Category Archives: Women in woodworking

To your health

Before the whipped cream.

I keep hearing from people who seem to be picturing me on or near my death bed, people with pity in their voice or dire warnings about how “intensive” my road is going to be. Yeah, got those memos; I have never understood why some people imagine that emphasizing the dangers of a friend’s medical condition is going to help that friend. Does anyone who has received a terrible diagnosis not appreciate the gravity without having to be reminded by others who supposedly care? That question is rhetorical; just keep those thoughts to yourselves and you’ll be doing a lot more good than you will by voicing them.

I am grateful to report that things are going well. I feel great on most days and have been getting plenty of work done. For those who keep asking whether I am “making sawdust,” I’m making far less of it than usual — not because I’m physically or mentally impaired, but simply because my white blood cell counts are so low that I’m at increased risk of infection from the cuts and scrapes I get any time I’m working in the shop (or garden). (OK, that is a kind of physical impairment, but all in all, it’s so minor, and I feel so strong and energetic, that I don’t even want to grant it that standing.) So I am focusing on design work and writing — and I’m very thankful to have kitchen design jobs coming in, thanks to the recent publication of Kitchen Think.

Proof. Lunchtime a few days ago, covered in dust from finishing up some shelves for a set of built-in bookcases.

Early on in my current health adventure I had the good fortune of speaking with Karen Vaughan, an oncology nurse, who has had plenty of experience with pancreatic cancer. Karen recommended a book, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, among other reading materials relevant to my condition, in response to which I’ve made some sweeping changes to my diet.

I stopped drinking alcohol and eating all wheat products, as well as most grains other than organic oats. A good crusty loaf of sourdough has been one of my great pleasures in life; avoiding bread, brown basmati rice, tortillas, and pasta has taken some adjustment. Lunch used to be a quickly-assembled cheese sandwich. No more! Everything aside from salad requires more thought and preparation. My evening beverage is now a mug of vegetable broth, my favorite being the rich and complexly flavored Bou Vegetable Bouillon Cubes.

I’m burning through recipes for vegetarian Thai-style coconut-vegetable soups and curries and have found some good ones, including this one. A kale salad recipe by Kayte Young, food correspondent for our local NPR affiliate, has become another favorite. I think I use less salt than she does, and I substitute pecans for pine nuts, as well as organic sun-dried tomatoes from a jar for her oven-roasted tomatoes, but that is one good recipe, and kale is so good for you.

Most beans are off the list, but garbanzos and red lentils seem to be OK, as are fermented soy products. The main component of this diet is organic vegetables, most with low carbohydrate content — green beans, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, some peppers, etc. I am not being super-hardcore; onions, carrots, and tomatoes are too important to me to forgo, and all are higher than ideal in naturally-occurring sugars. Seriously off the list are potatoes and most kinds of squash, along with most types of cheese (other than Parmesan, which I am just not giving up). Plain full-fat yogurt also seems to be OK.

Nuts — almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pumpkin seeds — are all OK, too, so for a special treat I devised a minimalist spin on Bakewell tart that involves an almond crust, a little raspberry fruit spread (organic raspberries being the top ingredient), fresh raspberries and whipped cream. No added sugar. (See “recipe,” if I may glorify it with that name, below.)

So far, my best source of recipes has been Ottolenghi’s Simple. His broiled tomatoes with chile [sic], garlic, and ginger are a real treat.

I’m mentioning diet because I feel so much better now than I felt for probably two years before my diagnosis. Yes, the chemo is proving effective at this point, which has virtually done away with my abdominal discomfort from the tumor. But the diet is clearly playing a big part in how I feel, and that is largely what defines my quality of life on any given day. I’ve had more energy than I can remember having in ages; this is especially notable given that chemo is notorious for depleting energy, in part by causing a drastic reduction in hemoglobin levels. Even my asthma and chronic back pain have improved markedly, though Mark points out this may have something to do with not spending all day every day on a concrete floor in a dusty environment. Hydration is also critical, especially with Folfirinox, the chemo regimen I’m on; I keep track of my water consumption (most of it in the form of tea, whether decaf or not, as water alone has taken on a funky taste due to the chemo drugs) and aim for at least eight cups a day.

