Memory is a damn funny thing. It can be as impossible to hold onto as a handful of water. And yet you can drown in a cup of it.
Today I went to pick up a load of sugar pine for an upcoming tool chest I’m building for a customer and got whacked upside the head by a pointed 19-year-old memory.
Since the closing of Midwest Woodworking a few years ago, I’ve run dangerously low on my stock of sugar pine and didn’t have enough to do the job. Enter Kevin McQueeney, an Indianapolis woodworker who offered to help me purchase a load through his local supplier.
After some back-and-forth, it became obvious that the sugar pine was going to come from Shiels Lumber here in Cincinnati. It’s an old place in the neglected industrial lowlands of the city, about a half mile from the foundry that makes our holdfasts.
Hearing the name Shiels was like waking up from a deep dream. How had I forgotten about this place?
When I started at Popular Woodworking magazine, the first significant project I was permitted to build was an interpretation of Benjamin Seaton’s tool chest. My boss made me change a lot of details so it would be accepted by the magazine’s readership – the corners were assembled with finger joints instead of dovetails, and the interior till had to be simplified.
But despite these compromises, it was a major piece and the first cover project of my career.
The first hurdle with the project was finding white pine that was thick enough for the job. One of the associate editors took me to Shiels, a wholesale yard that is off-limits to retail customers. We loaded up a truck with the pine, and I remember looking up at a weird sign painted on a building that towers over the yard that reads: “This Way Sinners.”
I wondered about the sign 19 years ago. And I had the same sense of wonderment as I loaded my pine today and looked up at the same sign. Thanks to the Internet, I dug up a history of the sign behind the guy who had it painted in 1896. You can read it here. It involves a trip to the Holy Land, a misplaced photograph and hieroglyphics. And the story ends with: “Most salads require a little pinch of salt.”
And the pinch of salt in this story: After 19 years I’m back to building tool chests, buying pine at Shiels and wondering which way this sinner should go.
— Christopher Schwarz