame. Each must be cut very precisely. If a mortise is too large the matching piece will not fit tightly and the assembly will wobble, too small and the matching piece will jam, splitting the wood. Traditional woodworking lore maintains the two pieces forming a joint should fit together with a gap of no more than .05 mm in the joint. That’s less than the thickness of a single sheet of foolscap paper. These kinds of figures always make me nervous.
I spend a careful morning sawing and paring and checking the fit, paring again with my sharpest chisel, cutting my thumb and leaving blood on the wood, checking again, shaving off wood in tiny increments until the parts lock together with a little tap and slide neatly home, no slop at all. I feel like stopping, satisfied with this perfect mating of surfaces. I want to leave these pieces on the bench, arrayed as in a museum, their tight joints evidence that I am a true craftsman and therefore my life, which in truth is awkward and full of sloppiness, is actually like these pieces: clean, sparse, elegant. I place them on the bench, finished for the day, trying not to think about how showily I’m arranging them. I turn my attention to cleaning the shop, which is as cluttered and messy as I’ve ever seen it.
A flurry of marking student counseling assignments keeps me out of the shop for more than a week. Instead I am immersed in another kind of craft, one in which the tools are more abstract and elusive, the results less predictable. Yet I am always struck by the way in which working with my hands leads me toward greater skill as a counselor and teacher of counseling. The shared immediacy of these two disparate modes of being, the careful drawing out of rich meaning, the focus and deliberate patience, the sudden turns and traps and discoveries: all remind me that the explorations of the hand are not so different from those of the heart.
On a damp morning I return to my work on the table. Fall is approaching, and raindrops on the window quietly tap out their secret messages of transformation. I lay out the frame pieces. I want the table frame to be as strong as it can be; it will need to hold a great deal of weight. Plates and elbows and serving platters, but more than these it must hold another kind of weight. Feelings will settle onto this table from those who sit at it, from their eyes and hearts, descending like a waterfall of images, moods and conflicts. The weight of dreams, of tears, of moments unremembered by those who will take their place here. This weight will slowly accumulate, will press inexorably down upon these strong legs with their tight joints, until, eventually, the wood will crumble away.
This table will last until the moment it bursts open with feeling. How long could that be? Even without glue, these joints, which I will later pin together with strong pegs, should last many generations. Glued together, their life will be much longer. There’s a relationship between care in construction and resulting durability in woodworking, as in many things.
Once, while traveling through the Spanish countryside, I came across the town of Segovia, rising like a great, majestic ship out of the surrounding Castilian landscape, its spires reaching up from streets that spiral inward, like the whorls of a nautilus shell, toward the central cathedral. Bastions press outward from the looming Alcazar, their polished beams and wrought stone blocks a lasting testament to the skill of ancient artisans. The town is alive with its own history, dreamed to life through the many centuries of its slow growth. Wandering the streets, with their bakeries and garment shops and tapas bars specializing in paella, I felt I was walking among the living bones of a vast being. It was a particular kind of aliveness that I felt: of roses and fields of golden barley half-submerged in twilight, of dark soil and tales of night. And of long, interwoven strands of time knitted together with stone and wood by human hands.
What would it be like if Segovia were a modern town, shaped by steel and concrete and glass into gleaming ramparts of polished metal, precise buttressed columns and streets of linear regularity? That town would have its own kind of aliveness: of efficiency, clarity and speed. It would be more functional and less intimate, its practicalities dispensing with mystery. The history of that town would be felt not as delicate threads stretching back through the life of the community but rather as taught cables anchored securely in the now, their strands forged from hard, precise metal, their tendrils reaching always forward into a future of economies.
These two towns live inside me; both are real and both imagined. My woodworking is a means to bring them closer together, to overlap the maps on which they are found so that a more complex landscape emerges, one that is capable of sustaining, with clear and precise efficiency, the resonances of long, meaning-rich time. I live in a modern town, though in my craft I often find myself wandering cobbled and spiraling streets, moving slowly, looking for that shopkeeper I know, unraveling colorful threads of time.
The complex subtlety and warmth that I’m working toward in this table is not easy to find. Hand-made furniture is rare. The pieces in the upscale furniture gallery in Vancouver almost look like hand-crafted pieces but are all made on the assembly line. There are no craftsman’s marks on those pieces: scratches from planes and scrapers, edges rounded over with hand tools, a careful patch over a small knot. Modern manufactured furniture reveals the unmistakable marks of conformity: every surface sanded uniformly smooth, edges machined to tight tolerances, finishes sprayed on like plastic wrap. There’s a sloppiness in these pieces wherever parts must still be fitted by hand; on drawers, for example, which almost never run smoothly on new furniture. This kind of technological stamp, which is wonderfully useful for the kind of society we’ve devised, is precisely what I’m trying to avoid with this table. I’m working toward something that holds my humanity, my personal contribution of thought and feeling within it the way driftwood contains the whole wide ocean; a work that is precise and enduring and richly sensuous, that has been caressed into form by hands that lead a child out into the world every day.
