On things that should never have been built

Think back. Think way back if you have to. Think about the first time you tried your hand at making something from wood.

I grew up in an old farm house with my parents and grandparents. My aunts lived on adjacent land, within walking distance if not within shouting distance. Behind my house was an old barn that had once been used for feeding and keeping some livestock on one end and drying Burley tobacco on the other. It stood in a perpetual state of precarious usefulness for most of my youth, full of adventure but “too dangerous to play in” according to my mother.

I’ve never really listened that well to my mother.

As a youth I remember climbing around the rusty tools on the second floor and avoiding the rotten floorboards like some sort of young Indiana Jones looking for treasure. And, whether I knew it or not at the time, I was engaging in a certain sort of archaeology as I examined the great beams of the barn mortised together and draw-bored with massive wooden pins and the wide pine planks, wider than any I had seen hearkened from an age long in the past. “This, was a workmanship that no longer existed in the world,” I thought.

Downstairs in the barn, you could find my grandfather’s workshop. He was an electrician by trade but he was also one of those eminently capable human beings who could fix, mend, and improve the world around him. As the barn became unstable the workshop also fell into disuse, but I remember the summer the men in the family took the top floor off of the barn and re-framed it as a one story building, giving new life to the workshop and even adding a pot bellied stove to keep it warm in the winter.

I spent many hours there with my grandfather.

Fast-forward a decade or so to October 9, 2001; the day my grandfather died.

I had just finished working an 8 hour shift on top of an 8 hour drive back to Pennsylvania from North Carolina. I was exhausted, distraught and listless. As an American the whole world seemed in flux at that point (after 9/11/01) and as a grandson, I couldn’t help feeling that the world had lost something even more profound in my grandfather – this man who could do anything, and who would give the shirt off his back to a neighbor in need.

I’ve never been good at sitting around, so after things had settled just a bit I told my dad I was heading to the lumber yard. “I need to build something” I said. Quizzically, he offered to come along. My father was many wonderful things, but he was not handy. He did not build things. He did not fix things. He was there as moral support, but in truth, neither of us had any idea what we were doing.

“I need to buy a hammer.” I said “A good one that will last.”  So we stared at the wall of hammers, and then nails and finally wood.

I came home with a car load, but (as I can honestly say now) no idea what to really do with it. It didn’t matter. Now was the time to learn. So I sawed and hammered and thought I was making something that would last. What I made was this:

The “joinery” on this was all made ad-hoc. The boards were nailed together creating a tray for the top to sit in. the legs were sort of toe-nailed into the top because I had no idea how to really connect things.

It looked like something substantial. It collapsed a few days later when my roommate sat on the corner.

So, back to the big-box home store for screws, and metal brackety things.

This was the fix. Well, this and a healthy amount of wood glue. I glued and screwed until I was satisfied that it would hold my roommate should he decide to sit on it again.

All in all it looks like an ungainly teenager fit with braces.

It has lasted these 14 years and has moved with us at least two or three times, but every time I look at all of that hardware I think to myself “if it needs that many screws to hold it together, maybe it shouldn’t be together in the first place.”

For now, it’s still in the garage. My daughters are currently using it as a play table and workbench, for which it is duly suited and more than adequate.

It does serve one other purpose, however. It sits there in the garage as a constant reminder of how far I’ve come as a woodworker, and how far there is yet to go. It exists as personal archaeological evidence of my evolution from that young man who just needed to set the world right by building something, to the slightly older, wiser and grayer man who understands that if you want to really make something that will affect the world around you it requires knowledge, patience and humility.

Mercifully, though this table has served its purpose, I do not expect it to outlive me as proof of my earlier incompetence.

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