A Tale of Two Crafts
Writing makes woodworking look so good

Lawrence Jackson, Assistant Professor of English


 

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As a biographer, I explore an artist’s psychological motives and historical moments. Nothing has made me more aware of the significance of so-called distractions in a subject’s life than my own recent experience of shaping my second book project. After my work on the African American novelist Ralph Ellison was reviewed in the New York Times, my friends implored me to write another as soon as I could. It took a year, though, to sort through the rich field of compelling African American literary figures awaiting contemporary biographies. And when I finally settled on a subject, the work of shaping the project was temporarily eclipsed by a sudden passion for an entirely
different crafting.

The collecting of materials had begun in earnest, and I started feeling out publishers and middlemen. I knew I needed to sharpen that ignoble hooker of fish, a competent book proposal. And it was then that I discovered the joys of woodworking. Phyllis Wheatley’s searching poem imploring inspiration from the Muses and even the Mantuan Sage’s homeboys has nothing on the butcher block slab riding a sawhorse and some glue. “Hear me propitious, defend my lays,” she asked in 1773.

The muse for me begins to speak through my wife Regine’s off-hand remark about the space under the living room window. She has dimensions in her head that I will give birth to. As the proposal begins to smolder on my computer, I catch holy fire in the woodshed with mitre-box saw.

A console table, my lifeblood now, would stand twenty-seven inches high and nestle underneath the window. Its special feature would be a tray slung way under the belly, only five inches or so off the ground. I would stain jet mahogany whatever wood I got from one of the local home repair supermarkets. I want a rich look.

The idea of it gets underneath of my skin, and no telephone, email, or dream of biographer’s Orion can interrupt me. I drive to the local denizen of wayward husbands with a hazy vision, a misplaced scrap of paper with the measurements, and a credit card. Because poplar is so pretty, so smooth and dense, colored and without blemish, I decide that I will have a plank tabletop, not a single solid piece of wood on the piece. Shoppers bustle past, partially assemble their own projects, or move the tanker-like gurneys down the aisle while I figure out how to secure the tabletop to the legs. At checkout they’re as gracious as car salesmen. Although the bill is nearly double what I’d estimated,
I don’t hesitate. I do, however, seriously consider purchasing a table saw and an electric planer.

The next morning I glance at the computer with its attendant worries. I ignore its mewling for additional drafts and rounds on
the telephone and email brown-nosing support. With my fatigues on and a punch for my hammer, I’m confident the press of my dreams is sending a long, inviting letter, volunteering to clear permissions for me and bringing in the high-powered editor who’ll help me write those stylish sentences
out of A.J. Liebling with the thoroughness of Richard Ellmann.

Once I cross the threshold into the garage, my mind is at ease. Now the sawing begins in earnest. Once I have the boards sized, I apply liquid nails to bind them like a solid sheet. It’s a struggle
for more than an hour to level the pieces, keep the edge a true line, and scrape off the permanent adhesive as it seeps through the gaps.
When I’ve assembled the entire piece, a quantity of wood filler and shims patches up the joints. And I am at work on an ode to my forbears from South Hill, Virginia, who worked with their hands. I start thinking maybe I should write a biography of slave joiners and cabinetmakers.

Finally I add the trim to the piece, the last step, before sanding it down. My greatest single investment is in an elite brand of gel-stain from the hardware store. The one thing I don’t learn there is that I shouldn’t use an aerosol finish in the high humidity of Atlanta. When I finally varnish the table, it looks as if it has been coated with a mist of fine sand. In hopes of salvaging furniture and pride, I start polishing. We have Pine Wax, Pledge, oil soap, and a special secret spray, all lemon scented. After working myself into a lather, I am rewarded with an unctuous but temporary gleam.

But I can’t stop beaming after my sweaty accomplishment is dry. I sit on the back step, stare contentedly, and touch it. When I come home, I check on it, like I am waiting for the new baby to make its first step. It’s not fine woodworking; just nails and screws and glue and filler. But no one can deny the life now filling the space that before had been empty. That I could conceive of it, plan it, and turn out a passable version in a few days—that there was no faxing, copying, emailing, and months of waiting. An 8 1/2 by 11 package didn’t fly thousands of miles and still need somebody’s approval to get into long pants. It is. I’m thinking I could have been a surgeon, or at least a mechanic. Plus, my wife tells me I am reconnecting with my working-class roots.

Four months later the hardware store expert sells me another
ten-dollar bottle of spray to remove the humidity from the first sandy finish. I can hear the jibes; I am a bit incredulous myself. I admit that the table actually took longer to finish than the proposal. But sometimes one craft makes a space where another can take shape.