Editor’s note: If you ever meet me at a dinner party and ask me what sort of books we publish, I’ll give you a two-word answer: hard ones.
When John and I founded Lost Art Press in 2007, we knew that the world didn’t need another book of router tricks, or plans for the same generic semi-Shaker furniture pieces we’ve seen a dozen times.
Most woodworkers love a good challenge, especially if it opens their minds or trains their hands to do new things. So for the last 14 years, we have tried to offer books that no one else would publish.
- Translate the definitive books on furniture making that are written in ancient French? Sure, we’ll spend a decade and a quarter million dollars to do it.
- Gather together the best writing on handwork in the 20th century from Charles H. Hayward (a seven-year project)? We are up for it.
- Publish a book about animal companions in the workshop? Plus the life lessons they offer? By one of our favorite woodworking authors who is fighting pancreatic cancer? Whew. Yes. We’re here for that.
“Shop Tails” by Nancy R. Hiller is our most unlikely woodworking book, but it is also one of my favorites. (I’ve never designed a woodworking book while actively sobbing.) Nancy’s clear-eyed and unflinching prose about the craft, the work, her non-human companions and death are something you won’t find anywhere else.
I think this book will make you look at the world, the work on your bench and the cat at your feet all anew. It might not show you how to make a crazy coping sled for your router, but who needs that, anyway?
— Christopher Schwarz
The following is excerpted from “Shop Tails: The Animals Who Help Us Make Things Work,” by Nancy R. Hiller.
Whenever someone at Farmstead Furniture asked what type of dog Oscar was, my boss replied “a Hearthrugger.” He was a large black dog with wavy hair that gave his lanky frame the appearance of at least 50 percent more than his highest-ever weight of 45 pounds. Spread out on the floor, he bore a striking resemblance to a sumptuous long-haired animal skin rug, the kind that lends a primal edge to a crackling log fire, leaving you all the cozier for knowing that you are not on a patch of frozen ground beneath the stars.
I was able to take Oscar with me to work at Farmstead because at 27, I had finally earned my driver’s license. I bought a used Ford Escort van through a classified ad in the local newspaper. For years, I had resisted the pressure to learn how to drive, daunted by a vehicle’s potential to kill. Many of my school friends in London had learned to drive at 17, an age when I wondered why I should learn to drive when public transportation was so readily available, not to mention that there was no way I’d be able to afford a car in the foreseeable future. Instead, I decided to let circumstances dictate when it was my time to learn to drive, and even considered going my entire life without driving a car, as Grandma Stepha had.
My resistance to driving lasted well after I left London. When I was 19, my boyfriend, Patrick, and I moved to the burg of Friday Bridge in Cambridgeshire, where my mother and stepfather had bought an old schoolhouse that came with an attached cottage, the former schoolmaster’s home. We moved into the simple brick cottage – two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs – and my stepfather built a small addition for a kitchen and bathroom. I got a job at a metal-casting factory that summer and rode my bike to work. After signing up for City & Guilds furniture-making classes at the community college in Wisbech, four miles away, I rode my bike to and from school in all weather. I did the same at my first cabinetmaking job, when I went to work for Raymond Green shortly after my City & Guilds training.
When I started work at Farmstead in 1986, a few years after that first cabinetmaking job, Oscar and I were living in a row house in Cambridge with three strangers. Two of my fellow tenants, Mel and Paul, quickly became friends. By this time Patrick and I had married, then divorced.
Each day I rode my bike to the train station, put it in the baggage car and rattled along until we reached the country station closest to the workshop, then retrieved the bike and rode the rest of the way. Anyone who lived in England in the mid-1980s will know that back then, sunny days were few and far between. No matter the season, most days were chilly, beneath an overcast sky – character-forming, and it certainly made the occasional sunny day all the more worthy of wonder. Riding a 10-speed bicycle through the dark in lashing December rain only to wait on the wind-swept platform for the train back to Cambridge did nothing to bolster my spirits. It was finally time to learn how to drive.
I inquired with a driving school and found a teacher who would cram the instruction into a single week. Now I just had to arrange for time off from work. My bosses wouldn’t give me a week off but agreed to let me take driving lessons for half of each weekday, so that’s what I did. I’d heard stories about the difficulty of passing the driving test on the first try. I really needed to get this thing done, so I took every chance to practice. And it wasn’t as though I had to force myself; I found I loved the process of driving, the way I could turn my will to go from A to B into action through a gear stick, steering wheel and pedals. (Nearly all English vehicles back then came with manual transmission.) The car became an extension of my body. To my relief, I passed the test on the first try.
