Two years in 900 words or less, or I’m still feeling guilty this took so long, Mr. Sheffield

About a decade ago, I walked into my English professor’s office for advising and couldn’t take my eyes off of his homemade writing slope. He was talking credits and prerequisites; I was thinking this guy didn’t know a tenon from a tang. A couple of quarters later, I felt comfortable enough to comment on his glue-and-screw slope made from AC plywood.

“I made it in high school shop class,” he said. I didn’t ask what grade he earned on his project.

I didn’t want to offend him, but the words spewed out of my mouth before my mind engaged. “I can make you one a lot nicer than that.”

As a woodworker, the comment came easily; I knew I could throw something together in a few days, but I hadn’t taken into consideration that I’d recently moved, and all of my serious woodworking tools were in storage. All I had available were carpentry tools, and building a shop was on my do-later list.

Armed with a small battery-powered skill saw, a chisel and a block plane, I tromped down to the basement and pressed the ironing board into service as a temporary workbench. I cut the main panel for the slope out of some nice bird’s-eye plywood I had in storage and sat on the basement floor astride a board for a few hours, hand planing cocobolo strips for the edging. I focused on making something quick and easy, not something that required planing, edge jointing and joinery.

Then came the windstorm. The building I’d planned on converting into a shop almost blew over, so that project moved onto my do-now list. Between building the shop, full-time college classes and two part-time jobs, the professor’s project sat in the darkness of the basement, on the ironing board, waiting its turn. I often heard his voice echoing down the collegiate hallways with, “I’m still waiting for that desk!”

Almost a year and a half later, I graduated and became employed by the same college. The Voice continued to chide me, teasingly. He wasn’t going to let me off the hook.

Finally, with a shop and all of my tools available, the slope desk completion topped my project list. I decided to take a little extra time and make the professor’s desk especially nice by adding his signature in mother of pearl and abalone. Another week, tops. What I hadn’t planned on was a death-bed request from a dear friend: would I please repair and refinish a walnut table made for her by a past paramour, something she could leave to her daughter as an heirloom.

The two simple slope pieces sat on my workbench as I tackled work on the newly delivered table, a task I expected would take a couple of weeks to complete. As I began to deconstruct the table, I noted that part of the top contained tension wood, and the tips of the cathedral-grain rays had separated from the rest of the boards and were poking up through the finish. Also, to my dismay, I saw the top was twisted and unlevel. A quick peak at the underside revealed the problem. The maker of the table had employed the logic of a person unfamiliar with the concept of wood movement. The entire apron and every support brace were lag bolted securely to the top without slots to accommodate for seasonal movement. I flipped the table over and started to unscrew the bolts, but just as the third bolt released its grip, the table top exploded. Shards of wood from the apron and wooden supports flew across the shop. All of that tension had to go somewhere.

A couple of months later, the daughter of my departed friend picked up her heirloom, and I was able to begin work, again, on the slope desk.

With the signature inlay completed, the bête noir of woodworking confronted me: the finish. The Danish oil I wiped on wasn’t pretty enough, and the brushed polyurethane left bubbles. Spray lacquer spewed and sputtered out of the can, and the gods of the French polish had not yet deigned to bestow their grace upon me. I was sanding off the second or third finish when I felt a soft spot under the veneer. Poke, poke. That shouldn’t be there. A tap with my fingernail elicited a hollow sound reminiscent of a ripe watermelon. A video clip played in my head – as the teacher graded papers on his new slope, the tip of his pen disappeared through a student’s paper and punched a hole into the veneer. Cutting back to the edges of the hollow spot revealed a football-shaped void under the veneer. I contacted the English professor and told him the project would take even longer to complete.

A luthier once gave me great advice for patching unexpected inconsistencies in a wood surface: “Slap some mother of pearl on it and charge an extra hundred dollars.” That worked – at least the pearl part of the solution. This desk was a gift. I created a scroll and quill inlay to fill the void, and it looked like it had been part of the plan all along. I never felt satisfied with the wipe-on poly finish I finally resorted to, but the professor won’t let me take the desk back now that I have mastered French polishing. Methinks he’s afraid another two years will pass before he sees it again, and that might very well be the case.

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2 Responses to Two years in 900 words or less, or I’m still feeling guilty this took so long, Mr. Sheffield

  1. Donna Menke says:

    Beautiful, as all of your work is. You have the patience of . . . I cannot think of a good analogy. You have more patience than anyone.

  2. I always feel like I’m trying to remember how I accomplished some piece of work in a previous life.

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