So while I would certainly prefer not to be having this experience, I am deeply grateful to feel as well as I do and be able to get so much work done. As for the recipe below, it’s for those in hardcore need of a dessert-like fix. I can’t actually recommend it, though it is a healthy, treat-like substance.

Deconstructed Bakewell Tart

This recipe is so utterly deconstructed that it has nothing to do with Bakewell Tart, beyond the basic idea of putting raspberry-something into a crust.

Crust

1-1/2 cups of organic ground almonds

1/2 tsp. sea salt

3 Tbsp. melted butter (grass-fed, organic)

Mix the ground almonds and butter, then press into a buttered pie dish.

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes to toast the almonds, then allow to cool.

Filling

Spread about 1/4 cup of organic raspberry fruit spread over the crust.

Cover with fresh organic raspberries.

When ready to serve, whip heavy cream in a glass or stainless steel bowl set in a large pan of ice cubes. Add sweetener if you must; I am getting used to no added sweetener — and enjoying more subtle natural flavors as a result.

Numbers

Poster by Robert Lachenmann, artist, for WPA. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, “Free to Use and Reuse.”)

People have asked me to do a better job of posting news about the topic that has taken over my daily life, so here’s a bit of hopeful news. Last Thursday I had a follow-up CT scan to the first, on November 12th. The tumor on my pancreas has decreased from 3.8 cm x 2.8 cm to 2.6 cm by 2.1. That’s good news, especially in view of the average statistic my oncologist in Indianapolis quoted when we first met: Just 30% to 50% of pancreatic tumors respond to either of the two available chemotherapy regimens.

In other hopeful news, my CA19-9 tumor marker has dropped from 140+ before the first infusion on Dec. 28 to 28, well within the “normal” range of 0 to 37. I take no good news for granted.

In the cherry-on-top category, my side effects with yesterday’s chemo infusion number four are again astonishingly mild, with peripheral neuropathy (pins and needles in my fingers) being the worst. We reduced the dose of oxaliplatin, which causes this, by 20%, which is still within the range recommended for my body surface area. Having gone through three very unpleasant days on the first cycle, I have come to anticipate the possibility of finding myself nauseated and unable to do more than sit still in Mark’s grandpa’s recliner, waiting for the hours to pass until I can feel “normal” again, though at this point I’m pretty well down with the program (because it seems to be working).

It’s fascinating to see how, even when I feel perfectly chill about going in for an infusion the day before, my body is not. This is not to suggest that I subscribe to a worldview in which “I” exist separately from “my body.” I don’t, and my views on this reflect years of academic study as well as reflection on my own experience. But much of our bodies’ daily experience and work are unknown to our “thinking” selves — stuff like temperature regulation, peristalsis, and other functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. The night before my second and third infusions, I felt an ache in the area of my port and the tiniest hint of an upset colon. Nothing was amiss; my body was simply expressing its concern — or, as I have come to see it, my body is like our dog, Joey, begging “please don’t take me back to the vet!” and deserves the same kind of comforting reassurance I would give to a dog. This time, physical anxiety akin to a racing locomotive showed up at bedtime and kept me from falling asleep. I took one Tylenol PM, which did the trick. And Day Four at the infusion center went off without a hitch. Major kudos to the nursing staff in the infusion department at IU Health-Bloomington Hospital, especially Lori, Pat, and Nicole, along with nurse tech Paulette.

Sunny with snow on the ground

For anyone wondering what’s up with me and my health, here’s a brief update.

Touch wood, things are going well. After my first chemo infusion on Dec. 28, I was slammed — could scarcely get out of Mark’s recliner (the one he inherited from his grandpa, a sturdy late-mid-century thing built like a Humvee) for 2-1/2 days. I’ve always wondered what chemo side effects were like. Of course, they vary greatly — different drugs, different metabolisms. For me, those first two days following the infusion had me feeling as though I was trapped in a steel cage too small for my body and mind, with abdominal pain and mild nausea, a headache (possibly due in part to caffeine withdrawal, as I went cold turkey after years of 4 to 5 cups a day) and unrelenting hot flashes alternating with chills. Miserable.

Pharmacist Cindy Burns says the temperature modulation problem was likely due to overstimulation of my parasympathetic nervous system. Of course there are other side effects, the most concerning of which is peripheral neuropathy caused by oxaliplatin, which makes typing or working in the shop a real challenge unless you are one of those people who enjoy the sensation that everything you touch is covered in sharp pins. (I will spare you description of the effects on my GI tract.)

