Friday, September 3, 2010

Cooler Weather Means It's Time to Start Building

Woodshop season is about to commence. Summer’s dog days are slinking away, at long last. A few folks here have blamed my migration from Texas for the unusual heat wave. I apologize, though my powers are vastly overrated. Heck, I can’t even get my kinfolks to vote right.

But it appears that summer is truly headed out the door, which means I’ll be able to use the woodshop that was a large enticement for leasing this house up on the hill. Woodworking isn’t much fun when it’s 100 degrees, and the shop has no air-conditioning. I’m not so dedicated to this hobby of building mission-style furniture — primarily to give away to friends and family —to sweat profusely for hours on end.

I spent several hours last weekend, which wasn’t terribly hot, perched on a stool in the shop, flipping through a decade’s worth of woodworking magazines. When I took up this pastime a dozen years ago, I taught myself the necessary skills by subscribing to a half-dozen different magazines, plus buying an armful of books on different aspects of the craft — cabinet making, building chairs, how to set up a proper shop, and so forth. After a decade, I figured I had enough magazines to last a lifetime and canceled all the subscriptions. Each contains plans for several projects, so when I decide to build something I flip through the magazines and find a number of projects on which to embark.

First, though, I had to drive back to East Texas, an event that took place over the Labor Day weekend, when you likely are reading this piece. That’s where my cache of lumber remains, in a storage unit. I ran out of time to move lumber up here, so I’ll be hurtling back to Kansas early next week with my utility trailer filled with as much rough-cut black walnut and red oak as my dinky hybrid SUV can pull.

I’ve been hauling this lumber around for a while, but it’s worth it. Over the past dozen years, I’ve bought piles of lumber from folks who kept it stored in barns or covered with tin, and finally decided to sell it for next-to-nothing. I would write a column about building furniture and somebody would holler at me, offering to sell me a trailer-load of black walnut for $100 or so. I never said no — in fact, anybody reading this who wants to unload some decent hardwood lumber knows where to find me.

Anyway, by the time I get back early next week, I’ll have enough lumber on hand to get busy as the nights get cooler, as well as on weekends. I am ridiculously slow at building furniture. It’s one of the few parts of my life where deadlines don’t dictate. Accordingly, I refuse to build anything for money. If I charged by the hour, this prairie sofa, for example, where I take a 20-minute nap after work in the study most days, would have to sell for — well, let’s just say I’m not that good a furniture maker.

This is what I do instead of fishing. Thus I have all the tools and gadgets one needs to build anything out of wood. Part of the joy of woodworking for me is relearning how to set up, say, the biscuit joiner, which is used to join two pieces of wood together for a desk or table, for example. Or how to tune up the bandsaw, so it will cut through a four-inch piece of red oak without breaking a blade.

Soon I’ll have to plane some rough-cut lumber. That process is extremely noisy and messy, creating barrels of shavings that work well as flowerbed mulch. Luckily, though I live in town, my house is pretty isolated. It backs up to a cemetery, so nobody behind me is likely to complain about the noise. The rest of the neighbors are far enough away that it shouldn’t result in any police calls for disturbing the peace.

Using power equipment that can slice off fingers in a flash if you’re careless does force one to concentrate. It takes your mind off the worries of the world. I enjoy knowing that I’m building pieces of furniture that will outlive me. I seriously doubt anybody other than the occasional curious descendant years from now will be reading any of the few thousand columns I’ve written over nearly three decades. But somebody — though they probably won’t know who made it — probably will appreciate that coffee table made out of recycled tongue-and-groove two-inch thick red oak with a black-walnut frame, long after I’m gone. It’s sturdy and built to survive lots of beer cans spills and chili-bowl sloshes.

I’m ready to fire up the planer and start making some noise.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 4, 2010.

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