There are 25 narrow square spindles which act as supports and design elements for the table frame. One long afternoon I cut them to size and then shape their delicate joints. I’m quite pleased with the result. Finishing small or narrow parts is always tricky, so I decide to apply the finish to the spindles prior to assembly when I can still pick each one up and turn it to expose the four sides. Once they are in place they will lie close to one another, with less than the width of my thumb between them; putting on finish at that point would be difficult as well as maddening.
I mix up a batch of aniline dye to help the pale wood masquerade as dark, rich cocobolo. The companion piece to the table, the cherry cabinet I made last year, has cocobolo accents — well, it has cherry knobs and molding dyed to resemble cocobolo. I have a single piece of authentic cocobolo in my shop, about the size of a baseball bat, that cost me almost as much as a new power tool. I haven’t used it for anything — I don’t dare — but I love the color so much I’ve dyed a number of accent pieces to match it. The spindles take the dye well, transforming their bright, delicate hues into robust browns and streaks of blackened amber.
The next morning I decide, in a moment of inflated confidence brought on by the fact everything has gone smoothly so far, to spray the spindles with varnish rather than put it on with a brush. I know, somewhere just out of reach, that this is not a good idea. I’ve never had any success with spraying; it always leads to frustration and refinishing. But in this moment, with those perfect base pieces sitting on my workbench beside a set of nicely matched and well-cut spindles, I convince myself that I can’t really make a mistake, that I’ve matured as a craftsman — see, the proof is there — to the point where I can’t possibly mess up something as elementary as spraying. It will be quicker, more efficient, easier.
I line up the spindles in little rows and begin spraying. For the next several days, every evening after I come home from work, I put on a series of new coats, dutifully sanding between each and turning the spindles to expose all four faces. I spend a careful week this way, avoiding any other work that might create sawdust and spoil the finish. The project goes on hold except for these delicate pieces. I am diligent. I am careful. I am a craftsman. What I end up with is a thoroughly unsatisfying finish in which the spindles look as though they’ve been dipped in plastic. They remind me of the little fossils and stones my brother used to embed within chunky blocks of clear plastic resin in high school, using a kit he’d bought in Kerrisdale. There’s none of the hand-rubbed look that I work toward in my projects. All the subtlety of the dyed wood has been obscured. What did I expect? I’ve fallen into a perennial trap that I can never quite seem to avoid. It runs like a sharp and seductive wire through our whole culture: do it fast, be efficient, take a shortcut, get moving. You have no time.
It takes me a long time to sand the spindles back down to bare wood, standing in the back yard amid the whine of the sander, cleaning one disappointing piece after another while my kids play in the sprinkler for the last time this year. Finally I am ready for the varnish again. While I rub the pieces down with a tack cloth I start to worry about lap lines and finish running into the joints and all the other difficulties I was trying to avoid by spraying. Taking a breath, I start to apply the varnish in the usual way, with a 25 cent foam brush. It goes on smoothly, clearly. The whole job, with its fussiness and extra precision and supposed difficulty, takes about a half-hour. By the time I apply a second coat, and a third over the next two days, the spindles begin to look exactly as I had wanted: dark hued, rays of lighter grain here and there, varied and interesting. I suppose I always get where I want to go in this work, even if the path sometimes wanders far from comfort, far from a feeling of progress. Is it necessary for me to wander so?
Wood, as the ancient Chinese alchemists claimed, is the harbinger of Spring and birth and wind. It represents all that is new and transformative; it is the vehicle of metamorphosis. So often in this work I feel that metamorphic energy acting upon me: in my joints, in my head, in the air. Those alchemists related wood to the eye as well, to the act of seeing. And the more I go on the more my vision clears, the more capable I become of discerning the truth of my own life. There are times when I feel as though I’m going blind, and others when my eyes open like a newborn.
