Growing up, I often watched my father at his woodworking in the basement. He might be fashioning a piano bench, cabinet drawer, birdhouse, or picture frame. Sometimes it was a piece of fine furniture, though it might just as easily be a more utilitarian item such as a kitchen stool, bookcase, storage box—or occasionally a toy for his wide-eyed offspring.
Before I was born, he'd turned bowls and dishes on a lathe, and built a pair of exquisite guitars which the legendary Merle Travis played several times on his live radio show from Cincinnati. He also built our house.
Dad could make anything out of wood. An artist rather than craftsman, wood seemed to respond to his master's touch. Though he began his working career as a teacher, about the time I came along he chucked the classroom for carpentry and became a freelance "finish carpenter." His reputation for quality work quickly grew, and he was soon in demand to finish the finest new homes and remodels around.
In case you don't know, there are two sorts of carpenters. "Rough" carpenters do the basic understructure work—things like framing, sheathing, sub-flooring. When the house is up and basically built, the "finish" carpenter comes in and, well, finishes the job—building jambs and hanging doors, sometimes building and hanging kitchen cabinets, building stairs and installing rails and banisters, running casings and moldings and trim. All the visible wood details that help to showcase a home.
Nowadays a lot of this work from both camps has been subdivided into specialities—framers, roofers, floorers, cabinet installers, etc. But in Dad's time—and still on the "best of the best" custom homes where details matter and nothing is stock or store-bought, but handcrafted from the the finest materials, usually on site—talented woodworking was appreciated and demanded. Artisan carpenters were called on to apply their skills.
I possess none of those skills. Competent mediocrity is the best I can manage. But I am my father's son…and I didn't watch him at his workbench, or later, under his watchful eye, work occasionally as his assistant on various jobs, and fail to learn at least a few tricks of the woodworking trade. By osmosis, if not actually paying attention.
Now, as I'm working on the different aspects of this whole-cottage remodel, a few of those nearly-forgotten tricks have suddenly rematerialized. Old, almost forgotten friends, again come a'knocking at the door. Like how, when working with oak trim, in order to prevent splitting, you first moisten or otherwise lubricate the nail before driving it in. I've also remembered how to lift a bit of wainscoting to the snap-line for nailing when working single-handed. Or the way to properly back-cut crown moulding, make mitre cuts align perfectly, scribe a board to a wall, or drop a plumbline from ceiling to floor.
These and other handy little carpentry tidbits have been floating up from the dark recesses of my mental files like bobbing apples at an old-fashioned Thanksgiving party. And I appreciate their help and worth, for they're just as valid and useful today as ever—plus I'm rather pleased to know they weren't forgotten completely, but only temporarily mislaid.
Yet they've also done something more than merely make my work easier and better…they've transported me back in time—given me brief, but astonishingly real moments with my father. Flashbacks so tangible and true that I not only see him in the finest detail, but hear his voice and even catch his scent. For a few heartfelt seconds we're palpably reunited—a gift, a blessing, inexplicable, absolute.
I wouldn't trade these moments for anything.