Simple American

Hiestand kitchen in progress

Nearly ready for paint. This cabinet is in the kitchen of a 1915 house. The casework is made from formaldehyde-free, American-made veneer-core plywood with solid maple doors, drawers, and finished panels. The counters on this and its partner across the room are reclaimed heart pine finished with Osmo Polyx oil. In the interest of having this cabinet in particular flow seamlessly into the original fabric of the kitchen, I replicated the top section of the window trim to use as a crown.

The other night I arrived home from my current kitchen job in Indianapolis to find a piece of mail from a friend. Inside was a clipping from the New York Times of November 7 titled “Craving a ‘Downton Abbey’ Scullery.” I gave the article, written by Penelope Green, a quick read; it deals with last year’s opening of a stateside showroom for British cabinetmaking company Plain English.

I’ve been aware of the company for a few years, thanks to Remodelista, which often features kitchens furnished with Plain English “cupboards,” as the company’s branding would have its wares be known. The work is beautiful, with spare, solid lines and admirable attention to detail. But I found the article disturbing. Throughout the night I awoke repeatedly, perplexed as to what was eating at me. I analyzed my feelings over the next two days while fitting doors, then priming for paint, at my current job site, then read the article again, this time with greater care.

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Applying the first coat of color after dark last Friday. The doors and drawers have been removed to my workshop for painting under controlled conditions. The yellow as it appears here is not the actual color; it’s Benjamin Moore’s Rich Cream, which has a deeper, warmer, old-fashioned kitchen look. This image shows the crown, coped to fit the original window trim.

As a professional cabinetmaker who trained, then worked, in England, and as one who has specialized in period-style kitchens (and has a forthcoming book about kitchens for publisher Lost Art Press), I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts was I hope no one thinks I’m one of those cabinetmakers copying their kitchens–not because their kitchens are anything other than strikingly lovely, but because I hate it when people assume things about me and my work that are not true. More importantly, my interest in period kitchens and my work inspired by them predates not only my awareness of the company, but the company’s very existence. No potential client has “waved pages from World of Interiors magazine” at me; I owe my interest in Georgian and subsequent kitchen styles primarily to my first woodworking employer, Roy Griffiths, who hired me in 1980 to build cabinetry at his workshop in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, as well as to his accomplished painter and woodworker friend Dan Dunton. While I worked alongside Dan in the old stables at Roy’s Georgian house, the two of them introduced me to the wonders of old architecture and inspired a deep appreciation of all things chilly, damp, cracked, worn, and enduring.

I’m still parsing out the aspects of the article that disturb me. Let’s start with the characterization of “slot head screws and brass hinges, pulls and latches, and hand-painting the cabinetry instead of spraying it” as “dog whistles to those who care about such things.” Dog whistles? I’m gagging. I won’t claim to speak for the principals at Plain English, but attending to such details has nothing to do with marketing, at least for me. It’s simply an expression of discipline on the part of a craftsperson who has taken the time to research, then honor, her subject’s history.

And then there are the names the company has chosen for its colors. Green cites a few: “Mushy Peas, Dripping Tap, Boiled Dishcloth and Boiled Egg.” Like many of the company’s signature names, most are faintly disturbing*, as though intended to connote a down-to-earth, “below stairs” realness that may well elude some of those who spend upwards of $45,000 to furnish their kitchens with these undeniably lovely products. I wonder whether Soiled Nappy, Mouse Dropping, and Monthly Blood will ever find their way into these offerings. (Perhaps one of these is already there.)

Another question for me concerns the nature of the basic materials used for cabinet construction. Are the carcase interiors made of sheet goods, and if so, which type? What’s the source of the hardwoods used for face frames, doors, and other parts? I ask as someone who once worked for an English business that imported most of its timber and sheet goods. Kudos to Remodelista’s Julie Carlson for noting the potentially “problematic” dimensions of shipping entire kitchens’ worth of cabinets from the English countryside to distant corners of the United States at a time when there is newfound emphasis on the importance of food and other products with origins close to home.

