More Than A Table
It was cold in February. Northeast Ohio was caught between windy snowstorms and dull gray skies. There was no better time to spend in a dusty wood shop off of that long, backcountry road.
This year will be different, I thought. I was most likely steeped in the hopeful goals January brings rather than remembering I’d had the same thought each year prior.
Already two moves under my belt in less than six months and anticipating a third, I needed something solid. I also spent too much time behind a glowing 13-inch screen and preferred more movement than typing and scrolling permitted.
My dad, whom I adore, was recovering from minor heart surgery at the time. Though not life-threatening, any type of surgery can be rattling. Heart surgery for pilots, you’ll be happy to know, is a big deal. Mass amounts of paperwork, cardiologist clearings and routine check-ins go into pre- and post-op. So dad had some time on his hands in February.
The men in my family have a special knack for building things, a skill I’ve always been secretly envious of but not enough to dedicate time to learning. Mom and I could drop them off at Home Depot for a whole day and they’d be perfectly content. It was, of course, my dad who made sure I had a toolkit when I started college, taught me how a four-stroke dirt bike engine works and constructed a faux tree fort for my brothers and me. He was the perfect person to help me tackle this resolution: to build a table.
Much of the work I do has only digital or relational results. I wanted something I could create that would last, something real, something that would have a specific purpose.
I toyed around with the idea of building a table halfheartedly for the month of December. At a family Christmas party in Pennsylvania, I asked my great uncle for some advice. He’s been building and constructing wood-crafted goods for longer than I’ve been around.
“The hardest part is the legs. A table is as easy as a making a cutting board. You’ll definitely need a planer and a jointer,” he advised.
I nodded my head with that look of an intrigued person who also has no idea what the other person is talking about but wants to feign some sort of intelligence.
“Oh, yeah, a planer. Got it,” I said, still oblivious to what that meant, while also seriously doubting it’d be easy to make a cutting board.
“What kind of table are you thinking of making?” he asked.
“Um…you know, probably just something I’ll use a lot…”
My ideas are always articulate.
Ambition in hand, I decided I’d definitely go forward. With my dad also on board, all I needed was a design, some wood, a work shop, time and expertise. Luckily, our neighbor provided all of the above.
And here I need to make a brief pause. It’s not everyday that a person so happens to have an exceptionally generous neighbor who has all the equipment you need for a major project, more than seven types of wood he’s willing to let you use and the trust that you won’t majorly destroy all that heavy, expensive machinery.
So you could say I was destined to make that table with my dad. No, not really, but more on that later.
Day one brought all the thrill of digging through materials, scrap wood, learning about how different wood retains moisture and actually seeing what a planer and jointer look like. I should have inferred that a planer is what you use to make sure each piece of wood for your surface is the same thickness. A jointer, true to its name, straightens and squares edges (so you can successfully join two pieces together). I briefly thought this could be a good real life application of geometry my high school teachers always swore would come in handy.
I learned how to eye down a plank of wood to look for warping and how to make sure parts weren’t rotted. I realized the value of a ventilation system in a wood shop after you’ve got three or four large machines kicking up tons of tiny wood shavings and sawdust. At first glance there seemed to be a million neutral colored tools, drawers and objects whose purpose I could only guess.
After the course of a week and a half I knew where the flat pencils were stored, which rag to use for the glue, where to put the extra sizes of clamps, what drill bit sizes did what, that a guider piece of wood is a good idea when using a table saw, that band-aids will probably be needed and stepping out for fresh air every now and then should happen.
I will say upfront that my dad spent significantly more time in that space than I did and retained much more about tools, process and wood treatment than I can remember.
“So, what do you want to make?” my dad asked.
Two months after the Christmas party and a little Pinterest inspiration later, I finally had an answer.
“Definitely a coffee table. Multi-use, semi-portable and can double as other types of tables if I need it to,” I confidently responded. “It also needs to fit in the trunk of my car.”
I had recently decided to move to Nashville and had to be realistic.
Not to throw too much meaning into the situation, but I wanted some type of furniture that would convey I was, in fact, capable of accomplishing something worthwhile. I also knew this project would carry some of the heart and soul of the struggle from the previous few months and wanted the table to bridge a time of difficulty and a time of upcoming hopes.
Dad and I spent the week in the wood shop. We took breaks for food, if we remembered to or got a call from my mom. The intermittent sounds of a saw, the planer and the occasional dropped wood piece spoke more than we did. It was perfect. The work was all the conversation we needed. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing progress on something you’re building.
With everything cut, our last step was the glue. Thanks to my uninformed design choice of angling all the center pieces, this posed a problem. Any normal person who lines up the pieces in a straight line really only has to use minimal clamps. Not the case here.
A brief lesson on using wood glue: it starts to dry within 30 minutes and is incredibly strong once you clamp it. So our neighbor came up with an elaborate, multi-tiered clamping strategy:
After waiting 24 hours and tentatively removing this contraption of clamps, dad and I finished the rest of the table relatively quickly.
One coat of polyurethane later and it was complete. It even fit perfectly in the trunk of my car.
I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a process as much as building that table with my dad.
The table is sitting in our living room in Nashville with some of my favorite things scattered across it.
Each time I see it, I’m reminded of the joy in process and the promise of building purpose. Sorry, but it’s just part of me to see allegory in everything.
It’s been over a year since I’ve graduated from college and I would have never predicted or even necessarily chosen what has happened in that time. But when I remember the time spent designing, building and completing that table and how it stood between two very different and tumultuous times in my life, I can’t help but think it’s more than just a table.