8: Shop Rules

21 12 2012

My father once let me try my hand at making a walnut stock and foregrip for my toy Winchester, the one that shot round corks.  I had thought for some time about asking him to do it for me.  I also wondered whether he would approve.

My mother would have done it, no questions asked.  She often did things for me at my request, as long as I didn’t demand that she drop whatever she was doing and get right to it.  She made a vest for me once that looked like one a TV cowboy would wear, using scrap leather from her parents’ farm.  They often slaughtered and butchered their own beef.  My mother was not a wood worker, though, so she wouldn’t think of attempting anything of the sort, and certainly not with a master craftsman in the household.

Her father would have done it, too, no questions asked.  Alas, Grandpa would not have used genuine walnut.  Instead, he would have taken the stockman’s knife out of his pants pocket, selected a couple of chunks of linden firewood, and commenced whittling.  Linden, also known as basswood, is an excellent choice for wood carving.  It’s light, relatively soft, easily worked, and has an even grain.  In addition, it’s weak, has low resistance to shock, and doesn’t hold up to weathering and decay unless painted or otherwise covered.

I didn’t want the stock and foregrip on my rifle to be painted or stained to look sort of like walnut.  I wanted walnut.

Grandpa would have thought that basswood would be plenty good enough. After all, my rifle was only a toy.  How long would the woodwork have to work, anyway?  I’d probably stop playing with the gun well before it fell apart.  His was not unreasonable thinking, but my father said that walnut was the best, and I wanted the best.

So, one day one summer I went into my father’s shop, checked my gun at the door, and stood waiting to gain his attention.  Soon enough, he saw me.  At a place in his work when he could take a break, he stopped, stepped over to me, and said, “Hello.  What may I do for you, sir?”  He would do that sometimes: treat me like a customer or client.

I took my hat off and held it in both hands.  “Good morning, sir.  It seems I need a new stock and foregrip for my rifle.  You see, it doesn’t shoot straight anymore.  I took it to the gunsmith to have him correct the aim, and he said the metal parts are fine.”  There was no gunsmith, of course.  I made him up.  I was pretty good at playing pretend.  “He recommended that I come to you and have the gun fitted with properly seasoned walnut.”

“Ah,” my father said.  “Yeah, Hank sends customers over my way every now and then.”  My father could play pretend, too.  “So, let’s take a look at your rifle.”

I went back to the doorway and retrieved my Winchester.  I carried it to my father and handed it to him in the way he had taught me so as to insure safety.  He had seen the toy many times, but this time he looked it over to discern whether the plastic pieces could be exchanged for wooden ones.  “Well,” he said after some many moments, “I reckon something can be done here.”

I smiled.

My father added, “I figure it’ll cost you ten dollars.”

“Ten dollars?”  My weekly allowance had only just gone from ten cents to twenty-five cents.  I frowned.

“Don’t have it, eh?”

“Nope.”

“Well now,” he continued, putting a hand to his chin and looking up at the ceiling.  “I suppose I could let you use the shop and do the work yourself.  I’ve got some spare walnut here that you could have cheap.”

Cheap?  “I don’t want cheap,” I said.  “I want good stuff.”

My father looked at me.  “I understand. Come with me, please.”

We walked to another part of the shop, to a place where he had an assortment of lumber.  He cradled my rifle in the crook of his left arm.  With his right hand, he slid from a stack a short walnut board.  He looked at it and put it in his left hand.  He pulled another walnut board and looked that one over.

We then stepped over to a bench.  My father laid the rifle carefully on top and placed the two walnut pieces parallel to it.  “What do you think?”

They looked fine.  I could easily visualize how the wood would look on my Winchester.  But my father had said, “Cheap.”  How cheap?  So I asked, “How much?”

“Four bits.”

That was all of fifty cents.  I nodded.

Next came consideration of the labor necessary.  My father had let me handle wood and work with tools for some time.  It seems I can remember my father letting me pound away on one thing or another with a rawhide mallet when I could barely walk.  I can also remember sanding away at various pieces of maple when helping to make my set of blocks.  Later came pounding nails into scrap lumber with a real claw hammer.  Then came sawing and pounding scrap lumber together to make what we used to call a ground fort.  That was like a tree house, except it wasn’t perched in a tree.  I had also made simple bird houses and bird feeders, a rack for holding keys for use in the house, and a rack for my little red wagon.

I put a hand to my chin.  After some more thought, I asked, “Okay, when can I start?”

“You may start now, if you want.”

“Sure.”  And so I went at it.

The task wasn’t all that complicated.  I had the advantage of being able to use the two plastic pieces as patterns for my woodwork.  My father gave me some scrap pine on which to practice first so as not to ruin the walnut.  The main thing was being patient and painstaking enough to get the fit and the finish just right.

My father wouldn’t let me use any of the power tools.  It wasn’t necessary.  Doing everything by hand using old-fashioned hand tools worked well, especially with my father’s on-going instruction.  In the process, I learned how to use a vise, a couple of saws, a plane, a mallet and a number of chisels, different grades of sandpaper, even an adz and a drawshave.

I also became better acquainted with the shop rules, posted on a wall where they could be seen from any place in the work area.  My father almost always worked alone.  One may wonder why he thought it necessary actually to write and display rules for himself.  But there they were. Here’s one:

Wood Is Good. Be Good with It. 

That was my father’s way of saying what my mother would often say: “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”  My father believed in craftsmanship.  Old world, new world, whatever, excellence was important.

He said to me, “Son, God created the cosmos.  At the conclusion of each project, what did He say?”

“Well, the Bible says that God spoke, and things happened.  Then it says that He saw what happened, and that what happened was good.”

He put a hand to my shoulder.  “Quite right, Kurt.  Quite right.”  He went on to say, “And God created human beings in His own image, both male and female.  Being creatures created in the image of God, we are ourselves capable — at least in potential — we are capable ourselves of being creative.  And if, as the Prophets and the Apostles teach us, we are to conform to the image of God, then whatever we create should be good, too.  God and good go together.  We as the image of God should be good, and the images we create should also be good.”

to be continued …

woodcraft 1

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