wood stories

Wood Stories

Dead Man's Tools

Tom Watson

Harper Strode died on a fine Spring day in 1987. They found him sitting at his lathe with a pretty fancy clock finial nearly done and still spinning in his old Oliver long bed. His lead man, Jimmy Parker, said that Harper died sitting upright on his stool, which he had taken to using when doing the lathe work about the time he'd turned eighty. On the day he passed, Harper was ninety three years old.

Jimmy told us that Harper must have gone on to the other side while trying to decide if he needed to strop his gouge, as his finger was on the tools edge and he had a sort of thoughtful look to his face. Harper was a fussy sort about edges, as is about right for a man who'd made some of the finest furniture in Chester County for seven decades and who always was a man to keep a cutting edge just right.

He was a neat and orderly man too and it didn't surprise Jimmy a bit that he had died without dropping his gouge and without falling off his stool. Jimmy figured that the first thing Harper would have said to Saint Peter would be, "I wish you'd given me enough warning so I could have shut down the lathe."

Harper Strode was for certain sure the best known and best loved cabinetmaker in Chester County and more people turned out for his funeral than had shown up for Deeter Collins', who was a pretty famous baseball player in our parts and who was also a Marine Colonel. We're pretty big on baseball players and Marine's in our town, but Harper's funeral drew half again as many folks as Deeter's had.

Harper's work was all over our town and was pretty well distributed throughout most of the other towns in the county, as well as in the farmhouses that were between the towns. He'd never had more than three guys working for him but he'd turned out a powerful amount of cabinets, furniture, clocks and such from his bank barn shop.

The clocks were sort of his specialty. In early 1929 he'd agreed to make a tall case clock to sit in the entry way of the First National Bank. Hand shake deals were done even by bankers in those days and Harper had agreed to make a Philadelphia Style Tall Case Clock (which could have been damned near anything, since neither the banker nor Harper could have told you in words what the clock was supposed to look like) for the consideration of two hundred dollars. Ben Timmons, the bank president, and Harper shook hands on the deal and the clock was to be ready before the Christmas Holidays, which was always a big deal at the bank, as the children from the town were toured through to see the vaults and the teller's stations and all that, and they each got a big candy cane and a dime bank card, that was to help them in their learning about saving money.

It was Harper's first tall case clock and he was a might worried about how it was going to come out but he contracted with Buddy Charles up in Boyertown to build him the works and they were to be delivered by the end of Summer, so Harper could build the case during the Fall.

Well, I guess you know what happened in October of 1929. Old Harper wasn't much on phones and wasn't one to own a radio, but he heard, sure enough, that things had taken a bad turn. Harper saw Ben Timmons at church and told him that he could back out of the deal if things weren't right at the bank. Ben Timmons was the third Timmons to be president of the bank and he was a proud man. He told Harper, "Things aren't too good at the bank right now, Harper but I'll make good on our deal personally." That's the way things were done in our parts back then.

Harper Strode was a proud man, too and he told Ben that he wouldn't take his personal money and that he would finish the clock and that, "The bank can pay me whenever times get better." So far as I know (and Ben Timmons said the same to his dying day), no other man on earth had ever said that to a banker before.

Now, Harper knew from the pictures that he'd been studying on that his clock would need to have three finials up at the top in order to be a proper Philadelphia Style Tall Case Clock. Most believe that he got this idea from the John Wanamaker Department Store Catalogue, which was, after all, the biggest store in Philadelphia and they should know their business when it came to such things.

Problem was, Harper had never turned anything before and he didn't even have a lathe.

Turns out that Fess Willard up in Honeybrook had a long bed Oliver lathe that he'd got because he thought he could make a few bucks turning porch posts during the Winter when there wasn't much happening on his farm. Fess had a daughter that was getting married, quick like, before Thanksgiving and he bartered with Harper to trade a cedar hope chest for the lathe. Fess was a rough sort of fella and hadn't made much progress with the porch post business and said that he'd spent most of his time dodging lathe tools as they were ripped out of his hands and flung around the cow barn. So, the lathe was pretty much new.