Now I could take Oscar with me to work instead of leaving him in my room at home. A few years old and safely beyond the destructiveness of puppyhood, Oscar was well-behaved. He stayed by my bench most of the day while I worked, leaving briefly at lunchtime to hunt for dropped bits of ham sandwich or breadcrumbs off a fellow worker’s Scotch egg.
He was the best kind of dog – affectionate, loyal, attentive. He loved to chase a ball but was equally glad to take off across a Fenland field in pursuit of a jet from the nearby Royal Air Force base. As a pup he’d been endlessly curious. He loved to snuggle and play. When thwarted, his need for attention occasionally turned to damage, as when he pulled the copy of Ernest Joyce’s “The Technique of Furniture Making” that I had borrowed from the Isle of Ely College library off the bookcase at home and tore its 495 pages into a paper puzzle, wolfing down a chunk of the spine and chewing the top right inch and a half of the clothbound cover. Aside from making me pay for a replacement copy, the people at the library wanted me to return the original. I persuaded them to let me keep it and spent hours piecing the pages back together with cellotape that has since turned yellow-brown.
Oscar and I were together for 13 years. Then I let him go in a moment I will always regret. What follows is his story.
In the summer of 1980, several years before I worked at Farmstead, I was close to completing my coursework in furniture making, when our neighbor’s red setter, Sherry, gave birth to a litter of pups. My mother’s bearded collie, Alistair, was the father; he’d escaped from the backyard of their house in Friday Bridge and run across the road when Sherry was in heat. Alistair wasn’t alone in wandering the ’hood; a compact, light-brown, smooth-coated dog named Sniffer was quite the lad and likely had many a litter to his name. But there was little doubt these had come from Alistair – the doghouse was squirming with red and black puppies, not a brown or smooth-haired one among them.
We hadn’t had a dog since Sidney and Phoebe. Now that I was an adult and nearly finished with my training, I longed for a dog of my own. I felt a sense of obligation to our neighbor, given that my mother’s dog was responsible for the pups. They spilled out in a clambering mass, falling over each other to meet the visitor. A few moments later, a tiny black face with intense brown eyes and a rumpled moustache poked out, peering around to assess conditions. That was my dog: the loner, the shy boy, the cautious one. I reached inside the opening and pulled him out the rest of the way.Oscar loved to run. Unfortunately, I did not know how to train him. I had an ordinary collar and lead, not the kind that would have discouraged a dog from pulling; he would lean so hard into our path that I could scarcely contain him. It was exasperating. I yanked his leash angrily, too ignorant to know how ineffective (not to mention dangerous) my correction might be.
Patrick and I were married in 1981. By then, we were both working for my first cabinetmaking boss, Raymond Green, building kitchens in a frigid old horse-stable-turned-workshop. A couple of years later, we moved to the industrial town of Reading. By then I was ready for a change – not just a new location, but a new line of work. Although I’d learned a lot from Raymond about the business of cabinetmaking, as well as new techniques, I felt emotionally and physically beaten down by my two-plus years of professional woodworking. The work had become depressingly monotonous and repetitive. I wanted to make a living in a more social setting, ideally an office.
At first we stayed with Patrick’s mother at her council flat in Bracknell, on Reading’s outskirts. She doted on Oscar and spoiled him like a grandson. She always had a box of Good Boy Choc Drops on hand, and after a few tries, loved to take him out for walks. He slept in the guest room with us and stayed home with her while we looked for work.
I’d answered an ad for a clerk position in the travel office at the students’ union of Reading University. What clinched the hire was my happy guess at the capital of Yugoslavia, as it was then known: Belgrade. I could not believe my luck in getting the job; I would be working in an office with several women, all of us under 35. The office was not in a freezing barn, but a comfortable building. The position involved selling tickets to professors who were going on book tours around the United States and agricultural students flying home to Dakar or Denpasar. Those were the days of hand-written airline tickets on paper and bookings made over the phone. There was a lot to learn, and I found all of it a welcome challenge.
