In my basement sits a bookcase that, I am told, was built by my grandfather. I don’t know; I never met him. He died three months before I was born.
The bookcase has a huge, multilayered wad of gum on the side from when I was a teenager, and had no idea what the bookcase was – it was just in my room, and I owned my room, and besides the gum wasn’t where my Mom could see it. It was my little act of dickish rebellion that, like a thousand other things I did as a teenager, I regret.
And that’s all it was for several years: my grandfather’s bookcase. My teenaged gum.
Now that I’ve taken up woodworking, I can now see the choices he made in making it: fixed shelves, because drilling in the holes for adjustable shelves is a pain in the ass. He chose a little hand-carved decoration along the top to hide the boxlike construction – not exactly beautiful, but a step beyond everyday bookcase making. It sits on a base for greater stability, which is something we haven’t done yet.
Now that I build things, it’s not a bookcase but a language my grandfather spoke. Were he alive today, I could grunt in a manly way and ask what tools he used back in 1960 to make this thing, and discuss where he kept his workshop, and ask about the staining.
And he would, in the way of all woodworkers, be able to point out every tiny flaw he could not correct. Every craftsman knows about them, because you cannot avoid them: that joint that isn’t perfectly snug, that router that drifted from the fence, that board that’s 1/16″ too short. Experienced woodworkers – and me and my crew are getting there – know how to hide those errors with wood putty and on-the-fly plan alterations, but we keep them tight to our chest. They are the secrets of furniture, an encrypted thieves’ cant of sorrow only told to others in the hobby.
Last night I made my own contribution to the house: a dye shelf I made for Gini in the basement. It’s made of pine, my first natural wood project – not that you’d know that because at the last minute Gini insisted on switching from a dark stain to a bright purple paint.
I can list all its flaws: the squaring is off by an eighth of an inch because the pine was slightly warped. There’s a gouge underneath the right third shelf where – you guessed it – the router drifted from the fence. The paint was the wrong kind for woodworking, latex, too sticky to sand the brush strokes off, so there’s dribbles everywhere.
Gini loves it.
And soon, it will earn its place in the basement, just another fixture in the house, a useful engine. And my garage workshop is filling other houses; we have two bookcases meant for Eric’s attic, and two customized shelves meant to fit in the gaps on either side of Jim’s fireplace.
And in a sense, I feel like I’m firing a flare into the future. I will die, like my grandfather before me. But my friends and family will know that Ferrett did woodworking – here, here’s the shelf he built for Gini, we didn’t have the heart to throw it out, can you use it?
Maybe some day there will be someone who never got to know me but can rest his hand on some shelf I built. And they too will speak this language of craftsmanship. And they’ll look at the speckly paint job and the uneven shelves and judge me, and they will look at the love it took to spend a few hours building something because your wife asked you to and adjust their thinking, and they’ll cock their head and look at this stolid thing as if trying to unravel what sort of man I am from the things I left behind.
I wish I could tell them. But I won’t last.
My shelves might.
Let them talk for me when I’m gone.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.