Harper studied on this for a while, as he didn't think that he really needed such a big lathe but, when Fess offered to throw in the lathe tools and a half ton of hay, the deal was struck.

Well now, old Harper took to that lathe like a duck takes to water. He just knew in his bones which way to come at the spinning wood with the tool, which is no great mystery since the man already knew damn near everything else about working with wood. He was a flat out natural.

The clock was a glorious thing. The John Wanamaker Department Store Catalogue didn't show enough detail to tell how the finials should look so Harper came up with his own idea which everyone in town agreed was right smart and is copied to this day by Chester County cabinetmakers.

He got paid by the bank, as time went by, and Ben Timmons made sure that all his banker friends ordered up tall case clocks from Harper, so he got pretty famous for them. He made clocks for most of the banks in our county and quite a few for the counties that bordered us. He made quite a few for churches and quite a few more for regular people, too.

As Harper's business grew he hired on Jimmy, who had been working as a machinist at the Sharpless Cream Separator Works, and then Lester Worthington, who was a bit addled in his mind but kept the place clean and, as he was a bull strong fella, was a great help in the heavy lifting.

Jimmy Parker was thought to be about the best lathe man at the Sharpless Works but Harper never let him touch that long bed Oliver. Harper so loved turning that he wouldn't let anyone else do it. Even when he'd gotten too old to do the other work in the shop, Harper would come in early in the morning and do the lathe work himself. He was of a habit as to wake well before sunrise and do his turning before the other men started their day. He prized his time at that lathe as he prized nothing else.

That's why Jimmy wasn't all that surprised to find him sitting there, dead and thoughtful looking, on that fine Spring morning.

Well, Jimmy wasn't a man to run his own shop, although he was plenty happy working for Harper. Harper had no children that were interested in the business, so the whole thing was put up for auction.

I went to the auction figuring on just watching while all the stuff went for more than I could afford. The saws went high and the planer went for more than what I could afford. Jimmy bought a chisel set and the old grinder. Stevie Watts bought up all the clamps.

The last item was the long bed Oliver. I knew that Jimmy had always wanted to have a go at that lathe and I figured he'd bid but he didn't. No one else did, either. You see, the word had gotten around that this was the tool that old Harper had died at and it seemed to have cooled out the bidding. Jimmy wouldn't touch it, even when it got down to two hundred dollars, which was less than half of what it was worth. He told me later that it just wouldn't have felt right to turn on Harper's lathe.

My Aunt Fay was fond of saying that, "God hates a coward."

When the price dropped to one hundred and fifty dollars, I bought Harper's lathe.

I'd always had an idea that I might like to build tall case clocks, just like Harper's. I didn't know anything about lathe work but I'm a willing learner and thought the price was just too good to pass up.

I have to admit that the lathe sat in the back of my shop for months before I got around to having a go at it. It was covered in sawdust when I first tried to turn it on. She wouldn't start.

I called Jimmy and he told me, again, that the lathe was running when he'd found Harper dead at it and that nothing had been done to it since then. I spent a good part of a Sunday afternoon cleaning up the Oliver, taking the scale off the bed and even gave her a good coat of paste wax once things were shined up. I turned her back on - she purred like a kitten.

Look here, I've never been a superstitious type but I was wondering to myself if maybe Harper didn't see fit to let that old lathe start unless she were properly cleaned up. Just a passing thought, you know.

I'd some two by two square baluster stock sitting around and chucked one of them into the lathe. I took Harper's old gouge (I'm not just sure but I believe it might have been the one...) and laid it on the rest with a mind to making a test cut.

The damn tool flung itself out of my hands and landed, point down, on my concrete shop floor. Strangest thing - I'd not put but the least bit of pressure on it.

There wasn't any sense in having another go at it without a thorough sharpening and stropping, the edge had been made plumb dull by its visit to the concrete floor. After fifteen minutes at the grinder, stone and strop - I ran my finger on an edge that would make even Harper proud.

At way past dinner time, my wife came out to the shop. By that time I'd made half a dozen finials, just like Harper used to make for them tall case clocks. Each one was an exact mate to all the others. My wife sat the dinner plate next to the lathe and said, "I didn't know that you could do turnings. They're so beautiful."

