My father’s hands

I’ve been working with wood since I was five or six years old and first realized I could sharpen the end of a popsicle stick by rubbing it on a concrete curb. But I had been around woodworking literally all of my life to that point—my father had made much of the furniture in our modest home, initially out of necessity, because he couldn’t afford to buy it, but he had a few hand tools, and his own father had provided him with the know-how to build a lot of what we needed. Some of my earliest memories of the places we lived over the years include a bookcase and a chest of drawers that he made when he was in high school, and by the time I was three or four years old, he had made both of the couches in our living room. Later there would be a coffee table and two end tables—fairly simple stuff, all of it, and decidedly mid-century modern in form, because it was the middle of the twentieth century, after all.

As I grew up, if my dad was working on a woodworking project, I would be at his side if I could, whether in the garage, or the basement, or the back yard or the driveway. I was probably twelve years old before he had any power tools besides an electric drill. I watched him cut up whole sheets of plywood with nothing but a handsaw and some saw horses, and turn them into a drafting table, or a room divider, or a set of bookshelves or a toy box. Everything was sanded by hand. Edges of boards were rounded over or chamfered with a small block plane. He didn’t have many clamps, so often a glue joint was nailed together with wire brads or secured with screws. He had boxes of magazine articles that he had torn out and stapled together to save them, and he had a set of books about woodworking that was a bit like an encyclopedia, and he would study them carefully before he started a project. By the time he was ready to start cutting material, he had the dimensions in his head, and he rarely needed to consult the plans again.

I learned much just by watching him work. There were lessons to be learned in the ways he handled a board, in the way he marked a piece for cutting or drilling, in the way he held his tools, and in the ways he repaired his mistakes. I remembered a lot of those lessons, but I especially remember how fragrant the air was when my dad was cutting pine boards. Still today, nothing can transport me back to those days faster than the aroma of white pine when I’m cutting it on my table saw.

As I got a little older, Dad would take time to stop and explain what he was doing and why, and I know that many of my own woodworking habits are what they are because he took the time to explain. At some point I had a little metal toolbox with some child-sized toy tools, but it could never compare with those times when Dad handed me a block of scrap wood and a saw and showed me how to make a cut.

When I was in the eighth grade, I finally had the opportunity to take the wood shop class at my school, which I had waited eagerly for for a long time. Most of the time we used hand tools in the class, which was fine by me. But by then, my dad had a few power tools of his own: a sander, a drill press, and the biggest, scariest tool (to me), the radial-arm saw. And he eventually taught me how to use all of those tools and more.

I have had the luxury of living in the same city as my father my whole life, which meant that for decades I had access to his basement wood shop, and benefited from every new tool, and from the time we spent together working on our individual projects. I also benefited from all of the woodworking magazine subscriptions that my dad eventually subscribed to, and on my regular visits to his home, he would often present me with a new stack of magazines that he was finished with.

When I was in my early forties, I found a project in one of those magazines that I decided I had to make: bunk beds for my two young daughters that could be stacked or stand alone as twin beds. Dad and I went to the lumber shop in a nearby city to select and purchase some five-quarter hard maple (I wanted these beds to outlast me), and over the next few months, working mostly weekends and the occasional weeknight, those beds gradually came together in my dad’s shop. When I came over to work, he would always find things to do in the shop while I was there, whether he was working on a project of his own or not, and quite often lent a hand when I was ripping long boards to width on his table saw, or when I had questions about the plans I was using, or about a technique I hadn’t used before.

In the end, I had a project that I (and perhaps more importantly to me, he) could be really proud of. Though both of my daughters are married now with homes of their own, those beds are still used in our guest room for the grandchildren, and I expect that when I’m gone, each of my daughters will have their childhood bed in their own homes.

It was while I was working on those beds that I had a bit of an epiphany: as I sanded with a sanding block, smoothing the long sides of each bed frame, the sanding dust covered my hands, and in a flash of memory (maybe it was the angle of the light that made the veins in my hand stand out) I suddenly realized how much my hands now looked like my father’s hands did all those years that I watched him work in his shop. It pleased me, and filled me with gratitude.

In the years that followed that bunk bed project, I made many more things in my dad’s shop, and my skills continued to improve along with his shop, which was increasingly well-equipped and afforded me the opportunity to learn which tools I would likely use most often, and which ones seemed superfluous—a valuable education for the time a few years later when I would begin converting my single-car garage into the wood shop that I still use today.

At the age of 90, my father still makes his way down to his basement shop nearly every day to work on his own projects, which include many furniture repair and refinishing projects he takes on to serve friends and family members. His hands look older now, and arthritis has made it harder for him to work for hours at a time the way he once did. My hands look older, too, but they still remind me of his, and seeing my own hands covered in sawdust still puts a smile on my face. We have diverged somewhat in our specific woodworking interests, but most of the wooden things I have made bear the imprint of his woodworking life on my own, and I will forever be grateful for the time we have spent together, using our hands to cut wood apart and put it back together in useful ways for the people we love.


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