And this matter of provenance, with the many values it represents, may underlie my biggest beef with the article, or at least with the business it describes. The company’s website credits the “life of genteel and bohemian aristocracy” that’s presumably integral to the history of its headquarters “deep in the Suffolk countryside” as an important source of inspiration for its work. Am I the only one rankled by the romanticizing of a life made possible by domestic service? Sure, many of those who worked as domestic servants were grateful for their positions and developed close relationships with those who employed them; a friend of mine whose grandmother was a parlor maid in Wales can attest to this. But still, I’ve read enough first-person accounts of this life’s realities to take a more critical view.**

In the States, we have our own history of handsomely designed historic cabinetry. You need only look to millwork catalogs from the early years of the 20th century to find handsome patterns for cabinets and other built-ins such as broom closets and telephone niches with genuinely American roots. At least these exemplars, which were manufactured for a burgeoning home-building market of middle-class families who did their own cooking and housework, have a more (if still imperfectly) democratic history than those that furnished the homes of aristocrats. –Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

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Another kitchen with genuinely local roots. Lauri Hafvenstein hired me to design and build cabinets for the kitchen and pantry of her 1917 home in Washington, D.C., to celebrate her home’s hundredth birthday. The cabinets are based on surviving neighborhood examples. The counters are made from reclaimed wood. (Photos by Lauri Hafvenstein, Old House Loves)

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Lauri’s kitchen as she found it.

*Having savored my share of mushy peas over the years (along with tinned rice pudding and steamed Spotted Dick), I’m not calling the dish itself disturbing, but suggesting that many Americans may find the term, as a name for a color used by a maker of “bespoke cupboards,” charming in an ironic I’m one of the insiders who get this way that I, for one, find a bit galling.

**See, for example, Cott et al., Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women and Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Yes, these books both concern American service, and the realities of domestic service in 19th-century America differed in many respects from those of 18th- and 19th-century England.

Disappearing dishwasher

This is the first in a series of occasional posts related to my book about kitchens, to be published in 2020 by Lost Art Press.

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The large door to the right of the sink hides a dishwasher. Instead of using the toekick system recommended by the manufacturer, I made a removable toekick that’s fully integrated into the cabinet design.

Contemporary appliances are the bane of my life (or at least, one of the banes). Their designs, specs, and modes of installation are constantly changing, with increasing complexity as manufacturers swap the simplicity of the analog universe for the obtuseness of the digital.

My latest challenge involved fabricating a panel for a client’s new dishwasher. The appliance came with a poster-size sheet of instructions that featured numerous graphics and few words. Unlike most of the dishwasher doors I have fitted with decorative panels in the past, which had a metal framework or flange to hold the panel, the blank grey plastic front of this one offered no clue as to how I should proceed. Try as I might, I could not make sense of the “instructions.” So I called the manufacturer, expecting a bit of help. This was no naive expectation; over the years I’ve received invaluable assistance from Oneida, BlumZinsser, LaCanche, BEST, and SawStop, to name just a few, and I expected the same from this internationally respected company, whose dishwashers are prized for their efficient, quiet operation.

Instead, the customer service person I reached said the design and installation of the panel were the responsibility of the kitchen designer and cabinetmaker. “I am the designer and cabinetmaker,” I replied, “and I can’t make sense of the instructions, so I am trying to get help.” She clearly did not know how the panel should be made or installed and insisted there was no technical department that could help. (When I told her I was surprised to find that her company offered no assistance to professionals, she replied “I’m not taking nothin’ from you.” I thought I called the “customer service” number?) At least she turned away for a moment to consult a colleague, who gave her the acceptable range of width and height dimensions, which was a start. I built the panel and delivered it to the jobsite, where it sat for days while I completed the straightforward aspects of the job.

In the end, my client’s builder figured out how the panel should be attached. Thanks to his help, it went on easily.

That left the toekick. This dishwasher comes with a prosaic metal panel you can affix at the bottom to hide the guts. Alternatively, you can use the pair of clips provided to affix your own toekick. In both cases, the toekick would have been recessed far more deeply than the cabinets’ toekicks, which I installed closer to the faces than customary to hide the unfinished section of subfloor the builder had installed to bring the level of the original mid-century floor up to that of the oak my client had put in several years ago.

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Ideally, new cabinets and appliances are installed on a floor that runs across the room–or at least covers the first several inches behind the plane of the cabinets’ faces. This job did not allow for that convenience.