I looked up and saw she had a funny sort of expression on her face. My wife is a good , strong Christian woman and has no tolerance for superstition or any such ungodly foolery.

I smiled at her and said, "Yes, they are beautiful, aren't they?"

How to Make a Board

by Dave Barry

Most of what I know about carpentry, which is almost nothing, I learned in shop. I took shop during the Eisenhower administration, when boys took shop and girls took home economics--a code name for "cooking". Schools are not allowed to separate boys and girls like that any more.

They're also not allowed to put students' heads in vises and tighten them, which is what our shop teacher, Mr. Schmidt, did to Ronnie Miller in the fifth grade when Ronnie used a chisel when he should have used a screwdriver. (Mr. Schmidt had strong feelings about how to use tools properly.) I guess he shouldn't have put Ronnie's head in the vise, but it (Ronnie's head) was no great prize to begin with, and you can bet Ronnie never confused chisels and screwdrivers in later life. Assuming he made it to later life.

Under Mr. Schmidt's guidance, we hammered out hundreds of the ugliest and most useless objects the human mind can conceive of. Our first major project was a little bookshelf that you could also use as a stool. The idea was that someday you'd be looking for a book, when all of a sudden you'd urgently need a stool, so you'd just dump the books on the floor and there you'd be. At least I assume that was the thinking behind the bookshelf-stool. Mr. Schmidt designed it, and we students sure know better than to ask any questions.

I regret today that I didn't take more shop in high school, because while I have never once used anything I know about the cosine and the tangent, I have used my shop skills to make many useful objects for my home. For example, I recently made a board.

I use my board in many ways. I stand on it when I have to get socks out of the dryer and water has been sitting in our basement around the dryer for a few days, and has developed a pretty healthy layer of scum on top (plus heaven-only-knows-what new and predatory forms of life underneath).

I also use my board to squash spiders. (All spiders are deadly killers. Don't believe any of the stuff you read in "National Geographic".)

If you'd like to make a board, you'll need:

  • Materials: A board, paint.
  • Tools: A chisel, a handgun.

Get your board at a lumberyard, but be prepared. Lumberyards reek of lunacy. They use a system of measurement that dates back to Colonial times, when people had brains the size of M&Ms. When they tell you a board is a "two-by-four", they mean it is NOT two inches by four inches. Likewise, a "one-by-six" is NOT one inch by six inches. So if you know what size board you want, tell the lumberperson you want some other size. If you don't know what size you want, tell him it's for squashing spiders. He'll know what you need.

You should paint your board so people will know it's a home carpentry project, as opposed to a mere board. I suggest you use a darkish color, something along the lines of spider guts. Use your chisel to open the paint can. Have your gun ready in case Mr. Schmidt is lurking around.

Once you've finished your board, you can move on to a more advanced project, such as a harpsichord. But if you're really going to get into home carpentry, you should have a home workshop. You will find that your workshop is very useful as a place to store lawn sprinklers and objects you intend to fix sometime before you die. My wife and I have worked out out a simple eight-step procedure for deciding which objects to store in my home workshop:

  1. My wife tells me an object is broken. For instance, she may say, "The lamp on my bedside table doesn't work."
  2. I wait several months, in case my wife is mistaken.
  3. My wife notifies me she is not mistaken. "Remember the lamp on my bedside table?" she says. "Yes?" I say. "Still broken," she says.
  4. I conduct a preliminary investigation. In the case of the lamp, I flick the switch and note that the lamp doesn't go on. "You're right," I tell my wife. "That lamp doesn't work."
  5. I wait 6 to 19 months, hoping that God will fix the lamp, or the Russians will attack us and the entire world will be a glowing heap of radioactive slag and nobody will care about the lamp anymore.
  6. My wife then alerts me that the lamp still doesn't work. "The lamp still doesn't work," she says, sometimes late at night.
  7. I try to repair the lamp on the spot. Usually, I look for a likely trouble spot and whack it with a blunt instrument. This often works on lamps. It rarely works on microwave ovens.
  8. If the on-the-spot repair doesn't work, I say: "I'll have to take this lamp down to the home workshop." This is my way of telling my wife that she should get another lamp if she has any short-term plans, say, to do any reading in bed.

