At Popular Woodworking, we begged readers to send us submissions for the magazine’s last-page essay called “End Grain.” The problem was that almost all the essays we received had the same theme. It was such a problem that the theme became its own compound adjective.
Me: So what’s the essay about?
Fellow editor: It’s another grandpa-was-a-woodworker-so-now-I-am-too piece.
To be fair, my grandfather on my mother’s side truly was an accomplished woodworker. He taught me quite a bit about the craft and inspired me to be a woodworker. So I am in the sizable cohort that I appear to be mocking (though I am not).
Instead, I want to call attention to a fact we sometimes forget. Here it is: We are not clones.
When I write about the woodworking I did as a kid, it’s easy to focus on – duh – the woodworking parts. My grandfather was an enthusiastic woodworker, and I spent many hours in his Connecticut shop making things. My father was also a woodworker and a carpenter and a mason and a talented photographer (and 100 other things). And it’s easy to explain my interest in the craft through those two people.
But that’s just shorthand. And it’s incomplete.
As my father got older, his patience for work in the craft grew veneer thin. When he was younger, he would spend months laying hundreds of bricks by himself (sometimes with the help of my mother) as he started beautifying our first home in Arkansas. After he designed the two houses for our farm, he spent most weekends there (dragging us along whenever possible). These houses took more than a decade to construct. But despite the overwhelming task, he moved forward every week, joist by stud.
Once in his 60s, however, he confessed to me that he’d lost the drive to take on big projects. He was still interested in making things. But he wanted things to be quick. He wanted to learn to turn. And to carve small objects. Up until the end, his hand skills and his mental acuity never wavered. When he did pick up the tools, it was humbling to watch. But it was more difficult for him to ignite that spark. And to keep it going.
I think about that a lot. I have now entered my 50s, and I still want nothing more than to build things day in and day out. For years I worried that I would turn into my father and lose the ember that’s necessary to tackle difficult furniture pieces.
Luckily, I am not a clone. I am also the product of my mother.
My mother, now in her 70s, is as active and entrepreneurial as she was in her 20s or 30s. As a kid, I watched her teach natural childbirth in our traditional (some might say backwards) Arkansas town. She started a restaurant there, and then she worked at restaurants and catering businesses all over the country (Dallas, Santa Fe, Connecticut, Little Rock). Today, she still runs a catering business from her house and cooks every week as a volunteer at our local shelter. And she still embraces new technology (we’re both exploring the world of cooking with sous vide and an Instant Pot these days) and new ways of working.
She has had a more tumultuous life than my father, especially after they broke up. But she doesn’t give up. And she always finds a way to make things work, whether that’s throwing together a great meal with scraps or starting her life over in a new city.
So while it might look like Lost Art Press and my love for woodworking is the direct result of my time in the workshop with my grandfather and father, that’s not quite right. It’s my mother’s influence that gave me the strength to give the finger to my corporate job. And in the 1990s when I failed at my first publishing business, it was my mother’s genes that gave me the strength to say: Hell yes, let’s do this again and start Lost Art Press with my business partner, John.
And it’s also her genes that likely will keep me going.
As I get older, my patience for woodworking has only increased. I am still interested in learning new (and sometimes very old) techniques. And John and I have a business – publishing high-quality woodworking books – that is as ridiculous on paper as running a restaurant or a catering business. But we make it work.
So while grandfather might have been a woodworker, it’s important to also remember this: Mama was an entrepreneur.
— Christopher Schwarz
Editor’s note: Nancy Hiller’s “Little Acorns” will return soon. She’s working on a big one now.
36 thoughts on “No Furniture for Clones”
Hey Chris – great post! You mention persistence of drive as you get further into life. I’m curious do you derive excitement for the craft from the pieces you choose to build, or does it feel more intrinsic than that?
Bonus question – how do you choose what work you will take on?
Sometimes the object pulls me forward. Sometimes it’s a technique that I really enjoy doing (such as bending wood) that keeps me moving forward. And sometimes it’s getting to use a tool that I have a special affection for.
“Bonus question – how do you choose what work you will take on?”
When it’s not a commission, I have an impossibly long list of things I want to build. That list has been built up by years of visiting museums and reading books on woodworking and furniture. Thanks to that list, there is always something to look forward to and something to work toward.
Thanks for taking the time to answer! It’s greatly appreciated.
One day when this ‘new normal’ is in the past, I’m only about 4h from the store front and can’t wait to visit and hopefully take a class.
I LOVE having a list of projects. My goofing off time is going through books and websites, making folders and files of things I like. Sometimes it’s a beautiful proportion, others a unique construction detail. I will never live long enough to get to a fraction of them.
I don’t understand people who have nothing to do.
I’m sure hoping “Little Acorns” will make it to print. Although I am adapting to reading on screen, a bound edition of Ms Hiller’s elegant biographical sketches would be a wonderful thing to have on the little table, next to the chair by the fireplace when the snow is flying and it’s too cold to heat the shop.
What a wonderful tribute to your mother! I’m looking forward to meeting her in person someday.
As a Mum you always hope that you can share the best of yourself and help your child find their joy in life. It sounds like your Mum did all that and more. WTG Mum.
In our effort to understand ourselves we frequently look to our parents and their parents. However, many of us do not have that family history. Many of us just jump in and start making stuff, spontaneously. Sometimes out of need and sometimes out of desire. Most times a little of both. Of course it is easier to grow with a mentor or system (think Slojd) encouraging us and teaching us as we develop.
