Above is a picture of Kate's new 'art shelf.' Kate loves to draw and animate; you can see a sample of her work on the desk. A week ago, this desk was completely covered with jars of pens and pencils, and art supplies. It was impossible to work on, not because she was messy, but because she had too many things to keep organized. She was having to do all her work on her bed, which wasn't ideal.
When I broached this with her, she said that she'd been looking at art shelves online and would like some. I looked at the pictures with her and agreed that it was the solution to her problem. I didn't have to figure out how to budget to buy something, or where to go to find the precise right thing, all because we have a woodworker in the family. Isn't that wonderful? Kate and I just had to talk with my dad, who luckily wanted to take on the project.
Woodworking is a skill that I feel is becoming extinct, along with skills like carpentry, food preservation, and raising livestock. Well, maybe not extinct, but certainly rare. Time was that everyone knew how to fix an engine, rotate a crop, make a pickle. These are valuable skills that I believe we should take time to learn and preserve. Tom agrees with me, and it's why we make it a priority to sign up for classes in everything from butchery to plant propagation. It's why we challenge ourselves with building projects that often do not come out right, which doesn't matter because we're still learning. It's one of the reasons we have this blog, to help folks recognize that it's a good thing to try something new, to stretch the brain creatively, to try to honor these skills and pass them on.
My dad has been making furniture all his life. He is a master at it. And still he goes, every year, to Williamsburg, to study with other master woodworkers, in order to hone his craft. He teaches classes through local adult education, and blogs on Fine Woodworking, in order to bring his knowledge and skills to others.
And meanwhile, I have never had to buy a piece of furniture, except maybe a love seat or mattress. The gift of this is two-fold: It has saved us an awful lot of money through the years, and more importantly, our home is full of museum-quality art pieces that are even more special because they are made by a family member. Each piece has a double history: each was made just for us, and yet each is developed from a piece of furniture that is housed in the world's greatest museums. My parent's desk is a reproduction of George Washington's desk. The cupboards on either side of my fireplace, made because I needed a place to store both books and video game equipment, were made as replicas of a cupboard found in Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA. Our coffee table was originally made as a train table for Adam, and is based on a Pennsylvania Sawbuck dining table from the mid-1700's. This brings rich history to our home - both the stories of the original pieces and the stories of how Dad came to make it for us deepen the meaning and feeling of everything we use, every day.
I've often joked, that when I was young, every piece of furniture had a name: the Deacon's Bench, the Shaker Chest, the Chippendale Chair. Every piece still does; we own a Maloof rocker, Hans Wegner chairs, Windsor fan-backed and sack-backed chairs. A delightful mix of both old styles and modern. All kinds of different woods are represented, and an interior designer would probably be horrified by both the mix of colors - the deep reds of mahogany and redwood, the lighter poplars and pines, the refined silver maple, the various milk paint and shellac finishes - and periods. It's a delightful jumble of styles.
You can see that in the above picture of just one corner of Kate's room, with the desk being a Hans Wegner design, made with Modesto ash, from a local sawmill that planed it from a felled tree in Oakland. To finish it, Dad used a light coat of white milk paint to bring out the grain, followed by a French polish (which takes days). This design would be from the early 1900's, probably the 30's. The chair is a Double Rod Back Windsor design from around 1800, one of the latest Windsor designs. It's made of the same ash, but the seat is made of pine. The art shelf was Dad's design, heavily influenced (as he says) in the Williamsburg style, made of Radiata pine, the wood that is most often used in construction. It's similar to our local Monterey pine, which is hardly used at all, for some reason. Dad finished it with a dark blue milk paint, then a white paint overlay, then linseed oil to give it shine and durability.
Every single piece of furniture in every single room of our house has this kind of story. I really need to start writing down all the things Dad has told me about furniture and wood and history over the years, so that we have some sort of database of his artwork for future generations.
Are you at all interested in learning how to build furniture? Dad uses Sketch Up, free design software, to translate these designs into plans for others to use. You can contact him at his website, Killenwood. There is also a link there to his blog on Fine Woodworking, as well as information about how to take a private workshop. He also teaches locally, and he can give you his schedule if you are interested.
I'm so thankful that both Adam and Kate have spent significant time with Dad in his workshop, learning the basics that I never had the patience for as a child (I just wanted to read books all the time). Tom, too, has spent some time soaking up Dad's knowledge and skill, and hopes to more in the future. I see a real resurgence of a respect for true craftsmanship as well as an appreciation for historical skills, especially among twenty-somethings. I love this, of course. I do very much believe in progress and technology, but some things are always going to be needed to be done in an analog way. It's important for our kids to grow up knowing how to cook a meal, use a hammer, grow a tomato, mend a tear. I so admire folks who can knit a sweater, or milk cows, or make a dining room table. All these things do not have to be lost arts.