To make the toekick appear seamless with the surrounding cabinets, I made a pair of returns, each a simple “L” shape. The wider section would be attached to the back face of the cabinet stile (or “leg”) at each side of the dishwasher opening and painted to match the cabinets. The short part of the “L” would extend inward just enough to support the toekick.

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The L-shaped returns that would support the painted toekick (the blue piece in front)

Dishwashers must be able to be pulled out of their opening in case they need repair, so it’s important to make the toekick removable. It’s also essential to ensure you have sufficient width between the toekick supports to pull the appliance out. I allowed about 1/8″ on each side. I attach dishwasher toekicks with Velcro, which is available in self-adhesive strips from many hardware stores; cut the strips to width so that they fit the short section of the L-shaped support.

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A thin strip of Velcro goes on the back of the kick at each end.

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When installed, the toekick appears to be part of the cabinetry. Yes, I could have incorporated the little cove detail that appears on the rest of the cabinets, but the dishwasher door is clearly distinct from the other cabinets by virtue of its scale and the vertical divider. Adding the cove detail would look excessively fussy, in my opinion.

–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Sources
Dishwasher: Bosch
Bin pulls and latches:Rejuvenation
Cabinet paint: Benjamin Moore oil-based Satin Impervo
Hardwood lumber and plywood: Frank Miller Lumber
Marble backsplash tile: Lowe’s
Sink: Whitehaven apron sink by Kohler
Counters: Hanstone Quartz from Quality Surfaces

A caveat about color

This post relates to the book about kitchens I have written for Lost Art Press. We’re looking at summer 2020 as a publication target.

Hoosier ad with color

Ad for Roper gas ranges, Good Housekeeping, March 1928. (Lest you forget the brand, the name is repeated on the front of three doors.)

When choosing colors of paint, tile and other elements, resist the feeling that you have to have all decisions made at the start. Every job will have a few defining elements. You should choose other pieces of the puzzle with those in mind.

One kitchen I’m working on has its original maple floor from the 1910s. The homeowner is planning to have it sanded and refinished. She has already bought a jadeite green fridge and green glass wall tile. The other existing commitment to color is the heart pine counter, a warm reddish-amber. Yesterday, before the floor sanding, she was asking about paint color for the walls and cabinets. She’s concerned that there may be too many different colors. She explained that she has two light fixtures on order, a schoolhouse pendant with a jadeite stripe for the ceiling at the center of the room and a pendant with a ceramic shade in speckled ochre for above the sink. I told her it’s too early for paint colors; she should wait until the light fixtures are on hand and the floor has been finished.

Here’s why. First, we still don’t know exactly how the floor, one of the largest features of the room, will look. The floor finisher has not broached the question of water- versus oil-based finish. If the floor has a water-based finish, it will stay close to the cool white maple my client found under the particleboard cabinets when her contractor removed them. But if the finish is oil-based, that nearly-white maple will get a yellow cast. The choice of floor finish will make a huge difference to the look and feel of the room.

Floor finishes

Oil versus water, warm versus cold. This cabin-grade hickory flooring in our kitchen (with ever-present hair from our dog) is finished with Waterlox Original Satin finish, a polymerized tung oil (left), and a contemporary catalyzed water-based finish (right). Choose your paint colors without taking the floor into consideration and you may find yourself repainting in a month. Alternatively, if you’re dead-set on particular paint colors and have not yet dealt with the floor, choose the floor treatment based on the paint. Whatever you do, don’t consider these decisions in a vacuum.

Second, the light fixtures are still on order. While the jadeite stripe seems fairly safe, the real appearance of the other fixture’s ochre shade remains to be determined. It’s not a good idea to rely on photographs online or even in print for true representations of color. The only way to know how a color will look is to have it in your hands. Moreover, as with appliance specs, subtle shifts can occur from one manufacturing run to another. (This is why it’s a good idea to buy more tile or wallpaper than you need. Should you have to replace a section, you’ll have a match.) In this case, the ceramic shade is made to order, which raises the stakes even higher.

Here, job number one is to decide the floor finish. Then, once the lights have arrived, the cabinets are installed (still unpainted) and the counters are in place, the client will be well positioned to consider paint.