The various pieces of the frame — legs, rails, spindles and trestle — are almost ready for assembly. There are a total of 34 pieces, a daunting number, so I decide to glue them together in two stages. I lay the first section out, making final checks, putting the assemblies together to makes sure they fit properly, starting to get anxious. Gluing parts together, gluing-up as it’s called, is for me the most stressful aspect of woodworking. It’s a point of no return. If I make a mistake at this stage it’s too late to re-cut the pieces, too late to pare the joints for a better fit, too late for anything to go wrong. Once the pieces are joined and the glue begins to set, which takes about 20 minutes, I must surrender control to whatever mercurial gods happen by. If the pieces are not joined correctly, are out of alignment, if any part fails to seat fully in its joint, the entire project might as well end up in the fireplace. At other stages in the woodworking process there’s much greater room for error. When glue is involved, and clamps that exert massive, intimidating pressures on the wood, I am always on the verge of panic.
I assemble the first section without glue one last time, making doubly sure all the pieces fit. I pay particular attention to the spindles; the most complex joinery of the table is at their connection points. Everything looks fine. I take the assembly apart and then begin putting it back together again, this time with glue, beginning with two leg assemblies. The solid, strong supports fit together tightly.
The spindles come next. There are 20 joints to glue here; I slow down, methodically working one joint at a time. I get about halfway through — the spindles are in place but not yet fully seated — when something jams. Two pieces won’t fully connect. I tap a little harder, a sense of panic still distant but rushing at me over the wide plain of my being. I can feel it, a shadow on the horizon, waiting to see what I do.
I tap the stubborn parts with my rubber mallet a little harder, a little more earnestly, a little hopefully. Nothing. I inspect the pieces, looking for where the assembly might be hung up. I jiggle them. I shift them in their sockets. Nothing. The panic is gaining speed, crushing rocks in its path as it sweeps over the fields. The air smells like lightning.
The glue is drying. I must make a decision. I could pry the whole thing apart, wait for the glue to dry in the open joints and then scrape it out. I’d have to deal with a mess of cured glue harder than the wood, requiring me to clean out the joints almost as if I were re-cutting them. My other option is to use force — bang the parts together and hope the extra pressure drives everything into place.
I pause, considering what to do. An image of cleaning out all that glue from many separate joints rises unpleasantly and the panic makes a final onrush, its shadow racing over me. I raise my arm in response, bringing the mallet crashing down with desperate fury onto the stuck joint. Once. Twice. Three times. And the parts slide home. A small splinter appears beside one of the spindle holes; it had not been exactly centered in its mortise. Forcing it through has dislodged some wood fibers from the edge of the hole. It’s a small, easy repair.
The intensity of feeling I experience in this work will be reflected in the final product. Just as the feelings of people are reflected in their faces, in their bodies, sometimes subtly and almost hidden by careful masks, the wood will preserve the resonance of our interaction, adding its experience of me to the chronicle of its long life. The final shape will be a result of that interaction, a collaborative exploration of becoming. We are building a relationship, the wood and I, an emotional reality that will be preserved in the piece for perhaps hundreds of years. Sometimes this kind of resonant energy can be seen — and felt — in other places: ritual objects hum with it, as do certain monuments. Yet so much of the time we are moving too fast to experience such mysteries. In woodworking I try to slow down, seek what is lasting, the means by which a sacred tree fulfills another life in its interaction with the craftsman, broadening its own experience, emerging from the forest to be shaped into another form, its quiet presence also shaping us. In this sense woodworking is a transformative ritual, bread into spirit, the bones of a tree stepping into the human world as a witness to the centuries.
I glue-up the second section without incident. Unlike my previous ordeal, these pieces go together smoothly and gently, as though the wood is determined to balance panic with harmony, desperation with peacefulness. Each spindle slides smoothly into its mortise, the leg joints tap home with gentle ease, the assembly is tight without being forced. Taken together, these two assemblies (and my experience gluing-up both of them) are markers indicating a range of emotion, two poles that define the diversity of my experience in working with this piece. Already the table is absorbing feeling.
I start work on the low trestle that runs the length of the table near the floor. I cut the pieces to size and lay them on the workbench for inspection. As they must be glued together to make up the full width of the trestle, each piece must have square, straight edges to make a tight, secure fit. This means jointing the edges, which is usually done on a special machine designed solely for that purpose. I don’t have such a machine, as I prefer to do all my jointing by hand, using planes. For me, handplaning is the soul of woodworking. It connects me to a spirit of continuity in the craft, a lineage of centuries of craftsmen honing their skill with simple hand tools, making pieces that often surpass the quality we can achieve today with the power of machines. Almost no other woodworking tool is as precise as the plane. Properly tuned it can slice off incredibly thin shavings; soft, pliable and much thinner than sheets of paper. Skillfully used it can shape a perfectly flat, smooth surface that shimmers with clarity and depth. No amount of sanding or polishing with fine abrasives can achieve the same effect. Planes are my favorite tools; jointing the trestle pieces will be a joy.