If you follow this procedure, after a few years you will have a great many broken objects in your home workshop. In the interim, however, it will look barren. This is why you need tools. To give your shop an attractive, nonbarren appearance, you should get several thousand dollars worth of tools and hang them from pegboards in a graceful display.

Basically, there are four different kinds of tools:

  • Tools You Can Hit Yourself With (hammers, axes).
  • Tools You Can Cut Yourself With (saws, knives, hoes, axes).
  • Tools You Can Stab Yourself With (screwdrivers, chisels).
  • Tools That, If Dropped Just Right, Can Penetrate Your Foot (awls).

I have a radial arm saw, which is like any other saw except that it has a blade that spins at several billion revolutions per second and therefore can sever your average arm in a trice. When I operate my radial arm saw, I use a safety procedure that was developed by X-ray machine technicians: I leave the room.

I turn off all the power in the house, leave a piece of wood near the saw, scurry to a safe distance, and turn the power back on. That is how I made my board.

Once you get the hang of using your tools, you'll make all kinds of projects. Here are some other ones I've made:

  • A length of rope.
  • Wood with nails in it.
  • Sawdust.

If you'd like plans for any of these projects, just drop some money in an envelope and send it to me and I'll keep it.


Tom Watson

It had taken a lifetime to come to this point.

Ben's Dad had brought him into the shop on his sixth birthday, nearly eighty years before, and introduced him to what was to become his life long passion. The small softwood workbench that greeted him on that day was now only a childhood memory but the Stanley bit brace still hung on the wall of the shop and was still taken down and put to work when the mood was on him.

So too did the Millers Falls block plane that he'd been presented with so long ago continue to give good service. The edges of the body were smoothed by almost eight decades of use, as he'd grown from a child's clumsy grip to the sure and steady strokes of a seasoned craftsman.

Ben's hands were often unsteady these days. Time and the illness that would soon claim him had turned his handwriting into something feathery and nearly incomprehensible. But, with a plane in his hand he steadied down as though his hands remembered and acted according to their memory, in spite of his condition.

Old Ben's memory was still pretty good and it took him back to that happy birthday and the feeling of his father's guiding hand on his as he made his first pass with the block plane. A small pile of hardwood had shared the bench that day with those first tools that were, "really his." There were short lengths of maple, white oak, cherry and walnut; cutoffs from his Dad's projects. He now clearly recalled the magical transformation of the indifferent looking walnut board's edge, as he'd run his first chamfer with the block plane. The once rough surface shimmered smoothly in silky purples and warm browns, revealed by the passage of the cutting edge.

As Ben's Dad would often repeat to friends and family over the years, "The boy was hooked both good and deep." So he was.

It was that same old Millers Falls block plane that Ben now used to stroke down the sharp edges on the big box, making the corners pleasing to the hand and eye. He still took deep pleasure in the sight of a board length curl rolling out of the plane's mouth and over his hands.

Oak, Maple, Cherry and Walnut had become and remained the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of Ben's woodworking life. They grew in abundance on the land around his shop and his father had taught him their ways and workings with as much zeal as his mother had applied in teaching him the gospel.

He'd chosen cherry for the sides and top, as he had for the much smaller box he'd made for his wife, Charlotte, some sixty five years before. That jewelry box still sat on Charlotte's dressing table in the house, looking much the same as it had when he'd presented it to her on Christmas morning in 1938, containing only two small rings and a note saying how much he hoped that she would see fit to put on the diamond now and wear the gold band on the following June.

Ben had lined the insides of this big box with quilted maple, which was a favorite of Charlotte's and which she'd asked him to use when she said to him at breakfast one morning, "Ben, have you ever made a cradle?"

Two sons and a daughter were rocked in that maple cradle, which then sat waiting in the attic for a score of years before being brought down, cleaned and refinished to hold the first in what would become a series of eight grandchildren and, so far, four great grandchildren. Ben only ever made one cradle but it was a pretty good one. Just last week he'd sat next to it for an hour, watching baby Emily sleep but seeing all of the tiny faces that had occupied the maple cradle over more than sixty years flash, one after another through his mind's eye.