Classes and events in 2020

Here we are, near the end of September, and it suddenly occurred to me that my calendar for 2020 has a lot more on it than I’d realized. The following list includes classes, workshops, and shows.

February 20-23, 2020
Asheville, North Carolina
Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference
I will be showing a variety of work, selling my books, and leading a small-group discussion on the ethic of perfectionism versus economic realities for furniture makers of the Arts and Crafts movement. Join me and many other artists and makers for an inspiring and fun weekend at the fabulous Grove Park Inn.

April 17-18, 2020
Southbridge, Massachusetts
Fine Woodworking Live 2020
I’ll be teaching workshops on various finishing techniques using milk paint–some familiar to those who use milk paint, others new, serendipitous discoveries.

June 15-19, 2020
Berea, Kentucky
Pine Croft Woodworking School
Weeklong class: Build a Voysey two heart chair.
This surprisingly comfortable chair is simple to build when you have a few tricks up your sleeve. This high-back version of Voysey’s two heart chair has been one of my favorite chair designs since the moment I first set eyes on it. I traveled to the Cheltenham Museum in 2017 to take measurements and make tracings for templates to go in my book on English Arts & Crafts furniture. This is going to be a fun class, and you should have your chair assembled by the end of the week. If you have time for another week, stay on and take Cathryn Peters’s class on weaving your own rush seat. You’ll go home with a chair ready for the dinner table.

September 5-6, 2020
Amana, Iowa
Handworks
I’m looking forward to being at Handworks with copies of my new book about kitchens, to be published by Lost Art Press. Publication is planned for summer 2020.

October 5-10, 2020
Tampa, Florida
Florida School of Woodworking
Build an heirloom desk
Originally designed as an Arts and Crafts piece, this desk is surprisingly adaptable to other styles. Stick to the original oak and dark finish or customize the design with a different wood species, finish, and hardware for a more modern or Scandinavian look.

Hurry Slowly, Part 2: Lesson learned

This is the seventh in a series of stories related to the tales in Making Things Work. These are new material, not excerpts from the book.

Hoosier 1932 catalog cover

 

Almost 16 years to the day after arriving in England with my mother and sister, I moved back across the Atlantic to the States. I landed in Florida, where my family lived, and spent a week with them. I’d brought my dog, Oscar, with me; it was precious to see him recognize his father, a bearded collie my mother had found rummaging through dumpsters in London.

I bought a used Ford Escort, and we headed north to our destination: Amherst, Massachusetts. It was either going to be Amherst or the Hudson Valley; both were the closest I could imagine getting to England in terms of landscape and historic architecture.

Shortly after reaching the edge of Amherst  I was scanning the Help Wanted ads in a local paper and found one for skilled woodworkers. The people I spoke with on the phone seemed lovely. There was just one catch: The shop was not in western Mass., but near Montpelier, Vermont. After driving up for a visit I decided the people and the job were worth the move.

***

The workday began at 7 a.m. and finished at 5, with every other Friday off. The shop was about a half-hour drive from my apartment, so I set my alarm for 5:20, pressed snooze, stayed in bed ’til 5:30, then took Oscar for a walk and prepared to leave. Summer had scarcely ended before the nights grew longer than the days. It was dark when we went to work and dark when we headed home.

On my first morning I arrived extra-early and found myself in the company of a fellow early riser, Kent, another recent hire. He was intelligent, handsome, and friendly. We found we had more in common than showing up early for work.

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Kent, autumn 1987

As the holidays approached, Kent asked if I’d like to spend them in Indiana with his family. I was overjoyed. In the meantime, winter had arrived. I had rarely seen snow in England, but by mid-December that year in Vermont we had almost two feet on the ground. The air was so cold and dry it literally took my breath away.

***

Kent’s parents drove us down the interstate from the airport to Brown County. I was shocked by the number of billboards along the roadsides. Montpelier and its environs had none; local residents had even reportedly said no to an interstate highway. I distinctly remember thinking “Thank goodness I don’t live here.”

After Christmas, Kent was going to spend a few extra days with his family, but I had to return to work. The flight from Indianapolis arrived in Burlington after midnight. By the time I drove back to Montpelier and got to bed it was past 2 a.m. I briefly flirted with the idea of calling first thing in the morning to say I’d be coming in late, but I took punctuality too seriously for that, so I got up, bleary-eyed, and made a cup of coffee.