I secure the first piece on my workbench, edge up. I begin with a long jointer plane, taking small shavings, evening out the rough-sawn texture of the edge, working toward a flat, straight surface. I start to slow down inside, as though I’ve emerged from a storm of fitting, gluing and fretting onto the wide expanse of a quiet sea. Planing is hard physical work, yet its repetitive movements — bend, press, slide, return — possess a meditative quality that encourages me to relax. There are none of the busy machine sounds now, no frightening safety issues, no clouds of sawdust blown about by spinning cutters. There is only the soft whisper of the plane as it glides across the wood, paring gently, its sharpness like a caress that brings the grain of the wood into view. In these moments I see my own life more clearly, with a similar kind of gentleness, my own concerns and worries laid out to be shaped by the movement of my hands. Planing allows me to glimpse what I would otherwise miss, as though all the shipwrecks in the sea suddenly surfaced. My life lies before me, and as I work the wood, smoothing and squaring and checking, the shavings fluttering down to the floor like cherry petals in the springtime, I have the feeling that I am shaping my life along with the wood into something rich and meaningful.
I take a break for a few days, trying to preserve the meditative quality I feel, knowing it could be shattered by the next challenge of gluing the trestle pieces together. I wait, becoming absorbed in the many rituals of a household with two small children: meals and baths and books with thick, cardboard pages. Then, on one of the first fall evenings, warm and yet filled with a new charge in the air, crisp and light, I wander toward the garage. I pass our son’s room and hear my wife singing to him as he settles toward sleep with his customary humming and clicking. Avery: his name means the truthful one, the elf lord. He’ll be two next month; already the days of his infancy are gone, having slipped by as quickly as Rowan’s did, and I know that once again I will remember only fragments of that time.
I test fit the trestle pieces, looking for gaps in the joints, possible hang-ups and twists that might be problematic. Then, with less anxiety than usual, I begin methodically to glue the parts together, checking for square, tuning the pressure of the clamps, enjoying the fact that for once I am calm enough my hands don’t shake. The work goes quickly, smoothly. I make some final adjustments, a half-turn on a clamp screw that pulls the assembly tight, a gentle tap with the mallet to draw two surfaces into alignment. Then it’s done, and the trestle is ready to be fastened to the frame.
As there are only the trestle’s two joints to glue-up, one at each end of the frame, the final frame construction proceeds without incident. During one of Avery’s naps, while Rowan finishes off her first week at kindergarten, I complete these last few tasks. Only the top now remains.
I decided early on, for budgetary reasons, to use a veneered top instead of a solid one. I’ve chosen a material called MDF (medium-density fibreboard) as a substrate for the veneer: it is completely flat, stronger than almost any solid wood, will never warp and can easily be repaired. Using MDF is my nod of respect to woodworking technology and chemistry. Common particleboard, the usual substrate for commercially veneered and manufactured furniture, is a useless material; it signals a final degeneration of industrial craftsmanship in woodworking. MDF, conversely, is a wonder: it’s made of countless tiny wood fibres pressed together under enormous tension, infused with a hardening agent and formed into large sheets that weigh about twice as much as equivalent sheets of plywood. MDF is extremely strong, resilient and easily workable; it will do an excellent job supporting the tabletop’s cherry veneer.
My sister-in-law calls and asks if the table might be ready for Thanksgiving. She wants to host the whole family at the table’s inaugural supper. I look at the calendar: three weeks. I offer her a convoluted answer, making reference to the delicate process of finishing the top, the final touches to be made on the frame, the difficulties of transporting the table 400 kilometres to her home. She’s heard this kind of noncommittal talk from me about completion deadlines before and lets me off without a firm answer. My wife claims that I never want to let finished projects out of the shop, that they become my children, that I want to protect them from the rough and tumble world. I suppose she’s right, in a way. I give much of myself, emotionally as well as physically, into this work. It does take time to let go, allow the work to rest, shift my focus onto the next project. I linger; the shop always seems empty when I’ve sent a piece to its new home.
Don, my next-door neighbor, helps me maneuver the two sheets of MDF onto the table frame where they will be glued together and fastened down. He has not been inside my garage recently and is surprised at the hand-crafted table emerging from beneath the clutter of sawdust and tools strewn about the place. Don is unfamiliar with furniture history and design; his garage has a ’75 corvette in it. We talk about craftsmanship and wood for a while, about the fall weather, about the kinds of things men who do not know each other well talk about. It’s talk that centers around activities, objects, tasks. In the counseling world people try to be more direct, to bring out feelings and insights in their raw form, unmediated by external symbols. Yet I know that for most of us, the feelings themselves reside in what we shape in the world, what we put our hearts and hands into.
