What a table taught me about life

Editors Note. The coffee table is finished and for sale.

Do you ever think back to advise you were given as a kid, and realize just how good that advice was? Be faithful in the little things is one I reflect on often, and it continues to be relevant. I get to work with several men that consistently get the details right. It is not luck or innate skill, but a commitment to checking and re-checking, measuring and calibrating. When I used to look at great wood working, I attributed the beauty to the skill of the craftsman, but I now realize there is more to it than deftness of hand. There is an intentionality, a commitment to get each step right that makes a beautiful end result.

Don’t get me wrong, skill is important, but skill comes from that commitment to detail. The magic skill fairy does not tap some on the shoulder at birth and pass over others.

All this musing is not from a thought experiment but from my recent experience building a coffee table. I anticipated 2 weeks of solid effort, gluing up the hickory planks, cutting the top and bottom to the right dimension. Then I would have to take the sides and middle divider through the same process. If everything went perfect, 2 weeks should be enough time… I thought.

It was all the little in between steps that caught me off guard. Since this coffee table was a custom piece, I had to think through each cut, each dimension, and make sure all the pieces would fit together. When I changed one measurement, it threw everything else off, and I had to redo the math.

With each step completed, a sense of pride welled up from within me. I could see the work of my hands shaping a pile of wood into form and function. As I neared completion, a detail I always pushed off till later became front and center. The legs.

My drawing showed for dowel like lines protruding from the bottom. I wanted all the wood to match, one of those craftsman details, but I did not know where to get hickory dowels. Have you heard of a lathe before? I knew they could turn square blocks into round, and make cool designs, but no clue how to use one. I was not alone in my ignorance. Our lathe was a multi-use device purchased used, and no one in the shop was well versed.

Time to roll up my selves and get to work.

My one neglected detail added on another 2 weeks of work. TWO WEEKS?!! Yep. A friend helping me around the shop glued up some block to make legs from, but after researching a bit found the grain was going the wrong direction. I had to learn how to plane down the 3 planks, make each plank thinner, so the lathe could handle that size, and would reduce the material I had to remove.

The first time we turned on the lathe…. it rumbled so loud! I had to re-center the blank so the radial symmetry from my axis dead on. Then… after 15 min, smoke began to rise from one side of the blank. The blank was too tight, and the friction was burning one side of the top/bottom of the leg.

Each small step, I quickly assessed what was happening, learned, and adapted. But that all took time. We had other projects to do, and so each road block with my legs pushed my completion date back. I will also concede to a bit of perfectionism. This table was going to be perfect, legs and all.

It is finished.

It does not look like a machine built it. There are slight imperfections. The grain of the plugs covering the screws are not all going in the same direction. My design of using many hickory planks glued together gives the top a slight undulation. Some things I might change about the design if I did it again. Others I would keep, making minor and possibly imperceptible tweaks.

I am proud of my table.

Proud of what I learned. Proud I did not compromise on my many design decisions, like the legs. I am proud to work with other men that call me to a higher level of work. Because being faithful in the little things spills over. It spills over into the book I am writing, the way I do the dishes, and the way I interact with people. The man I am is communicated through everything I do. I am a craftsman. I am a Midtown Artisan.



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