The good news is that neither of the next two infusions has left me with severe side effects. These last two times I’ve felt alert and energetic. We’ve reduced the oxaliplatin by 20%, which helps a lot. Cindy says the difference in side effects may be due to the particular regimen I’m on, Folfirinox, which causes massive cell die-off in the first cycle. Yuck. I hope she’s right; it’s a blessing to feel so good.

I don’t want to jinx anything but will say I’m feeling better than I’ve felt in a couple of years — startling, given that I have pancreatic cancer and, thanks to chemo, my white blood cell counts, along with hemoglobin levels, are in the danger zone. In view of my immuno-suppressed condition amid the still-raging pandemic, my oncologist, Dr. Karuna Koneru, has told me in no uncertain terms to avoid going into any buildings other than for medical treatment. This means no more mailing of books ordered through my website, where I have posted a note directing people to order “Making Things Work” through Lost Art Press.

Thanks in large part to the success of “Kitchen Think,” I am busy with kitchen design jobs, the perfect type of work for those times when a simple cut in the shop could become infected and cause serious problems, including death, due to my compromised immune system. If my counts are in the Serious Danger Zone when I return for my next infusion, the chemo will be delayed a week and the insurance company will cover the cost of Neulasta, which stimulates production of white blood cells in the bone marrow. (Our insurance does not cover this life-saving drug unless the patient’s life is genuinely and imminently at risk, which strikes me as unfortunate, to put it mildly.)

I’m also making good progress on “Shop Tails,” the book about animals, life, and work that I’m writing for Lost Art Press, and keeping up with regular blog posts. This Sunday morning, thanks to a recommendation by Peter Follansbee, you’ll find a profile of Arts & Crafts chairmaker Lawrence Neal at Lost Art Press, and my next post for the Pro’s Corner at Fine Woodworking will share some of what I have learned about choosing healthcare coverage when you’re a self-employed craftsperson or artist, a topic in which I have now had a crash course.

We’ll let you know when we’re done

Almost there. I’ll return next week to tweak the fit of the doors, add a coat of paint to the upper sections, and install door pulls. One of the customers is a musician; he needed space to store scores, sheet music, cds and books.

Yesterday Mark* and I installed a set of built-in cabinets and open shelves for some customers of mine. The customers, who are 100% on board with pandemic safety protocols, turned down the heating, opened windows, and left the house for the day. Mark and I wore masks the whole time we were inside their house. As we leveled the base cabinets, fitted the 8-foot-long walnut counter carefully between the alcove’s walls, and scribed outlying parts to irregular surfaces — all of it painstaking work involving large, heavy parts, ever mindful of the baby grand piano just feet away — it occurred to me that the job bore many similarities to the endoscopic procedure I’d had two days earlier.

The moving pad and dropcloth visible at left are protecting the highly-polished, flawless piano.

The previous procedure, a pancreatic ultrasound and needle biopsy two weeks before, yielded a tissue sample with no trace of cancer cells. The first academic article I found on pancreatic cancer noted the difficulty of obtaining reliable pancreatic tissue to biopsy, so the inconclusive biopsy was not a surprise. And while it meant investing another day in fasting, driving to Indianapolis, etc., I was glad to have it done in the interest of getting the most accurate picture of what’s going on.

Those facing this kind of endoscopic procedure have reason to feel anxious. It’s freaky to imagine having a tube run from your mouth, down your esophagus, through your stomach, and into the upper part of your duodenum. The point of this post is to put your mind at rest by sharing my experience; when it comes to medical procedures of any kind, I am the Dr. Seuss character in Green Eggs and Ham: “I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”

The hardest part is not being able to take anything by mouth after midnight until your procedure is over. Food is one thing, but not drinking water for up to 12 hours is a challenge. I prepared both times by staying up until midnight the night before, drinking as much water as I could that day and evening, to ensure I was hydrated. After checking in and waiting, you change into a hospital gown and have your vitals checked. A nurse sets you up with an IV and saline. You meet the doctor and the anesthesiologist (my experiences over the years have convinced me that a weird sense of humor is a job requirement for a career in anesthesiology), so you have a chance to ask questions.

