Thursday, December 5, 2013

A 55-year old woodworking project, almost done

It started out a long time ago in shop class at Charles Brantley Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro.  The shop teacher was a wiry gent who drove a long, two-door Cadillac coupe, wore loud sportscoats, had wavy black hair slicked back with some kind of goo and what Jimmy Buffet would have called "a pencil-thin mustache, the Boston Blackie kind."  He was a nice man overseeing a bunch of rambunctious 13- and 14-year-olds whose hormones were driving them up one wall and down the other.  Girls in those days took Home Economics.  Boys took Shop, Probably a good thing they weren't in the same room.

Part of the curriculum was to make something. Most of us made a lot of sawdust, sometimes sprinkled with a little blood after failing to heed warnings about sharp tools and goofing off. A few already had a talent for making a piece of furniture, and some never would have any conception of what it was all about.  I was somewhere in between.  My Dad has a bunch of hand tools, dating to the days during the Great Depression when he had worked in the car department of  his second-cousin's elevator manufacturing business.  He helped fashion oak, mahogany and maple elevator car interiors that went into office buildings, courthouses, banks, colleges and other places around the Piedmont.

I think my shop class would have been in 1958, maybe 1959.  I remember buying the walnut planks from the school for a few bucks, running them through the big planer, jointing the edges, gluing them up with the heavy clamps and then pondering how to fashion the resulting 35-inch by 15-inch slab into a top for a coffee table in our family's den.  I ran out of time and figured I'd finish it at home, then botched the job terribly by digging a deep divot with a rogue disk sander not intended for finish-sanding a table top, or anything else.  It was more of a grinder, and it taught me a hard lesson:  Ignorance is bad.

I gave up on woodworking for a while, got interested in basketball and cars and girls and forgot all about that slab of walnut.  But my Dad, patient as ever, would haul it out every now and then and spend an hour hand-sanding the entire top while puffing through four or five bowls-full of Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco.  Funny thing: he always looked like he was enjoying it. He used boiled linseed oil to finish the top when it got relatively smooth, and found four coffee table legs of maple that he could stain walnut-colored and mount on iron brackets screwed to the underside of the slab.  And for the next 34 years or so that coffee table reposed in my parents' den in Greensboro. It held Time magazines, Saturday Evening Posts, coffee cups, African violets, readers' feet, iced tea glasses, the afternoon Greensboro Record and morning Greensboro Daily News, a jar of Starlight Mints and all the other things that Americans plop down on a coffee table without another thought.

In 1994, after both my parents had died, I unscrewed the legs and put the now-battered and water-marked top up in the rafters of the workshop I had built in Raleigh. It came out of storage for a few years when our daughter Mary needed a table in Columbia, S.C., and came home again when she moved out west.  It went back into storage, but I knew someday I'd find another use for it.

That day came not so long ago. We have been using as a coffee table a lovely old walnut dove-tailed chest, aglow with the patina that comes with 80 or 100 years of reasonably careful use.  But it was so low that when we put crackers and cheese on the coffee table for guests, our French Brittany Spaniel, Sadie, would lay her head sideways on the table top and lick away to her heart's content. Cute, but not appetizing, at least for humans.  We had to find a way to raise the elevation of that table -- and it occurred to me I could use the old slab if I could make a frame to sit atop the old chest and raise the cracker-and-cheese elevation.
The old chest, with top right at dog level
 But the slab needed several things.  It needed to be flat. It needed to be square. It needed to be wider. And it needed to be totally resurfaced to remove one white 8-inch water ring, where an overfilled violet no doubt left its calling card, one black ring caused by who knows what, and one mysterious brownish smudge that had no particular shape other than blobish.

The slab, about to be ripped apart from some serious body work

I knew the rings would never sand out -- not with any sanders we have. And while the top was 15 inches wide, my planer will accommodate only a plank about 12 inches wide. So the answer to remaking the top was to rip it lengthwise into two pieces, cut an additional plank for more width, plane each side, re-joint the edges and glue it all up.  Then make a frame that would sit around the top of the old chest, with a little ledge just inside, so the new, larger, higher-than-dog-tongue top could be placed on the chest when needed, and removed when the larger top was not needed.

It took at lot of passes of about one-32nd of an inch to get each board flat again -- and doing so required nearly as much planing of the underside.  So into my DeWalt planer disappeared this stamped inscription, no doubt imprinted on the back of one of the boards before it was delivered in the late 1950s from the lumberyard to the school: "Industrial Arts Department, Charles B. Aycock Junior High School, Greensboro N.C."  I'm sorry that stamp had to go, but if the piece was to be uniformly the same thickness, out it had to go. 

Now squared, planed, edged, glued, sanded and attached to a frame made from walnut I bought 36 years ago off a farm in Wake Forest, N.C., the new larger tabletop is about to get its second coat of spar varnish -- enough, I hope, to resist watermarks and tall enough to deter hungry dogs looking for a taste of whatever the grownups are having.  So after 55 years or so, the old walnut slab is new again and back at work. 
The new removable top, sitting under a nice wet coat of varnish this morning

As Forrest Gump would have said, "Well, one less thing."

Or, as they say in Charlotte, "Viola!"


  1. Wonderful story, JB, told as only you can! How wonderful that your dad took your unfinished project and made it into a piece used by the family for years...and how like you to keep it, remember that you have it, and reuse it!
    Great...except for Sadie.

  2. I echo the comment above. Fine work and adaptive re-use. For what it's worth, this post tells and preserves a story so much richer than a mere stamp on the underside of the slab could suggest. And kudos to Sadie for making sure the hors d'oeuvres, as my Dad would say, "were fittin' "

  3. Glad you decided against getting a shorter dog....