By this time the snow had been on the ground for at least two weeks. The area got so much snow then that local authorities didn’t even attempt to scrape down to blacktop and melt the residue with salt; they plowed the bulk from the road and dumped it in the Winooski River. Trucks and cars packed down what was left, and highway crews added fresh sand for traction after every fall. That morning I was pushing it in terms of getting to work on time, so despite my hesitation even to approach the speed limit, I set my foot a little harder on the gas. Other people were driving at the speed limit, so why not follow their example?

The car was handling surprisingly well until I reached a long, straight section of road. A truck was heading towards me, and suddenly I was sliding. Despite my frantic efforts to steer, my car was locked on a collision course. For a starkly surreal moment I realized I was going to hit the oncoming truck. Just before impact I turned the wheel even harder, and the next thing I knew my car was spinning off the road, out of control.

“I am going to die now,” I thought, just before the deafening CRASH.

“Am I dead?” I wondered, once I came to. I checked my fingers on the steering wheel; I checked my toes. Miraculously, I seemed fine. Less so was the front wall of the coffee shop/country store that had blessedly stopped my slide. A huge dent now creased the façade. I got out of my car and went inside, apologizing to the woman at the counter who’d just set down her coffee pot, startled by the impact. A couple of patrons exchanged a look that said “damn flatlanders.”

“May I use your phone?” I stammered. “I need to tell my foreman I’m going to be late.” A policeman showed up a few minutes later. After taking down the details he drove me to the shop.

Less than a year later I was living in Indiana. I’ve been here ever since. And these days I worry a little less about being a few minutes late to work.

Hurry Slowly, Part 1: Soggy Bottom

This is the sixth in a series related to the tales in Making Things Work. These are new material, not excerpts from the book.

Melbourn

It really was as grey as it looks.

Around 1986 I was working at a small English workshop that made custom furniture and kitchens. Every day I rode my bicycle from the dank old row house I shared with three other renters on a quiet street in Cambridge–first to the train station, where I put the bike on the train, then from the station in the countryside to my place of employment, this last leg a short ride that usually took about 10 minutes.

One day in mid-spring I punctured a tire on the way to British Rail-Cambridge. This was years before I’d even heard of cell phones, let alone could have afforded one. There was no way to notify my employers, so my best hope was to minimize my lateness. I ran/walked the bike the rest of the way, hoping to make my usual train, and locked the bike to the railing.

Though the workshop wasn’t far from the station at the other end of the line, the only way to get there was via a U-shaped route that took you into the village, past the public lavatories, and out again to farm fields. Following that road on foot would make me disastrously late. I knew just where the shop was in relation to the station—straight across the fields. But being a respecter of property rights, I was loathe to set out across the newly planted earth. Then again, if anyone stopped me I could explain the situation. What reasonable farmer could object to someone gently passing through in an effort to avoid being late to work?

I set off on my adventure, running as far as I could, my bag slung across my shoulder. Walking, then running again as my lungs allowed. Aside from my boots getting clogged with mud, things seemed to be going OK until an obstacle came into distant view. A ditch. The area was essentially fenland, lying close to sea level. Without drainage the fields would have been far less productive for crops. No matter, I thought. I’ll just hop across. But the closer I got, the bigger the ditch appeared. Oh well. I’d just have to clamber down one side and up the next.

By the time I reached the edge of the ditch I realized it was more of an industrial pipeline. There was no telling how deep the water might be. It was definitely too wide to jump over. I was certainly going to get wet; the only question was how wet. I looked back toward the station. Too far to be worth reversing my course. There was no other way around; the ditch continued all the way to the road I usually took on my bike.

With a lump in my throat I eased myself down the bank, hoping for water no more than ankle-deep. The cold, dirty water came up to my arm pits. I sloshed forward, holding my bag aloft, and climbed the other bank. At least there was just one ditch.

On arrival at the workshop I received the predictable ribbing. I was glad to find the woodstove aflame. One of my bosses kindly suggested I get out of my sodden clothes and offered a pair of his overalls. It was a long day.

No.