Then a nurse wheels you into the exam room where the anesthesiologist and doctor are waiting. There’s someone to keep an eye on your vitals and a tech to get you ready. Everyone I’ve dealt with has been kind. You’re covered in taped-on monitors, with a blood pressure cuff on one arm and the IV in the other. They set you up with oxygen in your nostrils, stuff a nice pillow behind your back to keep you on your side, and ask you to bite down on a plastic tube about 1″ in diameter that keeps your mouth open while the endoscopy tube is inserted. Just as you’re thinking “how the hell am I going to avoid getting a cramp in my shoulder?” you’ve left the house on a worry-free propofol excursion. Bring in the cabinets and the tools. Set everything up. Transform the alcove (or bathroom, or kitchen) into something you hope will delight the customers — they’re out of the picture, just as you are, with a group of highly trained medical pros watching your every heartbeat while the doctor makes his passes back and forth with an ultrasound “camera,” then inserts a fine needle through the wall of your stomach to get a sample of tissue.

All being well, the next thing you’ll be aware of is a kind nurse saying hi as you return to your senses, a moment echoed two days later, when I texted one of my clients to let her know we were done for the day and her family could come home. I waited until her husband arrived, to make sure nothing went wrong while the front door was unlocked.

Two days earlier, in Indianapolis, I awoke with a vague awareness that I’d been drooling; the nurse mentioned it was bile (lovely); the doctor had also examined a spot on my liver this time. As with the first endoscopy, I had no pain at all, not even the sore throat that is the most commonly cited after-effect. I washed the bile out of my hair when we got home, with plenty of time before I had to give a long-scheduled Zoom presentation for the annual meeting of the San Diego Fine Woodworkers Association.

Ordinarily I would remove any adjacent baseboard and shoe molding, then cut it to fit after installing the cabinets. In this case, the baseboard on this wall ran behind a bookcase loaded with books, so after determining the precise location of the scribe stile’s front face, Mark cut the baseboard and shoe with an oscillating multitool.

The preliminary diagnosis is still adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. We should learn more after the pathologist examines the tissue sample. I continue to feel fine and am thankful for that.

*My husband, Mark, and I each run our own business, but we’ve significantly reduced our contact with others since March in view of the pandemic. As a general contractor whose work is hands-on (as distinct from those GCs who spend most of their time running their business and supervising others), Mark would ordinarily be spending his days in close contact with fellow tradespeople and customers, much of the time inside their homes. A while back we decided that the most responsible way forward during the pandemic would be help each other on jobs that take more than a single pair of hands, instead of working with others.

Hindsight is 20/20

As one of my clients, an economist, might say, “2020 continues on brand.”

The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of medical tests, waiting for results, and doing my best to focus on work. Yesterday I had a biopsy that appears to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. (I am well aware of the seriousness of this diagnosis, so please keep your dire warnings, etc. to yourselves.)

Several friends and family members have asked what prompted me to have these tests. I’m sharing the following in the hope that it may help someone else avoid getting to a place like that where I now find myself, whether with this or some other disease.

A bad snapshot of the kitchen cabinets I was working on in October, 2019, with Jack Patrick’s lower half. (He was setting tile.)

I began to experience vague abdominal discomfort in October, 2019. During a doctor’s visit at the start of 2020 I described it as a sensation similar to what I felt in 2006 when, as it turned out, I had an ovarian cyst. (The cyst was removed laparoscopically and proved benign.) Based on this description, my doctor ordered a pelvic ultrasound in February. It showed up nothing unusual.

The discomfort continued. I tried eating smaller meals and exercising more, not drinking beer, then not drinking any kind of alcohol. I still felt the vague discomfort and mild bloating. Over the summer I had a couple more visits with the doctor; my back had also begun to hurt, and it wasn’t the kind of back pain I’m used to — the kind I’ve brought on myself by 25 years of carrying heavy materials alone in the shop and on jobsites, digging thousands of holes for plants in hard-packed soil, shoveling and carting acres’-worth of topsoil, gravel, and mulch for my gardens, and building limestone paths and retaining walls around the homes where I’ve lived.

Beginning in July, I started seeing a bodyworker who specializes in treating athletes through myofascial release; after several weeks of getting no lasting effects, I went to our friend Dan Selvaggi, a licensed masseur. The massage felt wonderful, but the back pain persisted, and the abdominal discomfort was turning into something I could, by that time, describe as low-level pain.

