Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life. Several entries will be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com in the next few days. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share. Check the Lost Art Press site this Saturday, February 1, for the winner!
Cracking a Few Eggs, by Marselle Bredemeyer
When friends ask me to make them something, here’s my go-to offer: “Why don’t you join the woodworking guild with me? It’s only $90 a year. This is simple, I could teach you how to do it with our tools.” I’ve been taught by many patient volunteer woodworkers there, so I want to give back, teach what I know to someone else.
I also really don’t want to make anything, for anyone. Just for me.
Here’s what I’ll say in my defense: I’m more of a scared woodworker than a selfish one. I worry the piece won’t live up to my hopes for it once I hand it off. Maybe if someone could promise me a monthly newsletter update from the table they’d like me to make, I’d take on some requests. But for now, it’s me, making furniture for me in my available free time, struggling in the way a person who wasn’t born with a talent struggles on the path from “I kinda suck at this” to “I can hide how much I suck at this.”
That’s probably why I told my friends Rebecca and Justin that I could make two new balusters for the staircase in their century-plus old house. It just seemed so easy. I could help a friend and not embarrass myself, a woodworker less than a year into practice at the time.
I walk the half mile from my apartment to their house, and grab a couple original balusters for reference. They’re white oak, we all agree. A golden oil finish and patina have given the oak a soft, glowing warmth. I’ll buy stock they’ll reimburse me for and make all the required cuts. They’ll take on staining the replacement pieces to match the rest. I’m copying something craftsman-style straightforward: two square sticks, each with a dovetail on one end where the balusters join the stringer. It’s a shallow, 1-1/4″-long dovetail, the back of it — half the thickness of the stock — removed. The carton of farm-laid eggs Rebecca hands me as a thank you are my first-ever duck eggs.
Getting eggs that I don’t know if I like in exchange for woodworking is deeply charming for me. So charming, I want to roll my eyes at myself when I relive the feeling again. When I text my dad that I can’t believe I get to trade my woodworking skills for something, he reminds me what eggs cost at Aldi, but who needs Aldi when you’ve just started my own barter economy in the heart of midtown Kansas City? Surely I’m only a few months away from trading cabinets for bricks of farm-fresh tofu.
Most trips to the lumber shop still make my confidence waiver. For the balusters, I get a few feet of 8/4 white oak, slowly, but without second guessing. Days later, I’m in the guild’s shop, set up on one of the two Roubo benches stationed in the hand-tool room. I shape up my long squares and go for a hand-tool approach to the dovetails.
Why don’t I just trace them onto my new sticks? Instead I trace them onto cardboard and cut the tail out of the cardboard, so that I have a reverse outline I can overlay and mark on the sticks. As a woodworker today, I notice those fried-brain moments in myself as letting stress get the best of me, letting thinking in circles distract me from doing something that’s making me nervous, which in this case is doing work that makes a friend less stressed. Plus, I really don’t want to mess up these sticks — what would the ducks think? I take an Instagram photo and make a Hall and Oates pun for a caption — Haulin’ Oaks is a great pun, worth at least one egg.
Hand-cutting the dovetails doesn’t go the way I planned. Over and over my saw slips off the corner of the baluster that I’m trying to cut into, since the end of the tail is the width of the stock. The tails turn out narrower than the originals, but close enough that Rebecca and Justin think it’ll work.
“It’s actually red oak.” I’m sent this text with a side-by-side comparison of the end grain of the new and old boards, from the staircase, a few days later. If I knew what I know now, I’d tell them: it doesn’t matter, blending new pieces alongside century-old pieces is going to be near-impossible anyway.
Instead I feel like a fraud. Endgrain on red oak vs. white oak is a lesson three different woodworkers felt compelled to bring up to me in my first months. I’d never looked at the endgrain of the old balusters because there wasn’t much to look at; that grain had blackened with oil and glue and time.
I knew I’d feel too guilty to even ask to be reimbursed for the new red oak, so I ask Justin to meet me at the nearby lumberyard where he can buy what’s right, and let me take it from there. We make it, an hour after it closed. “Wouldn’t a real woodworker actually know when her ‘favorite’ store was open or not?” is what I picture him thinking. I’ve scammed my way into these eggs and better eat them fast.
When I’m back at my bench, with red oak this time, I realize I can trace the dovetail directly from one piece to another, and that cutting it on a bandsaw will make this a two-minute task.
No need to haul so many oaks next time. I’ll slow down and step away when I’m putting too much pressure on myself over a few sticks.
Because they are classy, Rebecca and Justin don’t just reimburse me or give me eggs. I’m surprised with extra cash that I could even use to buy my own brunch. I want to give it back. After what I’ve put myself through, it would have just been better if they’d bought their own guild membership.