Saturday, 18 December 2010

Having An Imaginary Donnybrook With My Old Man...

If the old man were around today, we would be having one of those discussions that used to cause my mother and sister to hide in the kitchen wringing their hands in anticipation of the inevitable fight.

I was always into building things but my problem was, as I have admitted in the past, I was a rotten little kid who had the focus of a tsetse fly. What limited focus I did have was all used up by the time I figured out how to build whatever it was that I wanted to make. There just wasn’t anything left over when it came time to use the tools properly, or put them away once the task was done. The result was a lot of my old man’s tools got destroyed between the time I was old enough to hold a screwdriver and my teens.

My dad was a walking contradiction, being about as inconsistent as you can get in just about everything he did. When I ruined a tool of his, he would give me a cuff, call me about every expletive you could imagine and threaten to “lock these &$!@? tools up under lock and key and you’ll be an old man with a long white beard before you ever see them again” (just a note; I am not that old right now, but I definitely have a white beard). He never did do what he threatened to do, though. There was never a time in my life when my old man said, “like hell”, when I wanted to use one of this tools. He made that “like hell” statement with just about everything else he owned when it came to me, but never once in regards to his tools. In truth, he encouraged me to use them, explaining when and how to use each one with patience that was quite beyond me.

All of that said, he also never missed an opportunity to remind me of each and every item in his toolbox that got caught in the swath of my destructive ways. If the job at hand required a particular tool that was no longer pristine, or gone altogether, he was very quick to point out the shortcomings of our tool repertoire and notably pointed about why we were short the article in question. Hell, in truth, we didn’t even have to be working on something together for him to bring up the topic.

He was around the age I am now when his health started to seriously nose-dive. I got a call one day telling me to get my butt home as the doctors didn’t think he would make it through the night. I drove the 120 miles in about an hour and spent that night sitting beside him, literally holding his hand so he would know he wasn’t alone. I don’t know if he was in a coma, or drugged stupor, but he only opened his eyes once that night. When his eyes did open, he looked at me, smiled, and quickly drifted back to wherever he was before.

He pulled through that night and was home within the week, but that night changed our relationship. I guess we both finally realized what we meant to each other because not only did we finally become father and son, but we became good friends. Before this I would venture home to visit my mother when I knew he wasn’t around. After, I tried to make it home at least once a week, if not twice, just so I could spend some time with him. In the summer, we would sit out on his front porch drinking a beer or two, talking about whatever came to mind, or not talking at all, both of us understanding our inabilities at making small talk. Sadly, he only lived for another five years after this, but I can’t tell you how thankful I am for those short five years. They made up for a lifetime of mistakes.

There are two reasons for writing this tearjerker tonight. First, it is coming on Christmas and in our house, my father was Christmas. He would start fussing about it at the beginning of November and would go completely overboard in his preparations for his grandchildren, who meant everything to him. Although I married into a Jewish family, it is not my wife’s religion that causes me to no longer celebrate Christmas. I gave it all up a year after the old man died because Christmas just wasn’t Christmas any longer without him.

The second reason for bringing all of this up is because it was during one of these visits with him, one of those afternoons that found us sitting on his porch, beer in hand, that he raised the subject of his Stanley No.150 Miter Box. Remembering this particular conversation this week, I can’t remember what conclusion I came to for him bringing it up after forty years or so. I just don’t know if he was still pissed with me for leaving it out in the rain all that time after the fact, or if he was just using it to give me a “shot”. The old man had a warped sense of humor, something I inherited. He also lacked the filter which removed the contaminants in the thoughts that came out of his brain before they became words escaping his mouth, another trait I possess thanks to that crap shoot we call the gene pool. It took me a lifetime, but back then I had finally learned that these “shots” were his idea of fun and he didn’t voice them with maliciousness in mind. Because of this, I’m not even sure if I even wondered why he brought it up at that time.