One of this year’s October/November jobs.

In September or October my mother-in-law, who lives in northern Indiana, was diagnosed with lung cancer — this, after many months of perfunctory tests and balls dropped by her medical care providers, as she found it harder and harder to breathe, her blood oxygen level was so low that she could scarcely stay awake for half a day, and she had to go to the emergency room twice to have fluid removed from the area around her lungs.

After hearing about Jo, I decided it was time I became more assertive (not that I’m generally a shrinking violet; nor would I begin to compare my GP, who respects her patients’ intelligence and genuinely cares about our welfare, with the doctors who have been treating my mother-in-law). I scheduled an appointment with my GP; the earliest available was six weeks out. A week into that wait, I said “to hell with this” and went to the walk-in clinic, where I described my symptoms. I had a battery of blood tests, all of which came back normal, other than revealing a slight vitamin D deficiency. When my doctor received the results, she called me in for an appointment right away — not because normal blood test results would warrant an immediate consultation (that would be illogical), but because it seems to have taken my proactive step to impress on her the depth of my concern. There’s a fine line between being seen as careless about your health and being seen as a hypochondriac. Apparently I haven’t negotiated that line very well.

Based on my updated description of the discomfort, she ordered an abdominal ultrasound. That revealed a mass on my pancreas, as confirmed by a CT scan the following week and a biopsy yesterday.

The point of this post

In retrospect, I wish I’d been more assertive with my GP back in February. The pelvic ultrasound showed nothing abnormal, but the discomfort persisted. I should have insisted on further screening to find out what was wrong.

And even though I can’t think or speak as a medical professional, I do think my doctor should have recommended further screening. I say this not to blame her, but to encourage whoever is reading this to be more assertive than I was in February. My tumor could have been discovered eight months earlier. We all know the importance of detecting any kind of cancer as early as possible.

A late-summer job this year.

The thing is, most patients are not medical professionals. It’s exceedingly difficult, even for someone who writes professionally, to articulate the kind of discomfort I’ve been feeling — and even more, to pinpoint its location. In my case, the sensation feels like it’s immediately under my left lung — not farther back, where the pancreas is actually located. How did it feel at first? It simply felt “amiss.” Something was out of whack, and it was accompanied by mild but noticeable bloating. Another sign: if I had just a few sips of beer or wine, I sometimes experienced a sharp pain in my mid-back. Sugar. Pancreas. The connection didn’t even occur to me. Most of the time the vague, unfamiliar feeling defied description.

I’ll be writing more here as things progress — far less blow-by-blow chronology of symptoms and such than thoughts and observations about sickness and other insufficiently-discussed matters that have interested me for as long as I can remember. I have a meeting with an oncologist next Tuesday at which I’ll get a better picture of where things stand and what kind(s) of treatment may be possible.

Don’t hesitate to speak up for yourself and your loved ones.

Thanks to @magdahiller and @wyattwilson for the “cat cap,” which provoked the greatest laugh I’ve had in a long time.

Polenta and Goat Cheese from the Pandemic Pantry

Whitagram-Image

The other day a package arrived on our doorstep from Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. There was no indication of who had sent it, and when I looked for a phone number on the company’s website in the hope that I could call and find out whom to thank, there was none. So I posted a picture of the contents of the package online and asked the sender to ‘fess up so I could express my thanks.

The sender obliged. (Nice, because I can’t stand being unable to thank someone for a gift. I would out him here but don’t want to cause any awkwardness.)

Mark and I love goat cheese — on toast, on crackers, in salad. But I decided to use some of it to make my best stab at my favorite dish at Bloomington’s Uptown Cafe, baked polenta with goat cheese. I’m cooking with what we have on hand, so my guess at the ingredients reflects that.

IMG_8637

Baked Polenta with Goat Cheese

1 cup polenta
salt

goat cheese

1-1/2 cups tomato sauce
1 12-oz. can diced tomatoes
olive oil
1 medium red onion: chop most of it and slice about 1/7 for topping
3 cloves garlic
black pepper
1 tsp. basil
1-1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. red wine
2 Tbsp. capers
black olives, chopped

grated or shredded Parmesan
sliced red onion

Cook polenta in water with a dash of salt, stirring with a whisk, until thick but not dry. Pour into a buttered glass backing dish and spread into a flat layer.

