Why Wilma’s Heritage?
Wilma was my grandmother. I was an only child in a single parent family so I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with her. My grandmother and mother worked hard to instill in me the values of hard work, honesty, and pride in who I am. My grandmother specifically taught me to appreciate my heritage. She came from a working class family that was self-sufficient and always had an open spot at the dinner table.
My grandmother taught me a lot about the value of relationships; not to look down on others who were less fortunate than myself and not to look down on myself for being less fortunate than others. In her own way, she gave me all the skills I needed to navigate life well.
She died at an early age by today’s standards, but the lessons I learned are cherished—lessons I hope to pass on to my own boys. Over and over she would tell me the only expectation she had for me was “to be a good man.” By that she meant productive and responsible, a man who takes care of his family and earns an honest living (and who is also able to live within my means).
Woodworking has, in one way, given me an avenue to be a “good man.” It provides an outlet for learning new skills, reflecting on history, being productive, and most of all the opportunity for reflection. I tend to use my shop time to ponder what I’m teaching my children or how I’m treating my wife. Often I make gifts for other people and this gives me time to think about the relationship I have with the person. Grandma always said it was the “thought that counts” and making stuff gives you ample time to think. But above all that, woodworking keeps me centered (not to get all philosophic but woodworking can be a great outlet to meditate on life).
My interest in working with wood began at an early age. My great-grandfather, Wilma’s father (Buford), would sit on the front porch and whittle. Often he would hand his knife over and let me take a turn. I created a lot of shavings and nothing of use, but it was fun.
When I was about eight or so, my father gave me a tool chest for a birthday present. Marc Adams has one hanging in his school just like it (mine has traveled to worlds unknown).
I did all kinds of things with these tools; everything from building a fort to making derby cars.
My aunt’s husband also came from a family with a background in woodworking. We would spend time together making Christmas gifts for other people or building all the crazy stuff I would dream up. One time, as teenager in the church youth group, we (all the boys in the youth group and myself) used my uncle’s tools to turn leftover laminated countertop into hot pads for a fundraiser. They were horrible but we learned a lot.
In high school I had the opportunity to take drafting, CAD, and woodshop classes. My junior and senior years I was allowed to leave school in the middle of the day and either take classes at a community college or go to work. My uncle worked at Hall & House Lumber Co. drafting houses and secured a position for me in the mill.
When I started work at the lumber yard I worked assembling parts for exterior doors.
But there was a corner of the mill that everyone called the “Custom Shop.” It was managed by a grumpy old man named Ken Zimmerly. I was fascinated by the things this guy did. He made everything from curved door casing and custom shutters to custom doors and commercial built-ins. I practically begged to be moved to the “Custom Shop.”
I worked with Kenny off and on (I decided to go to college and would return during summers) for almost a decade. At first, it was a lot like the old-fashioned apprenticeships. I was given a lot of grunt jobs like milling rough lumber, sanding all day, or cleaning shop. But what I learned was all the basics—wood identification, wood movement, grain direction, tool maintenance, etc.
Before I was allowed to take on any significant project on my own, Kenny would make me demonstrate that I could do it on my own projects. He had me building all kinds of things. I had to design and build my own workbench, build a clamp rack (which was horrendous), and make shop cabinets all before I could do work that we sold. At the time I thought he was being a jerk but looking back he was giving me time to gain the skills before we sent stuff out the door. I probably can’t thank him enough.
I graduated from college and left the job at the mill but I still had an interest in woodworking. So I started collecting machines. Miniature versions of the stuff I used to work on. The jointer got downsized to a 6” model. The planer I now own is a 12” tinker toy. And I have a slew of routers of all sizes. The problem is that none of this stuff is very satisfying to work with. I have to move everything around my small shop all the time. It all seems under-powered. And it is horribly noisy. I’m certain that most of my disappointment is because I was spoiled with the industrial quality of the machines I learned on.
I had been a subscriber to nearly every woodworking magazine there was and Chris Schwarz kept writing these interesting articles touting the superiority of hand tools (or at least advocating their usefulness). Then he launched his own publishing company and began putting out a slew of stuff that is ancient and inspiring. I was immediately hooked.
I am not yet ready to give up on all my machines, little they may be, but I certainly am enjoying learning the new skills that come from working wood with hand tools.
There is a ton of useful free material on the internet, in both written and video form, so why write? I simply use this blog as a way to track my own progress. My grandmother always encouraged me to do my best at whatever it was I was doing. The world of hand tools and the old methods of working wood are still foreign to me. I read a lot and have a pretty decent knowledge of how things should be done but I lack experience. So I write for myself and if others can learn from my experience (as I gain it) as I have learned from the experiences of others then I’m giving a little back.