Art and Craft

Sweat the Big Stuff

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to write and submit stories for the True Tales of Woodworking Contest held by Lost Art Press to celebrate the publication of their new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life, and hearty thanks to Megan Fitzpatrick for doing the heavy lifting to make the contest happen. Congratulations to the winner, Bruce Chaffin! Here’s another of our top picks. 

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, Do Sweat The Big Stuff, by Chris Becksvoort

Making Things Work blogs 7

The cupola railing and finial on the Skolfield-Whittier house in Brunswick ME.  I built the railing and turned the finial in 1985.  Time has taken its toll, and the whole now needs serious restoration or replacement.  Not by me.

I had four years of wood shop in high school, worked summers for my father during that time and then worked almost a decade in a custom furniture shop in Maine.  I thought I knew all about woodworking.  Not quite. For two and a half years I worked at an architectural millwork shop in Portland, ME.  

As I mentioned in Shaker Inspiration: Five Decades of Fine Craftsmanship (Lost Art Press, 2018), this was where my first task was to build 64 custom oak doors, 50 of which were different sizes and configurations.  I was faced with a stack of blueprints and a pile of 2,000 board feet of roughsawn 8/4 oak.  The logistics were challenging, to say the least.  That was only the beginning of my introduction to non-furniture woodworking.   

Over the course of the next two and a half years, I experienced the art of grinding knives for miles of custom moldings, was taught how to make speed tenons on the table saw, got to make half-oval windows with over 40 curved lights, spiral stair rails, sunburst transoms, store fixtures, custom turnings, etc.  We did things on the shaper that were dangerous and too fierce to mention.  Many of the jobs consisted of restoration work for southern Maine’s older homes, estates and mansions. 

One of my most boring and also harrowing jobs was work on the Skolfield-Whittier house in Brunswick, ME.  It is an Italianate brick house, built by a wealthy ship captain, now home of the Pejepscot Historical Society.  The two story structure has an eight-sided, windowed cupola on the roof.  The top of the cupola has a railing with 88 identical lyre-shaped white pine cutouts and 16  mirror-image filigree corner accents.   I spent three days on the drill press and scroll saw.  Boring. 

At the center of the cupola roof sits a finial, barely visible from the street below.  As I recall, it was almost 72” high and about 24” in diameter.  We glued it up out of 8/4 mahogany and marine epoxy.  The shop had an old, seldom-used lathe, with cast iron legs and an 8’ bed.  To accommodate the finial, we had to build up both the headstock and tailstock.  We also added another sheave to the motor to further slow the turning.  Even so, the glued-up blank had to be hand turned to get it started. 

I’m allergic to mahogany and had on a full complement of dust mask, goggles and ear muffs.  It was mid-summer and the shop was not air conditioned.  Even with the big cast iron lathe, the whole machine still vibrated like crazy.  Really scary.  After just a few minutes I started sweating up a storm.  Took off my shirt. It didn’t help.  Shed more clothes until I was standing there  in my skivvies like a semi-nude Darth Vader.   David Stenstrom, my boss,  suggested that I put on a johnny [Editor’s note, especially for Brits: in this case, an open-backed hospital gown], just in case a customer were to come into the shop.  Even so, I was soaked down to my sneakers.    

David threatened to take a picture of me, with my mostly bare backside showing through the open johnny.  I was fully concentrating on the work, and to this day,  I’m not sure whether or not he took a photo.  I asked him about it last time I visited.  He’s still looking.Chris Becksvoort