This is the fifth in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. These posts are not excerpts from the book. This one relates most closely to the tale entitled “No.” Due to operator error, the previous post in this series, “Beggars Can Be Choosers,” did not appear on the Lost Art Press site. You can find it here.

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On 06/07/2018 12:23 AM, Mr. X wrote:

Nancy

A few years ago I was looking for an Arts & Crafts bookcase to build for my den.  I am a retired draftsman, so I was able to pick and choose components from different designs and combine them into one.  But even after looking at so many different designs I still couldn’t find one that really made me happy.  And I looked at a lot.  Then one day I received my copy of Popular Woodworking and there on the cover of that issue was the very one I wanted.  It was perfect.  So with my drafting background I began to draw a bookcase a little taller, a bit wider and a little bit deeper, all the while keeping your basic design.  It came out beautifully, which leads me to my question.  I’ve recently been asked to put a price tag on it for a possible commission. But I’m not sure what to say. Can you help?

*

Mr. X,

I’m glad you found my design to your liking.

I don’t suggest prices to other woodworkers. I think I recall seeing a post by Chris Schwarz recently that was perfectly in sync with my own longstanding reasons for this policy. I’m a professional designer and furniture maker. My livelihood depends on this work. Those who are retired or have alternative sources of support may price their work quite differently from how I do. How you price your work is your business.

With best wishes,

Nancy

Beggars can be choosers

Beggars can be choosers

This is the fourth in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. These posts are new material, not excerpts. 

Nancy with poptart in Brendan's Pop Tart chair

Eat and be happy. In this case, I was not eating, but pretending to take a bite of a sprinkles-bedecked Pop-Tart supplied by Brendan Gaffney, who was explaining his name for the upholstery fabric he used on this “Fat Man Pop-Tart” chair. (Pretending because if I’m going to splurge on sweets, I would rather eat cheese danish or Gateau Na Na. (Photo by Brendan Gaffney.)

Early on in my time pursuing a City & Guilds of London Certificate in Furniture Craft I attended all-day classes. It was still autumn, so at 1 p.m. I rode my bicycle to a small park near the college and ate my lunch while sitting on a bench. It was heaven.

I took the same lunch every day: a sandwich made from home-baked wholewheat bread with a couple of paper-thin slices of cheddar–no butter, lest I gain an ounce, let alone a pound. In those quasi-anorexic days the best compliment anyone could pay me was “Dear, you’re looking quite thin. Are you sure you’re OK?” When someone said I looked “well” I knew they really meant I’d gained weight, so I doubled down on the caloric austerity.*

The sandwich was always followed by an apple. There’s nothing in the States to compare with a Cox’s Orange Pippin, though an orchard near Bloomington, Indiana now sells a variety called Gold Rush with papery brownish-green skin and a firm white center that rival the English apples known as Golden Russets, my second-favorite variety.*

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The divine Golden Russet of my youth.

One day I had just unwrapped my sandwich and was about to bite into the first half when an elderly woman approached me. I’m calling her “elderly” because that’s how she seemed at the time, though nearly 40 years on I’m aware that she was probably no older than I am today. “Can you spare ‘alf that sarny?” she asked, “sarny” being the widespread pronunciation of an abbreviation for “sandwich.” I briefly contemplated the sacrifice–I would be borderline-hungry the rest of the afternoon. But this person needed nutrition, and I wanted to help her out.

“Certainly,” I said, handing her the second half.

She took one bite and tossed the half-sandwich on the ground.

“There’s no butter on it!” she said in disgust.

Sometimes, it seems, you just can’t win.

 

*I am not glorifying anorexia. Having lived through a mere brush with that condition and its attendant health problems, not to mention the ongoing, unrelenting pressure on women in particular to equate thinness with attractiveness and self-worth, I still battle the pressure to be thin.

**The Gold Rush sold in Bloomington is not the same as an English Gold Rush. It’s far closer to a Golden Russet. Something seems to have been lost in translation.

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Perception is not reality

Note: This is the third in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. The posts are new material, not excerpted from the book. Each post is tied to one or more of the book’s chapters, here “A Case of Mistaken Identity.”

