I have often discussed my old man in this blog, reminiscing about the so-called good old days when father and son were bonding. The reality is, without the time that I spent with him in the shop, I really wouldn’t have much to write about when it comes to him.
I have always worked bizarre hours and when my kid was around, it wasn’t any different. After a few weeks of 20-hour days and seven day work weeks I would take an afternoon off and work in the shop. I did the same thing when I rebuilt my old boat, but then I would head down to the marina and work on it in the yard. When I was spending time working wood, my kid was in school.
Realizing this reality has caused me to admit, once again, that my rough, tough, SOB of a father was much smarter than I. Not adjusting my work load so I could bring my kid into the shop with me was the biggest mistake I ever made in my lifetime, not only for me, but for my kid as well.
From what I have discovered, most of us work wood because we saw our fathers work wood. What makes anyone think that our kids will be any different than us when they get older? While in some cases I hope my kid is smart enough to be different than me, given he has already built a few furniture pieces of his own, when it comes to working wood, I know he will have the same passion for it as I have.
Back in the 50’s, the price of machinery dropped to the point where it was cheap enough for anyone to own. After a lifetime of pushing planes and humping handsaws on the job site, my old man jumped on the power bandwagon and quickly outfitted his shop with every machine available that was relevant to his production. He had a good eye for proportions and a passion for the design style that I call 50’s modern. Everything he built was square, smooth cornered and utilitarian.
One of the first lessons I remembered having was making a box with faux mitered corners. If you don’t know what that is, it is a process of trimming away all but the top layer of plywood, leaving that top lip wide enough to cover the edge of the piece of ply it butted up to, as shown in the illustration below.
This was a pretty delicate operation made more difficult by the size of the board you were adding it to. Starting with the inside cut, he would work the fence out the width of the blade with each pass until just a stubbled sliver of the layers was left along the edge of a board. He would then flip it over on the table saw top and using a chisel, slice away the corduroy surface the blades left, removing the remnants of the edge sliver in the process. When the pieces were doweled and glued up, he would run a block of sandpaper along the edge and without properly inspecting the joint, you would swear it was mitred.
I was reminded, yet again, of my old man’s teachings this morning when I read Chris Schwarz’s post. He was discussing how to explain the workings of a power jointer to his daughter. Say what you will about Chris, but the way he includes his daughters in just about everything he does puts him way up there in my book.
In his post, Chris talked about letting the wood tell you how to work it with a jointer. For me, this, of course, brought up the times when my old man taught me how to use one. He took a different approach, telling me to think like a machine. That sounds a little strange on it’s own, but the reality is, when you are coming up with a design for something mechanical, you follow the process of it in your mind from the machine’s point of view, not the operator’s.
The old man would say, “It’s a multipurpose machine which you are trying to get to do a specific job. Think of what you would have to add to this machine if you were producing it for this specific job”.
Going at that machine this way with each specific job, I soon learned how to master it. Whatever the job, I would envision a specifically styled pressure plate and feed mechanism and where it would be mounted over the blades. This would quickly give me a rough idea where to apply pressure to the stock and at what speed I should feed it. Within a pass or two, I would understand where it would need finessing, adjust the pressure or speed accordingly and I would usually have good results. While you could come up with the same conclusions without the thought of adapting the machine to the job at hand, using the adapted machine approach gives your mind's eye a picture to emulate.
I have tried applying that same principle to hand planes, by the way, and it doesn’t work worth a damn.
I believe life is a circle, and the topic of my family members working wood is no different. After getting out of the army in 46’, my old man taught himself how to use hand tools so he could earn a living. He then switched to power tools and taught himself how to use them all over again. He did, however, have the brains and the heart to pass that knowledge down to me. I wasn’t as smart as my old man way back when, and didn’t share that knowledge with my own kid. Now he lives 3000 miles away from me, so I can’t share with him the things I have learned about working with hand tools. Whichever he uses; power or hand tools, my son will be just like his grandfather, and have to learn their use on his own.
Guys, if you can, get your kids into the shop with you as often as you can. It will be a memory they will carry with them for a lifetime and beyond.