Crumble the goat cheese over the polenta and spread evenly.

Sauté sliced onion in olive oil until transparent, then add garlic and sauté a little longer. Add pepper and basil. Stir well. Add tomato sauce and can of tomatoes, then wine, vinegar, capers, and olives. Cook until the sauce has thickened a bit. Pour over the polenta and goat cheese.

Top with grated Parmesan, then sliced onion.

Bake at 350 degrees until the onions are beginning to brown. Allow to sit before serving.

After a tiny taste I can say it’s quite different from the Uptown’s version — for one thing, theirs has a lot more goat cheese, but this being special goat cheese, I didn’t want to use too much in this dish. Nonetheless, it’s really good!

 

What’s in a name?

IMG_8550

Every so often you come across a product that makes your day. Those gems are worth sharing.

Some clients recently asked about subway tile for a backsplash. Mark, the general contractor on the job, mentioned the tile one of his other clients is using in her bathroom. We stopped at her house (this was a few weeks back; we’re working from home now) to pick up a sample. I was taken by the glaze, but even more by the name of the color: “Par Avion.” It really is the color of the ultra-thin airmail paper we used in the ’70s.

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Crossville Tile’s “Par Avion

When I looked up the website for further information to send to our current clients I found that all the glazes in the “Handwritten” line have writerly names — “Ink Well,” “Pen Pal, and “Post Card,” to name another three. Part of me winces at the preciousness of the branding, but in this era of touchpads, keyboards, and voice-recognition software, it’s nice to be reminded about the culture of paper and pens.

Daniel O’Grady is in the house

Daniel on his car

Illustration from Making Things Work (published by Lost Art Press, 2019)

I generally avoid superlatives. They’re overused, and meaningless without qualification. But I have no hesitation in calling Daniel O’Grady my best employee ever. He had all the attributes that make for excellence: intelligence, punctuality, a broad base of skills combined with an aptitude for learning more, modesty, and admirable self-discipline. He genuinely cared about the work, whether the job involved hand-cut dovetails in figured cherry or biscuit joints in poplar plywood. He found the ideal balance between efficient and meticulous as readily as water finds the lowest spot, was principled and courageous, polite and gracious with customers, and possessed a sick sense of humor made all the more wicked by his flair for mimicry, which ensured that I got a daily abdominal workout while he was in my employ.

After leaving my shop in 2007, Daniel went on to other work adventures. Most recently he was foreman, shop manager, and designer for a high-end custom woodworking shop in Memphis known for southern vernacular furniture made with reclaimed wood. When that business closed in late 2019, Daniel decided it was time to start his own, O’Grady Custom.

I first met Daniel toward the end of 2004, when he helped carry a back-breakingly heavy cast-iron tub into the bathroom of the house I was working on with a view to inhabiting. Not long after, I took the plunge and hired him in my business. A couple of anecdotes from before we met will do a better job of conveying Daniel’s character better than I can.

Around the year 2000, when he was 24, Daniel went on a bike ride with a friend. No ordinary bike ride, this; they cycled from their home in Wisconsin to San Francisco. Via Canada. The ride took about two months; they camped in a tent almost every night. On such an extensive trip, with minimal kit and powered by muscles alone, most people would want to have a phone—you know, in case of emergency (or, less dire, just basic emotional/dietary desperation). Not Daniel. “Its presence will change the experience,” he told his friend. Go full-existential or go home.

In 2001, Daniel was well into a degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when he decided to leave academe and work full-time. He had a longstanding interest in woodworking, so he took some classes at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Eager to learn more, he decided to do a 12-week intensive at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Of course, that would cost money—big money. So he spent that summer and fall painting houses in his spare time until he’d saved enough.

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When Daniel moved back to Milwaukee in 2007, he returned to college and completed a bachelor’s degree with majors in anthropology, religious studies, and architecture while running his own custom woodworking business. He employed a helper part-time. “Employing someone gave me more sympathy to what it must have been like for you to have to deal with me on a daily basis,” he reflects. If I had my druthers, everyone would have the experience of being an employer, as well as an employee. In a culture that celebrates self-employment (too often without acknowledging its downsides) and generally undervalues the particular kinds of discipline and ego-checking you have to cultivate as an employee, I’ve always been impressed by Daniel’s appreciation that there are good sides to working for someone else–and that when you’re the employer, you are working for your employees as much as they are for you.