Friday Bridge Fish Bar

The fish and chips bar, Friday Bridge. Image by Lynne J. Jenkins from her blog Echoes of the Past

It was one of those early summer days when the damp chill of spring has retreated just enough that you’re ready to bare some skin to the sun. 16 degrees Centigrade, 61 Fahrenheit—one of my favorite mnemonics.

The Second World War had ended 35 years before, but judging by its freshness in the national psyche, at least among people I knew (you could still hear “Bloody Yanks—over-fed, over-sexed, and over here” at any blue-collar workplace frequented by men of a certain age), the elapsed time might as well have been no more than a week. Being not only a bloody Yank, but also female (in a trade dominated by men), and sufficiently middle-class to have graduated with a A-Levels (in a trade then dominated by people from the working class), I was a magnet for extra resentment.

In those days I didn’t have friends as such. My friend was my first dog, Oscar, the runt of a litter born after my mother’s bearded collie, Alistair, escaped and mated with the neighbors’ Irish setter, Sherry. But even if those men of a certain age in the village and the nearby town of Wisbech weren’t my friends, I hoped they would at least accept me as an honorary member of their number. I admired their work ethic, their skill at car repair and gardening, the way they kept their homes well maintained and neat as a pin.

I’d recently completed my City & Guilds training in Furniture Craft Part I and turned 21. I’d built a simple workbench and put it in front of the dining room window, a few feet away from a small combination jointer-planer. After augmenting this equipment with a router and some cheap hand tools, I was ready to try my hand at earning a living as a custom furniture maker. I had a few small commissions—a chest of drawers for a neighbor, a spice cabinet, a Welsh dresser, a simple bed.

Nancy with Welsh dresser base 1980

Welsh dresser base in pine. Front yard of the schoolmaster’s cottage, Friday Bridge, Cambridgeshire, 1980, with the Chequers Pub in the background.

As a hedge against the chasm of structureless days and irregular income, I lived by compulsive self-discipline. My meals were the same every day: breakfast of porridge with honey; an austere cheese sandwich on homemade bread followed by an apple for lunch; vegetable soup for dinner. On Saturday I allowed myself a quarter-pound of roasted peanuts from the village store cum Post Office on Well End as a special treat. I tracked my spending down to the half-penny in a narrow-ruled pocket notebook and scheduled my work days to the minute.

8 a.m.: Start

11 a.m.: 10-minute tea break

1 p.m.: Lunch: edifying myself with books on woodworking and philosophy while eating sandwich and apple

2-5: Back at the bench.

The word “fun” did not feature in my lexicon. It was irrelevant to the kind of serious life I intended to live. Given the chance to do work I found meaningful, I’d gladly settle for predictability and the equivalent of minimum wage.

Nancy with Oscar 1980

Oscar as a puppy. Front yard, schoolmaster’s cottage, Friday Bridge.

But this one day—so balmy, so green—felt wasted indoors. I had my bike; it was my sole form of transportation in every season. If there was ever a day made for bicycling, this was it. I could quickly eat my lunch, then take the bike out for a spin.

On the other hand, what if someone saw me? They might think I was goofing off. The shame would be unbearable, even if I was simply outside to enjoy a half-hour of fresh air in the middle of a regimented workday.

Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Do you really want your life to revolve around what other people think? I decided to risk it.

I set off to the east along a narrow road flanked by brick row houses and bungalows. It didn’t take long for the village to dissolve into farm fields beneath a broad blue sky. The lupins were in full riotous bloom. Apricot verbascums with raspberry centers brightened the gravel at the roadside. Butterflies fluttered past as I pedaled slowly, intoxicated by the sweet scent of stocks. This brief bit of pleasure was balm to my soul.

stocks

Stocks, one of the most popular flowers in Friday Bridge gardens when we lived there. (Image: Burpee)

After a quarter-hour of this reverie I realized it was time to turn back. I was pedaling happily through a neighborhood near my home when I spotted an old man in a yard at my left. Apparently he’d been sweeping a path. Of course. One of those men who kept their place spotless. How lovely! I thought. But wait… Now he was shaking the broom in my direction. And…hang on…what was that he was shouting in my direction?

“You don’t know you’ve been born!”

I knew I should not have gone for that ride.

It took me years of working at the bench to come up with a response to that man’s anger, which was based on egregiously faulty inference.  On the other hand, of course, he may have just been insane. But I’m too ready to accept criticism to feel satisfied with that explanation.

