A Woodshop in the Woods

The shop they built has a roof that swoops down around a strip of plastic skylight and then shoots forward like a pouty lip. The outside is painted black, surprisingly elegant, rustic and profound like classic chalkboards. The New York spring greenery lends life to the dark walls, proving that black is inherently neutral, enhancing whatever mood surrounds it.

After years of running drills in cubbyhole sized berths, or setting up shop in cramped, mosquito seiged Caribbean shacks, they have finally built a shop worthy of their work. Space enough to build a mast, or improvise a steambox to bend ribs for a boat, and electricity enough to run the right tools for the job.

The table saw has no guards, just the jigs my father makes. He fires it up spontaneously to rip a piece of wood or a small strip for a simple fix. A job I would do in twice the time using a skill saw. But he works adeptly, pushing the wood through with whichever stick is laying around, or his hand. I am scared to use the table saw.  
Mostly he has done alright, with only the occasionally nicked tendon. Six years old, I stood eye level with the hospital bed and gasped when he gasped as they injected novacane into his sliced pinkie. Mom decided I was too young to watch at that point, and took me out of the room. I am scared to use the table saw.

Each tool seems to have an unusual history. The vacuum he’s had for 10 years, which runs off the 12-volt cigarette lighter on the boat. The monster machines, battered by their life in the tropics and their migration to the states, so that they must all be started by cranking the motor, or jerking the belt, or even the blade.  The drill bits in heavy metal cases retain the quality of their era. Wood handled chisels, some nicked and dull for scraping epoxy, some sharpened and maintained for fine details, their wooden butts splintered and splayed by the mallet’s blows. Even the tools that seem unremarkable have a story, because my father is a man of unconventional intention. A small, dainty drill, bought new from “Garbage Freight” (Harbor Freight), but chosen above others for the fact that it comes with an extra battery and runs on 8 volts. “The damn thing works great!” he states as he drills out over the side of the boat, through metal and composite wood and fiberglass.

The back room of the shop is separated by a glass door. This is Dana’s room, for her painting and finishing. Neater perhaps, more organized, dustless. A variety of natural dies and minerals for clay paints stacked on dusted metal shelves, a makeshift darkroom in a small tent, maybe a wood furniture project of her own chunky, farmhouse design, whatever new craft she is getting into. But all vacuumed and insulated from my father’s clouds of dust and drips of glue. In work and love there must be separation.

The floor is a single pad of concrete, rough and stained with paints and spots of epoxy dried into little lumps. Piles of sawdust leak from the base of the table saw and planer, to be swept and collected, the perfect cover material for the shitbucket. A wood stove in the corner sits surrounded by piles of wood scraps to burn; oak, walnut, and mahagony chunks that I secretly hoard as I clean, saving for future undetermined projects. I have only ever worked with pine lumber salvaged from construction site dumpsters. Quality wood seems like gold to me.

Equally entrancing is the collection of trinkets littered from the work benches which line the walls. Springs from some sputtering old tool, and tendrils of metal shavings cast from the drill press. Cotter pins, nuts, bolts, and the occasional brass fitting from a boat. To my father these are commonplace. To me I don’t even know what they are or where you might buy them. They are treasures.

I watch him work, mesmerized, for hours, learning is tricks, constantly amazed by the ease with which he cuts a groove in a board, or grinds a piece of metal to fit a machine I thought was trash, or chisels a lid to nest in a box. The skills of the trade.

I watch him from the house sometimes, through one of the shop’s big windows, as he paces around the work benches, choosing from his stash of lumber, his rack of clamps, his sashes of chisels. I can hear his mood in the sound of the power tools. Loud, high-pitched if he’s angry, slow and precise when he’s relaxed, focused, enjoying creating. Ups and downs, love and hate, this is his craft, his element. And this is his shop.


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