“Running my own business in Milwaukee made me keenly aware of the difficulty to make money as a cabinetmaker,” he says. “I was fine becoming an employee at Palladio [in Memphis] because I didn’t need to always take my work home with me—though I often did, at least mentally. Also, the steady-paycheck phenomenon provided me with stability, which I lacked in Milwaukee.

Mainly, I think being able to turn off woodworking [when you are] an employee is a value that can’t be overstated.”

Daniel

Employee of the year (for two years), 2007

While working for Palladio, Daniel took as many classes as he could at Marc Adams School of Woodworking, expanding his already-impressive repertoire through courses such as bending wood with Michael Fortune, Federal furniture with Steve Latta, hand-tool joinery with Garrett Hack, and veneering with Marc Adams. In his new business he brings together techniques learned in educational and professional settings over 20 years with the qualities of character that have long made him one of my favorite people.

My father’s coffin

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. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! The remainder of the judges’ top picks will continue to be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  

This story comes from furniture maker Jeff Miller, who will be familiar to many readers from the pages of Fine Woodworking magazine.

Jeff Miller 2

Jeff at work

My father’s coffin, by Jeff Miller

A few years ago, my adult son and I drove from Chicago to New York with my father’s coffin crammed into my Mazda micro-van. The coffin just fit, if you count being wedged between the front seats and extending from the tailgate all the way up to the rear-view mirror as “fitting.”

My father was not in the coffin.

I’d never thought about building a coffin, really. Although I’d seen Mike Siemsen and his crew build one at Handworks, and had seen Chris Schwarz’s blog post on the subject when he hosted a coffin building party to explore the topic for his book, both of these made me feel a little uneasy.

But when it became clear my father’s ten-year battle with cancer finally became un-winnable, I decided I would make his coffin. As opposed to the lighthearted fun of Mike’s and Chris’s builds, this one was intense, sad, and meaningful.

Despite the cancer and his age, my dad had always seemed immortal, as most of our parents do – up to a point. At 83 years old, he was still active and full of life. The two of us had taken a ski trip to Vermont together when he was 80. The weather was bitter cold, but the snow was perfect, and we skied nothing but expert slopes for three days. My concepts of aging and fighting cancer were radically upended.

I’ve always been fascinated by the transformation that takes place as I work, when a pile of fancy sticks turns into a piece of furniture. My first woodworking was building musical instruments. I was a musician at the time, and that change seemed even more magical and mystifying. How (and when) did a collection of wood bits transform into something able to play music, express emotions, and move an audience?

There was a different mystery when I went to the lumberyard to pick out the wood. The plain pine boards felt like a coffin the moment I touched them. And really, from that moment until I finished my father’s final resting place a few days later, I spent my time alternating between focused woodworking and reminiscences of life with my father.

Dad died about six weeks after I made the coffin. I never did tell him what I did. Despite the fact that he had chosen hospice, I didn’t feel he needed such a concrete reminder of where he was going. Instead, we chose to celebrate his life as best we could with the time we had.

It is a great blessing in the Jewish religion to be able to do something for someone when they can no longer do anything for themselves, or even thank you for what you’ve done. This is ritualized at the funeral, where the mourners will shovel a bit of dirt onto the coffin. This has always been the most painful and meaningful part of the burial service for me. But building the coffin expanded that moment and combined it with something I love to do for other reasons. It was a profound and moving experience — one that made coping with dad’s impending death much easier.

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Jeff with his shop companion, Lola

Heartbreak at Granadillo

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. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! The remainder of the judges’ top picks will continue to be published over at https://blog.lostartpress.com. I’ll be posting others (lightly edited) here over the coming weeks–they’re too good not to share.  

Heartbreak at Granadillo (or “How I Learned to Love Hide Glue”) by Kevin Almeyda

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Granadillo is a beautiful wood. Reddish brown with some fantastic striping. And it’s as hard as it is lovely, perhaps more so. Imagine a wood made of the same material that Captain America’s shield is composed of. Now make it a touch harder. OK, you’re getting in the ballpark.