The problem with passion

Note: This is the second in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. The posts are new material, not excerpted from the book, and some, such as this one, are written in a (much) drier style. Each will be tied to one or more of the book’s chapters, in this case “Living the Dream” and “Hotel California.”

Most of us think of passion in positive terms–love on steroids, if you will. Regardless of whether your passion is ignited by a lover, a pre-Civil War farmhouse or the prospect of brewing rare varieties of beer in your basement, a zillion books, seminars and websites are available to advise you on following it, and many of them all but promise that doing what you love will translate to loving what you do.

Pursuing your passion is widely understood as a prescription for happiness and fulfillment. When you’re building furniture as an avocation, outside of the work that provides your livelihood, it’s easy to maintain this understanding of passion. Feel uninspired? Run into a problem? Put the work away for a few days. Take the leap from spare- to full-time practitioner, and the realities associated with doing something day in and day out (stretches of mind-numbing monotony, minefields of bureaucracy, the occasional deranged customer, the need to negotiate between perfectionism and defaulting on your mortgage), not to mention ensuring you get paid enough to cover the multitude of expenses beyond what you need to support yourself, tend to dampen the ardor. Hence the occasional warning about trying to make a living from work you love, lest you lose your passion. See this article forwarded to me by Russell Gale, or this essay by Vic Tesolin.

Betsi's laundry hamper 004

Laundry hamper in cypress, circa 2009

The problem is, the popular understanding of passion is seriously flawed. The word passion comes from a Latin verb that means to suffer, undergo, experience, endure.* While love is central to passion, passion is no easy kind of love. When we’re passionate about something, we’re driven.** We serve our passion by dealing with the trying circumstances and sometimes-maddening fallout that come in its train, every bit as much as by enjoying the satisfactions generated by our pursuit.

Doing what you love for a living demands that you cultivate a larger understanding of loving what you do–one that will accommodate the headaches, stress, sporadic income, psychological contortions required by some clients, occasional doldrums and sleepless nights that can come with being self-employed. When you think about it, this is no different from the deeply committed love that grounds a long marriage, which may involve stretches of monotony, moments of doubt, tending to a sick spouse (or parent, or child) and the occasional hour (or [come on, let’s be honest] more) of utter exasperation. As Tesolin puts it,

being a pro woodworker means you are a slave to the grind. I’ve been there and it isn’t always pretty. It’s not often you get to do the kind of work that you want, and many times you are left begging to be paid for the work you complete – not to mention all of the other drudgery like bookkeeping, accounting, website upkeep and marketing.

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Kitchen sink base cabinet with trash pull-out, 2018

So let’s say you decide you’ve had enough of professional woodworking and look for another line of work. If you get hired, congratulations; you can enjoy a regular paycheck and the freedom to enjoy woodworking in your hours outside of the job. For many people I know, that’s an enviable situation, the best of both worlds.

But what if circumstances keep you in the game? What if you apply for other work, and even get interviews, only to hear that you were a serious contender but they didn’t hire you because (a) they thought you wouldn’t want to work for an employer after running your own business for so long, (b) you’re “over qualified” or (c) they were sure you’d miss the work about which you’d been so passionate, so you’d leave the new position and go back? This is what happened to me on multiple occasions when I tried to escape from earning a living as a woodworker. I needed an income so I went back to what I knew. I soon realized I would have to find a way to make peace with my work. Passion, in the truest sense, to the rescue. This is what Making Things Work is largely about.

Grappling with this work in the most existential ways has not resulted in me losing my passion, but in learning what a deeper form of passion entails.

EnglAC_cover

For me, the opportunity to write about furniture and design, in addition to working on commissions in the shop, has been key. Research, thinking and writing about furniture and material culture in general feed my enthusiasm for that hands-on work that keeps me grounded and provides all kinds of insights for my writing.

So go ahead and do what you love. But please make sure you open your eyes before diving in.

*The same Latin word gives rise to our word passive, as in the passive versus active voice. The word “suffer” is another goldmine. From the Latin sub and ferre, it means to carry from below, i.e. to bear or endure–not the image that popular culture encourages us to associate with love.

**Note, again, the passive implication of this grammatical form.