My mother’s mother, Esse, had always said she wanted to help me buy a house and make a home. Reading looked and felt like home, so one day I made a very expensive transatlantic collect call from a pay phone and asked if she would help us buy a row house about a mile-and-a-half from the office where I worked. A basic two-up, two-down with a tiny kitchen and bath in a lean-to addition at the back, the house was one away from the precipice at the end of Edgehill Street, which was aptly named. The neighborhood was still decidedly working class, so it was affordable, even to people like us who made close to minimum wage. I comforted myself with the observation that the house at the end would go over the hill before ours did. Esse was ill with pancreatic cancer at the time, so my grandfather flew over by himself to look at the house, gave us the down payment (around ₤5,000) and co-signed for the loan. I was ecstatic and have never stopped being grateful for that help.
Each morning I got up early and took Oscar for a long walk, then had breakfast and walked to work. Sometimes I took him with me. My co-workers loved him, and Bronwen, especially, always made a fuss over him. Oscar couldn’t get enough. A few years later Patrick and I moved to the old cathedral town of Saffron Walden in Essex, where our marriage fell apart. There, Gregor, a classmate during our training as furniture makers, took over from Bronwen as Oscar’s favorite friend. He took Oscar for walks to Audley End Park and sneaked him the odd treat from the fish and chip shop. Gregor would occasionally drive over in his jeep and pick us up. One day he parked the jeep in front of the house where Patrick and I had lived and Oscar refused to get out. He sat there, eyes forward, as if to say You can’t make me get out. There has been too much disruption of late, and I’m staying put. I’m going wherever you go.
I moved back to the States in the summer of 1987. My sister had moved back several years before, and my mother and stepfather had followed; they were living in the house where we’d lived with our father before our family split up. It would make an ideal place to land and make a plan.
I’d visited New England the previous winter. I knew I wanted to be in the Northeast – if I had to leave England, it would be for a part of North America that looked and felt as close to England as I could find. I’d rented a car on that trip and first explored the Hudson Valley, then gone as far as western Massachusetts, where, after a long expanse of no towns, I came upon what appeared to be a semi-abandoned industrial town, North Adams, which had had a thriving mill industry thanks to its location on the Hoosic River but now seemed more like a beautiful mirage full of 19th-century houses with turrets, fretwork and other elaborate architectural details. I might not have a particular place in mind, not to mention a job, but New England would be my general destination.
I sold some of my possessions, gave a lot of others away, then had the rest shipped with a moving company, to be held at the Port of New York until I had a place to live. My friend Edward was going to America with me.After putting Oscar in the officially mandated crate, I said goodbye at Heathrow, praying he would survive the eight-hour flight in the hold.
At Miami International Airport, Edward and I went through baggage claim and customs. I spotted Oscar across the hall. No sooner had he glimpsed me than he let out a heartbreaking, groggy howl, still under the influence of the sedative he’d had for the ride. But the most rewarding reunion came when my mother picked us up and took us home. She and my stepfather still had Alistair, Oscar’s father; they’d brought him when they moved from England. When the two dogs saw each other for the first time in years, they sniffed each other tentatively. Then, all of a sudden, there was a frenzy of perked-up ears and wagging tails. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes.
I bought a used two-door Ford Escort car, and after several days, Edward and I set off with Oscar on the drive north. We stayed in motels that allowed dogs, and finally stopped in South Hadley, just outside of Amherst, Massachusetts, where I signed a lease for a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a house. Edward found a job in Worcester and moved there. I applied for office jobs but was turned down for every one. While looking through job ads in a local paper I came across one for furniture makers at a business in Vermont. By this time I’d had my fill of rejection; perhaps I should give my own trade another chance, instead of trying to fit my square peg into another round hole. I called. The people seemed genuinely nice. We set up a meeting.
I drove up with Oscar for a visit. The company had arranged for me to stay at a bed-and-breakfast. Before the interview I was so nervous that I bought a package of cookies and ate the entire box, diverting a few from my mouth to Oscar’s. It was comforting to have an ally on this journey away from a home that was not yet home.
I took the job gratefully when they offered. Oscar and I moved to Montpelier, Vermont, the closest sizable town to the shop, where I rented a small apartment in a depressing house with stained shag carpet and fake wood paneling on the walls. Oscar and I were together. We would make it work. …