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Good Wood


I used to hate the sight of a hammer, nails, saws and for that matter anything that had to do with building stuff out of wood. My father, an architect who specialized in designing low cost apartment buildings for greedy developers insisted that during my high school summers I work at construction sites. I earned well and was able to buy my own beater car, but the crack of dawn shuffle to the job site and the monotony of it all was torture. Breaks were too short and lunchtime always left me hungry and sour. Busted fingers, tired arms, the teen bitterness of not being free.

After a couple of these sorry summers, I was a decent enough framing carpenter. So what. The skills I had learned meant nothing to me. When I was finally able to convince my disappointed father that I would earn more and be happier at my newfound busboy job, I was elated. No more bashed fingers, stubbed toes or sweaty and foul construction dudes cracking awful cracks with their sweaty butt-cracks all day. Besides, restaurant people were more my kind of people: they read books and hated heavy metal.


It was decades before I ever picked up a hammer in earnest again. Here and there as events or happenstance would have it, I might help a friend on a project or find myself having to work  some wood for one reason or another. In general I hid my carpenter's past like a guilty secret.

Then at the age of 60 and single, I bought a house. A nice northwest mid-century with a bit of traditional Japanese personality: wide hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings and wood slatted walls with bright windows at the roof line to let in every bit of light. It has clean lines, a simple elegance and is a quality home. It needed a little work.

Lo and behold, there was a shop in the garage. The previous owner had been into woodworking. Some old tools, two sturdy and worn workbenches, an iron vise and a decent saw. I thought about the back patio steps, rotted and aslant. Could I recall enough of my old skills to replace them myself? 

After a few trips to the hardware store and the lumber yard, I was turning my simple pencil sketch into three dimensions of wood and nails. The initial going was slow and a few mistakes were made: even though the steps were only three in number, the rise, width and run of stairs are tricky, especially when it comes to making sure the top step is perfectly aligned with the flooring it is attached to.

Once I beheld the magnificent perfection of my work and experienced the satisfaction of creating something out of wood for my own use, a strange obsession took over. I was now a woodworker.

It was now necessary to buy tools. Lots of tools. Also drill bits, screws, glue, dowels, clamps, sandpaper, more tools, tape, speed square, carpenter square, T square, table saw, planer, more tools, rabbet bits, chop saw, peg board and containers for everything, a good carpenter's pencil and more tools. 

Standing there in my canvas apron with a heavy duty tape measure clipped to my side I was now the master of my woodworking domain. I began to sketch out and build side tables, chairs, boxes, benches a terraced hardwood bookcase. Damn, I actually know how to do this! The cut scraps fell to the floor. The sawdust flew. The radio blared an accompanying soundtrack.


Wood. Good wood. A miracle of nature. From seed to seedling to stately and grand the trees grace the land in quiet splendor. Mankind's need to grow and to cut down trees has always been a relationship fraught with madness. Clear cutting has led to erosion and the destruction of countless ecosystems around the world. New techniques that allow forests to recover and thrive have staved off a once inevitable vanishing, but this is not true in Brazil, where the rainforest is decimated daily. Yet another human contradiction: destroy what you need, need what you destroy. Ask any woodworker about wood, and you will hear reverence and even awe at this wonder of nature. There is nothing like it in the world. If only we could have it without destroying it.

For a simple home carpenter, the appreciation of wood is in small moments. A straight, unknotted 2x4. A fine piece of planking. The various personalities of cherry, walnut, oak, pine, maple and poplar. Each demands a way of working it and offers unique results. Sanding and finishing requires attention, a feel for the surface of the wood and an understanding of how wood absorbs, dries and reveals its fine finished look. Working in wood requires imagination, attention to detail, patience and most importantly, feel. Your hand and the wood need to understand each other.

The 4x8 foot sheet of 3/4" plywood was a simple enough piece to work. It would end up one piece of a tabletop. I had cut and shaped many before. Deploying my table saw in the carport next to my shop, I measured and scribed the wood where I would remove the excess trim. I laid the sheet onto the saw and made final adjustments to the rail and finger guard. Gloves on, eye protection on. I think Fleetwood Mac was playing on the radio. I flicked on the table saw and slowly began feeding the sheet into the saw blade. "And if you don't love me now, you will never love me again...." A little sawdust cyclone released that distinct scent of freshly cut wood. Bliss.

The most dangerous moment when using a table saw is at the end of a cut. There, the wood is liable to twist, splinter or jump, causing a kickback or flying fragment. One has to be sure one completes the cut with confidence and sureness to avoid such a mishap. Knots are also a concern. A knot at the end of a cut can be troubling. When my saw blade hit that stubborn blemish, I bore down on the sheet with insistence and authority. After all, no puny knot would defy my command. 

That was when the 2 inch wide, 4 foot long missile launched past me and into the driver's side window of my one year old Jeep Sahara Unlimited. The window shattered and the projectile continued through the interior and hit the passenger side widow, cracking it into an opaque web of tragi-comedy. The piece of wood now lay still on the passenger seat, demure and triumphant. I turned off the table saw, removed my gloves and eye protection and went over to inspect the damage. Like a deadly accurate shaft launched by Achilles himself, the wooden spear had done its duty. I had this thought: "Better if I had been standing a few inches further to the right, then the damn thing would have impaled me and saved me the indignity of this moment." 


After the cleanup, I put the table saw away, swept up the broken glass and sawdust and leaned the trimmed plywood panel against the carport wall to deal with later. I turned off the radio. I think Dylan was playing. "It's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard rain's gonna fall."

I picked up the culprit missile and took it into my shop. I adjusted a couple of hooks on the tool peg board and placed it like a trophy above all the other tools. It sat there in silence like a storied weapon from some epic battlefield. A talisman, a warning, a trophy and a memory all in one. It seemed to say, from its perch: "Never forget: You work the wood, but the wood also works you."











Producer and Director. Former Associate Professor of Drama. Founder, The Studio Seattle. Avid Fly Fisher
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