Using all the red nylon tie-downs for my roof rack, I make a set of makeshift clamps which will wrap around the two sheets of MDF and hold them securely together. I empty a full litre bottle of super-strength polyurethane glue on the inside surface of the bottom sheet, place the second sheet on top and strain to tighten the nylon clamps with their flimsy tackle. One of the clamps won’t tighten properly, but the weight of the top sheet alone seems sufficient to hold the sandwich together while it dries. I give up fussing and head in for supper.
I just might make it for Thanksgiving. One evening when I am way too tired from a long day of teaching and counseling, I apply veneer to the tabletop edge and fasten the top, now a thick slab of inch-and-a-half MDF, to the frame. At least I have the presence of mind to repeatedly check the correct depth of the screws that I drill from beneath the frame into the underside of the top. Last year, while installing a kitchen counter for my mother-in-law, I put a screw right through the countertop from underneath. I haven’t heard the end of it, from various people, but perhaps that’s because I still haven’t fixed the mistake. There’s a little piece of masking tape over the spot even now.
With the tabletop secured there is only the finishing left to do. I can never quite decide whether finishing is the best or the worst part of a project: the grain comes into lustrous view, there are the smells of linseed oil and varnish — and there is dust, previously hidden scratches, potential drying problems. I start by applying a coat of boiled linseed oil mixed with varnish and turpentine. The surface colors immediately intensify: small fields of interlocking fibre appear amid larger sweeps of the fluid grain, numerous single strands pressing together like the threads of a tapestry. The dull surface imparted by fine sawdust, settled on the wood by weeks of work, gives way to the rhythm and movement of the wood’s interior. The wood speaks more clearly now. It’s as though a window, grimed with a carapace of ageless dust, suddenly shines clear as my hand passes over, startling me with a view of the depthless sea.
Every morning now, sometime between Avery’s waking calls and when I leave for work, I spend a half-hour in the shop putting on another coat of finish with a rag. I soak the wood, rub the finish in with my hands, wait a few minutes and wipe off the residue. There’s little anxiety here: no brush marks or embedded dust to worry about. The surface is rubbed smooth and clean by the repetitive swirling motion of my hands. After five or six coats applied in this way I finish off with two coats of spar varnish on the top, for extra protection. Finally, in the week before Thanksgiving, I smooth and polish the top with powdered pumice and limestone, traditional polishing materials not in much use anymore. There’s little call for a tabletop as smooth and hand-rubbed as the one I’m making. Standing in the shop, a slurry of black powder and water like liquid clay in my hands and on the wood, spilling onto the floor, staining my clothes, I feel as the ancient craftsmen must have felt at this stage: gratified, tired and dirty.
On the final day of finishing, two days before Thanksgiving, Avery wakes up at 5 a.m. and we head down to the shop together. He sits in a chair that has one broken arm, a future repair, and sips his juice cup while I apply one more buff coat to the top. There’s little to do; the top is virtually glass smooth, shimmering with the subtle sheen of a hand-rubbed surface. I wipe the entire piece with a rag, readying it for transport. Later That morning my brother-in-law arrives with his pickup truck. We wrap the table with an absurd amount of plastic and packing tape and heft it into the truck bed as autumn leaves blow wildly across the lawn.
The next day my wife and I pack up the kids and follow the table inland for Thanksgiving weekend. We drive up into the mountains, through the Coquihalla pass where a thick fog retreats at times to offer us glimpses of trees in fall splendor, stands of birch and alder set to light by the intensity of their own glory. We stop at the family summer place to close it up for the winter. Salmon spawn at the shoreline of the lake, their maroon shapes darting under the surface. Hundreds of Canada Geese gather on the water, clustered in small groups that burst into flight every few minutes, following each other along an invisible path that leads toward another season.
The lake is quiet, settling itself into the oncoming cold. Down the beach another family gathers around a debris fire, the smoke billowing toward us with the scent of dry leaves and rich, moist soil. Our kids play at the water’s edge, chasing but never approaching the elusive shapes of fish too far out to catch. The water smells of mist and sleep. I spend an energetic half-hour stacking firewood, the birch and cedar logs wet with rain, the mossy bark giving off an aroma that hints at nights under the stars, the breath of a small child resting inside the earth’s hand.
The day grows cool as shadows draw themselves up into the forest canopy. We leave the lake for another winter and make our way into town, arriving at my sister-in-law’s in the early evening. The table has taken its place safely in her dining room where ten place settings are now arranged around its perimeter. I place my hand on its bright surface, the craftsman’s touch, one final time. As I do so the last of the family arrives at the door; soon after we sit down to celebrate, to give thanks, to honor the bright strands of feeling that hold us together.