Nancy Hiller’s forthcoming book of essays, “Shop Tails,” (hopefully out later this fall) is a companion book to her first book of essays, “Making Things Work.” In “Making Things Work,” Nancy shares her life story as a series of vignettes, each with a lesson about craft, business and personal relationships, all centered on cabinetmaking in some form.
While cabinetmaking is central to “Shop Tails” simply because a) Nancy is a cabinetmaker and b) many of the animals featured live in her home and shop, the essays in this book aren’t all about cabinetmaking – or the business of, or the art of, or the joy of. If “Shop Tails” were a carousel, woodworking would be the center pole. It’s always there, but it’s the wildly painted horses moving up and down and the amusing characters sitting on each that have your attention.
At first, Nancy wondered if we’d even publish it. And I suppose, if you look at our catalog of books, it can feel “off brand.” But we had no hesitation. As Chris recently said to me, “LAP isn’t one thing. And it will be different tomorrow.”
It’s certainly not necessary to know an artist to appreciate their art. But I do believe doing so can add depth. Sometimes curiosity’s reward is intimacy coupled with better understanding, especially when considering a person’s background, even in terms of craft. So if you enjoy reading our Meet the Author series or Nancy Hiller’s Little Acorns, or if books like Trent Preszler’s “Little and Often” (William Morrow) are on your nightstand, you’ll likely enjoy Nancy’s latest offering.
This, from Edith Sarra, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Indiana University-Bloomington, after reading “Shop Tails”: “It’s hard to describe these essays without lapsing into the kinds of qualifiers that usually sound (but definitely are not, in this case) overblown: breathtaking, searing, hilarious, intricate, and above all else – wild and original, like nothing else I’ve read (and I read a lot of memoiristic narrative, across three languages, and many centuries).”
And now, an excerpt from Chapter 15, “Warring Parties (2011-2017),” with a good mix of cabinetmaking and memoir.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
About a year after Winnie died, I was ready to get another dog and fantasizing about a trip to the animal shelter. At the time, I was working on a job that involved refacing and modifying the kitchen cabinets in a newly built house. The place had been built on spec, so the builder had been careful about where he invested resources. The kitchen had a modified galley layout – base cabinets and uppers against the back wall, stove in the center and a capacious pantry unit on one end, all facing a big island of matching cabinetry that housed the sink, dishwasher and one of those pull-out-then-pull-up mixer stands I’ve always considered a stupid waste of space – and never more so than in a small kitchen such as this one. The cabinets had been built by a local shop. They were perfectly well made, but nothing that I would call craft. The carcases themselves were functional and made to cutting-edge standards, with undermount drawer slides and so on; it was the parts you could see – the doors, drawers and end panels – that were the problem.
The clients had been referred to me by one of their colleagues. Martha said they were happy with the basic cabinets, but there was something she couldn’t stand about their looks. As soon as I arrived for a first meeting, I knew what it was: The cabinets were “walnut,” which in this case meant maple-veneered MDF with a semi-opaque medium-dark-brown finish. Martha’s eyes were used to real wood.
By way of illustration, I pointed to the cutting board by the sink. “This is walnut,” I said. I didn’t criticize the cabinets; I simply explained that the builder had probably chosen them because they were well made and more affordable than they would have been with walnut faces. She listed the details she wanted to have changed and I put together a proposal, which she and her husband accepted. The scope of work included removing the mixer stand, which I took to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore; refacing the cabinet end panels, including those on the island; making new doors and drawer faces; and switching out the vaguely Craftsman-style brackets supporting the overhang of the island counter with more modern brackets in welded metal. I was especially keen to replace the glazed doors at the top of the cabinets along the wall; instead of making them with rails and stiles, the original cabinetmakers had simply cut out a rectangular opening in each blank of MDF, probably with a CNC router, and left the inside corners round. In place of glass bead, they’d fastened the glass in the rabbet with flexible “glass bead” in “walnut.” Ouch.
I refaced the cabinets with custom-veneered panels that I cut to size, edged and fitted by hand. I made new glazed doors out of solid walnut with mortise-and-tenon joints, proper rabbets and wooden glass bead. Then I took them to a locally owned fabricator, Heitink Veneers, to have them faced with sequence-matched offcuts from the rest of the doors and drawer faces so the grain would run continuously from the tops of those doors through the ones below.
Late in the day, I was still dreaming about getting a dog when Mark texted me that he had a surprise waiting at home. “Is it a dog?” I asked. He refused to say. If it was a dog, that would certainly be a wild coincidence. As I pulled into the parking area at the top of the driveway that evening, a young cream-colored dog with rusty speckles on her legs ran down the hill from the house, barking ferociously, convinced that she was guarding Mark and Jonas from an intruder. “Henny!” I cried, the name inspired on the spur of the moment by her spots, which reminded me of a speckled hen. “It’s OK! I live here. I’m not going to harm your men.”
Mark told me how she came to be there. He’d been on his way home, driving along a favorite back road, when he reached a three-way intersection. The dog was standing there while two other drivers, who had each pulled over, were discussing what to do. “I’ll take her,” said Mark. He picked her up and held her in his arms. “She smelled like a baby,” he remembers; she was perfectly clean and well fed, not the condition you’d expect in a stray. Like Lucy, she appeared to be a cross between a pit bull and a Lab.
We reported her to the shelter, certain her owners must be looking for her, but no one ever called. So she joined our household.
I often took Henny to my shop, where she dreamed of playing with Louis. In typical feline form, he refused to acknowledge her presence. She’d lie down on the floor in disappointment and chew wood scraps to console herself. When I delivered pieces of work downtown, I took her with me in the truck. She sat in the front seat and napped, waiting for my return. Though quick to bark in defense of her family, she was exceptionally ingratiating toward one person: Mark. She’d laid her claim on him the day he brought her home. With the utmost delicacy, she would crawl, not jump, into his lap, and gaze adoringly into his eyes. She grudgingly acknowledged that I was the one who shared his bed.