I bought a rather small board of the stuff as I set out to make a teabox I saw in Fine Woodworking magazine. I had to order it from an online dealer as my local hardwood dealer not only didn’t carry it, but the always-helpful, and never condescending, employees hadn’t heard of it. And of course I’m being sarcastic. I’m pretty sure lumberyard workers take the same customer service classes that are required of employees of plumbing and electrical supply houses.

After the milling, I prepared to lay out my dovetails. I grabbed my very sharp marking gauge and struck my lines on the tailboard–or at least I thought I did. Let’s try that again. This time using enough force to induce hernias in lesser woodworkers. There. Much better. Now I can almost see a line.

Granadillo. Really hard stuff.

The tone was set for the rest of the dovetailing experience. Sawing was a cakewalk compared to chiseling to my line. It felt more along the lines of chipping away at ceramic tile then working with wood. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had dovetailing but things were moving along well enough.

When I test fit the dovetails, they were just about perfect. Actually, dare I say, they really were perfect! They were gap-free and came together with a minimal use of force. My heart sang with delight. The editors of the leading woodworking magazines would be competing to feature me on the pages of their next issue. Has anyone gotten rich by simply writing a dovetail article for a woodworking journal? I’m guessing no. But with these dovetails, I’m destined to be the first. Would the fame go to my head? My narcissistic inner-child squealed with delight at the thought of walking the halls of the next woodworking conference while my cadre of assistants insisted no one make direct eye contact when speaking to me.

Let’s glue this bad boy up and prepare for our victory lap. I carefully applied the yellow glue to the walls of the pins.

As I assembled the box, the tails in corner #1 mated with its tails in a loving embrace. They shall be joined forever. No pre-nup needed. Their union was perfect and eternal.

Corner #2 came together as easily as the first. I was halfway home.

It was then that I noticed the smell of the delicious food my wife was cooking. I could hear my children playing together beautifully. Sharing and caring for each other.

Suddenly, the sun, which had been shining brightly just a moment ago, was enveloped by thick, sickly-gray clouds. Thunder crashed in the distance. A wolf howled.

I tried to press-fit the joint together but it had other plans. It was going to take a break halfway in, stop moving, and grab a smoke. That’s okay. I’ll finish up on the last corner and come back. The last corner must have seen what corner #3 was up to and decided “if they don’t have to come together then we sure as hell don’t either!” I had a revolt on my hand. But that’s okay. I grabbed my rubber dead-blow mallet off the wall and prepared to persuade these last two corners to fall in line with the others.

Tap, tap. Hmmm. Let’s try this again. TAP, TAP. Am I sweating? Why on earth am I sweating?

TAP, TAP, TAP. Please come together. TAP, TAP, TAP. Do I smell dinner burning? TAP, TAP… “If you kids don’t stop fighting I’m sending you to your rooms!” TAP, TAP, oh ****!

It had gone so wrong, so fast. Those perfect joints, drunk on the water in the PVA glue, swelled enough to seize the joint. The extremely hard, and brittle, granadillo couldn’t stand that incessant tap, tap, tapping and decided to implode rather than subject itself to any more mallet blows. I’ve never had a project before, nor a project since, be so completely unsalvageable after a mishap.

Then something odd happened. I started crying. Not because of this mishap. But this pushed me over the edge. I was coming off a terrible week. A family member was desperately ill. I had spent countless hours at the hospital and many more researching long-term care options. I had kept my emotions bottled up and I finally reached my breaking point and they came pouring out.

Spending time in the shop was, and is, my refuge. It lets me be with my thoughts or forget them entirely. This project’s failure felt symbolic of the utter chaos and helplessness of the past week’s events. And I just lost it.

I tossed my tools on the bench and retired to the family room. I had no desire to be in the shop. The thought of going back in there sickened me. I told myself, “just take a few weeks away from the shop and maybe you’ll feel the urge to step back in.”

Well, weeks turned into hours because later that night I re-ordered another piece of granadillo. And yes, I did pay extra for two-day shipping. This fiasco turned out to be incredibly cathartic. I got my urge to step back in the shop, be with my thoughts, or forget them entirely, and give it another go.

Aside from being my hobby, woodworking is also my therapy. It broke my heart when I needed some support, but jumping right back in (and learning from past mistakes) was exactly what my spirit needed especially when “teabox 2.0” gave me a big pat on the back upon completion.–Kevin Almeyda

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