I like to think that my expression of craftsmanship is much more than the kindling of my genetics from my lineage. Rather, I like to think of inspiration or something like that is the catalyst that invites, encourages and compels me to make. My challenge is to keep my heart and mind fertile to that inspiration.
Do you have a grand, slow to build, ‘thing’ you are/would like to be working on (say, like those folks that plant a forest and spend the rest of their lives growing and managing it for whatever purpose they seek), or are your projects more bitesize? For myself I got the desire to build stuff from my dad, but I hate to do the stuff he did (masonry, anything to do with bricks, stones, mortar, cement, etc I hate) — hence my interest in woodworking.
After a long project (such as the campaign chest shown above) I love something quick, like a stick chair. So I like to vary my diet.
Both of my grandfathers died when I was pretty young, so I never had the chance to learn from them. Though one, a firefighter, did tell me what to do if I was on a ladder falling off a house.
My dad was in sales. Electrical stuff. He was the guy who could sell snow to Alaskans. I can’t sell anything, and have no interest in trying.
My mom was the one person I’ve ever known that everyone genuinely liked. That seemed a worthy goal. I haven’t succeeded. But it’s worth the continuing effort.
grandfather was a woodworker, Mama was an entrepreneur.
There’s a song in there someplace
Feels like it could be a line in an alternative version of Willie Nelson’s “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys”.
You need something about a dog. And a truck.
As someone who grew up in the same town (and went to the same high school) as Chris, his descriptions of the place, however fleeting, always make me chuckle.
I did like growing up there and have fond memories of many aspects of the place (gawd I miss George’s Restaurant, the people I grew up with at First Presbyterian and the ham sandwiches from Ozark Mountain Smokehouse).
But not the segregation.
This is hilarious. I remember submitting an essay back then titled “Granddad’s Saw”! Thank you for not publishing it. It was awful.
“I have now entered my 50s…”
Take heart, Chris, you’re still a young whippersnapper. I piddled around in “woodworking” for decades during my career as an electronics technician. But it wasn’t until I retired at age 66 that the sawdust and chips started flying in earnest. Eight years later and thousands invested in tools, I still have a backlog of planned projects. Admittedly, I doubt I’ll ever make another arts and crafts California king bed again. Currently working on a lap steel guitar from scratch. After that, who knows? Thanks to you and others for all the inspiration.
Is that a blanket chest half covered in the background?
It’s a mule chest I built for “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”
Thanks for giving your Mom some credit for your being. It was a very good article. I can certainly appreciate your Dad reaching a point about avoiding big projects. It’s like out-growing jumping out of the back of pickups. It just happens.
Today I live in a county with a population of 100,000 that has 3 high schools. That same county in the 60’s had 14 high schools with less than 20,000 people. Seven were white only. Living here today is way better than back then but we still have a ways to go.
Chris, you’re in your 50s? The late Wilford Brimley had just turned 50 when he made the movie Cocoon. Puts 50 in perspective.
What a terrific reflection on the mishmash of influences we all get and the remarkable, unique stew each of us makes from it. Not really about woodworking, which is exactly what makes your writing on that subject so dang rich.
Thanks, and betting your stubborn thoughtful side is all your own.
That’s all great. But what really took me is that piece man. What a beauty to be polite about it. I sit often compliment people’s work but man thats really something.
Thanks Patrick! It was great fun to build and the client enjoys using it.
What a beautiful and loving tribute to your mother, Terry, who has been a dear friend since our days at Grinnell and to your father, Paul, who I remember as a friend in those days. Terry is one of the most resilient and talented people I have ever known in addition to being patient, kind and forgiving. My late husband was a woodworking hobbyist; he said that building furniture brought him joy.
Chris, You never cease to amaze me at how open you are about your life in your writing. Great piece.
Thanks Dan. Hope you are on the mend.
So when are you gonna release THOW 2: the search for more lumber support?
I remember the small shed and workbench my Grandad had packed full of stuff ..and then vomiting. Apparently to a five year old heart tablets look like sweets so off to emergency I went before my ticker tocked. I also remember the ear bashing my Grandma gave him because the entire family heard it and about it for approximately the next twenty years. I still like sheds stuffed full of stuff though. For someone who had a bit of a temper the wooden planes I have that were his are in pretty good shape. On the odd occasion I get his temper too.
Very nicely written piece Chris.
I myself grew up a farmer, then became a Marine. Had lots of Covered Bridges in the area we were raised in, and marveled at the skill and workmanship in them. Had a Japanese neighbor when I was stationed in Hawaii, who had been a “relocation camp” carpenter during WWII. His knowledge, wisdom and ability to teach was amazing. He taught me amazing respect and patience for working with wood. “Never push the spirit of the wood away, always pull it to you” was one of his favorite sayings.
My first (and only) published piece of non-technical writing was an “End Grain”. Thanks for the incentive to organize my thoughts…
Off topic warning: do you blog, write, or share your cooking techniques under a different handle (that you’d like to share). I’ve been trying sous vide for two years and still struggle with a few things. As a fellow foodie from a food-first family, I always enjoy your recommendations. Thanks Chris.
Grandfathers, eh? My maternal grandfather and his father-in-law did build my grandparents’ home; but they were primarily farmers, they were all carpenters by necessity. My grandfather didn’t have a workshop, everything was done in the barn, or off the side of a tractor. My great grandfather probably did have a workshop, but was long gone before I was ever around. I’m coming into woodworking later in life, out of a desire to learn something new; I’ve quickly come to appreciate your site. Best, -L
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