Intentional or not, that conversation hit the mark. I was always conscious of running those tools and once I got the hand tool bug, I made a point of replacing each and every one with the best example I could find. Too late for him but at least I know I eventually set the record straight. The Stanley 150 was replaced with new/old stock almost 50 years after the day it got ruined. It started to rain in the middle of a "hotrod" build and I had it together enough to put everything else away, including the back saw, but for some reason, that miter box got left outside for about five or six days, if memory serves me correctly.

That conversation did come up front and center this week, though. That shot at me for buggering up that tool came back to mind like he spoke it only yesterday. So what was the trigger for all of this? That conversation came to mind because I realized this week just what a piece of junk the tool in question really is.

I have been working on a design for a shooting board with a dedicated plane for over a year now. My workload has been horrendous these past few years, so time for woodworking has been very limited. In dribbles and drabs, I finally got to complete a half scale prototype of it last month. There are a number of mechanical metal parts to this design, parts that are not available off the shelf. To ensure their quality and reliability, I approached Raney Nelson of Daed Tool Works last year to see if he would mill the parts, which he agreed to do – if the design worked. The prototype was mainly for him. I say, “was”, because as I was packing it up to ship to him, I realized that what I had produced was just plain embarrassing. Raney is the guy who cuts dovetails in steel for plane parts and assembles them without being able to see a sliver of light between them. What I was about to send him had joints that you could drive a truck through.

I had some issues when I assembled all 18 pieces but I didn’t think it was that bad. I was even pretty proud of it the few times I used it to check its functionality.  Sitting upside down in the packing box, though, it seemed to me that all the crooked joints were actually growing worse the longer I looked at it. I ended up just closing the lid and setting it aside. God, it was pitiful.

Knowing what I had used to cut it, I mounted the Stanley 150 in the vice and started to do some test cuts. What I discovered was that I couldn’t place the teeth of the blade in the same place twice. The pressure plates on the arm that controls the saws vertical angle wouldn’t hold the blade consistently plumb so there was no way in hell it would cut through a board and come out the other side square to the line it started at. That’s when that conversation with my old man on his porch came to mind and I thought, “How the hell could you be upset with me for trashing that piece of crap forty years earlier when all I did was give it exactly what it deserved.” Needless to say, I was giving the old man a what-for for a considerable time afterwards.

I took the entire box apart and consider each and every piece of it. I filed off some cast burrs on a few pieces and reassembled it, paying very close attention to the tolerances. Testing it again, I found it to be better, but still no cigar. The only way I could get it to cut properly was to tighten the plate pressure on the saw blade so much that I could barely pull and push the saw to cut another test piece.

It was during this second test that I discovered another problem with the design; the bed is too short. As you cut through stock, it has a tendency to ride up on the saw blade resulting it the stock shifting one way or another, depending on the side with the greatest overhang. I was having this problem rear its ugly head while I was cutting 2’ pieces. How the hell my old man cut 8’, 10’ and 12’ moldings, I have no idea.

I removed the stock bed and replaced it with a wider and longer hunk of poplar. While I was at it, I also made some feet out of oak so it was lifted off the bench when I clamped it in and would stand a better chance of sitting square if there was some junk on the bench.

The thing is still not perfect but my second shot at cutting up the stock went much better than the first go-round. While cutting up all the pieces is a bit of labor, the worst part of it all is having to re-cut all 38 rabbets. Those are seriously labor intensive.

I’m going to replace this piece of junk with something, although I don’t know what yet. I’m sure I can find some wacky looking thing from the turn of the century that can make this thing blush. Once I do, I’ll put it back to original and put it up on the shelf and let it collect dust. It’s about all it is good for. The thing doesn’t even weigh enough to make it a good dingy anchor.

I know this thing was all the old man had and all money would allow, but damn. He made me feel so guilty for all those years because I destroyed his, but from where I stood, he should have thanked me. I do know that if me mom and sister were in the kitchen listening to me this week, they would have been damned happy the old man wasn't around any longer to hear me. It would have been one hell of a donnybrook.



Article written by Walter W. Jacob about the history of the Stanley 150 Miter Box can be found here.