A Sanctuary of Wood
My life has been shaped by wood. My ash workbench’s roots splay outward like a water-starvedsystembut fail to penetrate beyond the flat gray barrier. My woodshop embodies equal thirdchurch, museum, and ancestral repository. Each portion compliments the others; each portion creates tension within the whole. Still, the grain in the wooden legs sweepdownward, the wood for connection to the soil.
My small, cramped shop is hardly long and wide enough to repurpose as a dog run, but I dare not extend it into my wife’s half of the garage. In the poor lighting the cold gray forms of power saws mark both flanks of my work area like sentinels. The tools cordon off an area that is neither a hobby shop nor a professional one but something else.
I began woodworking in earnest only a few years ago, and since then I have attempted projects too advanced and failed, making joints that do not fit, squares that are not square, shapes that onlysort of resemble shapes. But I have also succeeded. Partially that success derives from the meaning I place on the pieces I have completed as well as the process from sapling to a life full of growth and a repurposing in death.
I read about a new tool I don’t own—be it a new jig for my saw, or a larger and more powerful jointer—and realize how much time and energy could be saved by not sticking to hand tools. I want it. My grandfather, who taught me the basics, scoffs at my tools and tells me to slow down, one thing at a time, build the fundamentals and so forth and so on in an old and tired repetition. What he doesn’t understand is passion supersedes reason and patience as well as pure functionality. Or perhaps he knows it too well and I am naive.
Along the cobwebbed wall adjacent to the garage door lie stacks of hard and soft woods in varying states of drying and preparation. A pile of slabbed black walnut oozes a hue of melted chocolate. After it is sanded and waxed, it will radiate a deep coffee stain of ringlets and waves of reflection like a rock thrown into a pond. Bleached white maple waits to be cleaned up and stained after which it will explode with tiger stripes and quilted grain, giving the surface a three-dimensional mirror-like grain patterncalled “figure.” Cedar boards warp and crack in the varying humidity of North Idaho, eventually turning caramel-linedwith uniform vertical grain stripes creating a story in all wood. Their rings and figure are clues to a life lived and a world in flux.
Abbie, my wife, meets me in the doorway when I have been in the shop too long. I want her to understand why I do this. I want her to come in while I work and see the transformation, the love and meaning poured into each piece. Sometimes she does come in to inspect my progress, and my son toddles behind, wide-eyed, mouth open in wonder and excitement at this usually forbidden cave of dust and noise. I want her to blanket herself like I do in the wood dust that hangs in the air and smell the reclaimed fir oozing sap from old-growth Oregon forests, and Claro walnut from California, wafting its sweet, pungent, earthy rot. It suffocates me sweetly as I work, a profusion of exotic spices buoyantly suspended between two doors and a dais of ash. Each of my tools hanging on the pegboard is a reminder of another job waiting and hours spent under the cloudy haze of fluorescentlights flickering in the dust. Hours of sharpening chisels and plane irons mount in a backlog of work still to do. I want Abbie to see and to know. I want my son to see and to learn. I want others to understand and to love the dedication poured into each stroke of a hand plane and cut.
When my grandpa wanders into the shop, I often see his eyes survey the projects in progress: a cedar stool without a seat, a huge Douglas fir post and panel bookshelf the height and breadth of a Japanese plum tree blossoming outward from tapered legs, an unfinished toolbox for my two-year-old niece, an inlay set in walnut of a cutthroat trout about to take a fly in redwood and mesquite. Does he judge them? Or is he simply happy to have another member of the family work with his hands? I inherited many of his tools, and I know he looks for them on the shelves. Does he also look at my woodpile and wonder why I have so much and if I will ever use it all before it turns to dust? Perhaps he just sees a kindred spirit, someone searching for hidden meaning and purpose buried in the grain. When I inherited his tools, I also inherited an understanding of my place within the tradition of an appreciation of the wood’s journey.
My grandpa built scores of homes in his working life, ocean-going boats of bent oak and cedar, in the old Scandinavian fashion, with carefully fitted overlapping horizontal strakestacked to oak ribs like skin to the bone of some long-dead monster brought back to life. Or a recreation of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones waiting for the Lord to come and breathe new life into them. The boats excite me when he talks at length about them. “Two or three still float,” he says over his umpteenth cup of coffee around three in the afternoon—despite the fact that it is eighty outside and easily ten degrees hotter in the shop. “Last time I checked, they were in the marina at Garibaldi.”
I know Garibaldi well. It’s a small bay town on the Oregon coast. Garibaldi is nestled in a break of Douglas fir and cedar, surrounded by the coastalbay on one side and the Tillamook mountains on the other. A series of small but deep tide water rivers moat the town in. Sea-run cutthroat and steelhead make their way into larger water systems through these streams providing great fly-fishing as well as roots a chance to dig deep in silty soil keeping trees growing tall and wide year round.