He'd decided on quartersawn white oak for the bottom of the big box, as it could be planed down thin enough to be light while still being strong enough for the job. He kept all the other parts of the box as light as possible too, so as not to be too great a burden on those who would have to do the lifting and carrying.

Of the four woods that occupied most of his working life he'd used oak the least, relying on it mostly for its strength, as when he'd built the children's workbenches. Ben thought a proper workbench should be made of maple but young children needed a bench that they could beat up without hearing about it from their father - he figured that's why his dad had made his first bench out of pine.

Each of his children and all of his married grandchildren received four poster walnut beds on their wedding day. Charlotte had always been a little uncomfortable with his decision to make beds for newly married folks, thinking maybe that Ben was making some kind of sly joke. Ben could never figure that one out and would just say, "Better a bed first and then a cradle, than the other way around."

He used walnut for the handles and the hinges on the big box. Oak would have been stronger but wouldn't have looked as nice next to the cherry. Ben figured the walnut hinges would hold up fine for the amount of use that they were likely to get.

When Charlotte had passed on five years ago, Ben had been making a sewing box for her that was made of walnut, with an inlaid rose made from cherry and maple. Since she had passed so quickly from sickness into death, Ben had not had time to finish the inlaid box and it still sat on the edge of the workbench - a daily reminder of her presence. Ben had taken the inlays from the unfinished box and cut them into his big box. Fitting, he thought.

He also included one item that he couldn't strictly account for. He'd taken a piece of beveled edge glass from Charlotte's collection that she used in her stained glass work. She was crackerjack with that sort of thing and Ben had made many frames for her pieces over the years. She'd thought this particular oval piece to be something special, the way it would bend the light out into colors running from violet, into blues and greens, and so on into a soft red. It was bigger than most of her clear pieces and she'd always said that it would need to be a large composition that could take so strong a piece of glass. Ben worked it into the lid of the big box, not far from the inlaid rose. When the light would shine through it just right it would light up the maple lined insides of the box, as would the soft glow of a candle.

As Ben stood back from his work, he thought of all the wood that had passed through his hands over the years. He thought of the special pieces that had gone into things that he had made for his loved ones, what they meant and would continue to mean. He thought of all that he had learned about wood and life and all that he would never learn.

The big box stretched nearly seven feet across the sawhorses. Ben raised the lid and grabbed the short stepladder. He climbed slowly up the ladder and then stepped gently down into the box. The lid made a proper closing sound as he pulled it shut.

While he lay there thinking on his work and his life, he was happy for the glass above his eyes. He watched the rainbows play on the quilted maple and the dust motes winking in the windowed light outside the box.

Ben said out loud, "I've had a good life and I've made a fine box."

He blew out a breath onto the glass and watched it fog over, turning the outside world into a soft haze. As the glass dried and cleared, and the world looked ever so much clearer than before, Ben wondered if that is what it would be like - when his time finally came.

A Father's Hug

When I use a handsaw, my father's still behind me, his hand over mine on the handle, his other holding the board, his mouth to my ear, a father's hug. Quietly commanding, "Steady the blade with your knuckle, pull twice to set, cut on the waste side, long clean strokes won't bind the blade." I feel the sandpaper roughness of his unshaved Saturday face as it is pressed against my cheek, the warmth of morning sun as we work outside, the pressure on my hand as he helps me to keep a square line. I smell a combination of pine, aftershave, coffee and his pipe. Our project was bookends. I now realize we were really making memories.

When I drill a hole, my father 's still there. My hands on the brace. His over mine. A father's hug. "Square the bit from two sides. Clockwise to drill. Back it up to clear the bit."

A friend commented, at the birth of his child, that he would show his child the affection his father never could. I told him his father showed him lots of affection. Hugs, all from behind. Each given with love. Each meant to teach. And through all the differences of opinion, arguments and difficult times my father and I have had, I still pull twice to set a blade, still square a bit from two sides.

Now my son uses a saw, I am behind him, my hand over his on the handle. A father's hug.

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