There isa particular fish and chip shop on the wharf. It is rarely open,but its simple honesty makes it the best on the coast. It’s a place where the air hovers rank and vaguely pearlescent in a kind of perpetual mist of fish guts, and salt spray, and gulls scream overhead—or rest on the weather-beaten, scarred gunnels of a rowboat, or at one’s feet. The wind blows off the water and peppers the hunched-over souls with salt. On rare days when there is some sun breaking through the clouds, everyone gathers on salt-encrusted patios and strolls the main street full of glass blowers, and knickknack shops unique to the tourist economies of small coastal towns. The bay is scattered with boats, visible between the swells, most of them are crabbing. I love it there.
My father and I made special detours to Garibaldi when we used to fly-fish the coastal streams cascading out of the Tillamook mountains or took the aluminum boat crabbing at Nehalem Bay, farther north along the perpetually economically depressed coast. When I visit, I search the marina for an old wooden hull that might have been made by my grandfather. I find myself longing to find one. I think I want to find proof positive that he did indeed build boats and that it’s possible and that the usefulness of something made by hand can outlast one generation, but I think I also want to find a little more justification for my work. I’ve come to understand that justification is everything, good or bad. I want to say, See! There! That is why I make furniture. Our handiwork can last.
He built so he did not go without work. He fed the insatiable urge to work that tore at his generation. He was most certainly a workaholic, something I am not. Though I cannot say he built out of pure love for the craft, I am sure there was a deeplove for the process though it may have been masked by a burning urge to remain working and moving and not judged a lay-about and wastrel. I am a writer so already qualify as one of those if not both. I have never been worried to be a lay-about and dreamer. He seemed afraid of what would happen to mind and body if he stopped.
When I was a child, perhaps around ten or eleven, I visited my grandparent’s home in the wet and ivy-covered town of Sherwood, Oregon, just south of Portland. I don’t have many memories of the place. Most of them revolve around rain, the beach, and oak trees whose branches drape elegantly to the ground as in a low bow, lastinga lifetime. In one memory I do have, my grandfather stood in a frame of boards. He was erecting his woodshop. I watched as he almost singlehandedly lifted the wall frames and secured them to giant vertical posts on a concrete pad. He let me help. At least, he let me stand beside him leaning my slight weight into the wall until it sat level, his hands far above mine. I was then charged to stand back and make sure it was levelas if I knew what level looked like at ten. Their backyard shrank, and a monastery rose. It was something I had a hand in until my sister stepped on a rusty nail in the construction site, and we were all excommunicated. The next year, I came back, and he showed me the shop filled with tools and hoses, nail guns of all sizes hanging on pegs, and innumerable screwdrivers hanging in little metal sheaves, all splattered off-white with primer and rust. A steel and cast iron table sawdominated the center of the shop, radiating outward were pine outfeed tables, so only the periphery of the shop was accessible. To him, rebirth meant repurpose. He had no spiritual connection with the lumber he used for house frames, but I imagine that was because he never gave himself time to stop and smell cedar dust or walnut.
My shop has a single window to the backyard, and unlike my grandfather’s, everything stands outward, pushed to the border of my space. The only space I do have is in the middle. In the summer, with the side and garage door open, my son, Simon bounces around in the backyard, throwing a ball for our puppy. Abbie, her legs up on a chair, a book or glass of rose in her hand, looks at ease. In the winter, the snow piles up and partially coversthe window blocking me in, my kerosene heater next to the woodpile.
I used to wonder why my grandfather spent hours sitting in the confines of his cloister in his backyard surrounded by blackberry bushes and apple trees. He was a general contractor, mason, electrician, and boat builder in Oregon the whole of his working life. He no longer has a shop to himself, but when he comes to visit, he stands and looks wistful, visibly missing his days in his shop. But he doesn’t allow himself to disturb my woodshop. I think he wants to though, and seems to lighten and stand straighter delivering a familiar homily on what should be going on with my projects, or pointing out flaws in my work seen only by a few with practiced eyes.
Now, in his early eighties, he illuminates old techniques while rasping, and occasionally needing to sit, reluctant and grumbling, showing the pain from cancer destroying his lungs and his joints destroyed from work. He leans over my workbench with strong hands shaking, grasping for the edge, and he watches me sharpening a chisel or cleaning the long flat sole of a jointer plane. I clamp the chisel into an angled roller and grind it down alongmy Japanese water stone in quick staccato movements like a metronome set on Allegro. At times, I lift the blade to my eyes, looking for the growing mirror finish of honed steel extending the length of the blade. He smiles at my concentration. I feel bad at times because I don’t follow all of his old ways. I don’t find the angle of the chisel’s bevel by hand but by a predetermined marker on a clamp.
I wonder if there are aspects of our existence burrowed into biological memory, the roots and desires creeping forth from sometimelong before us to snag and snare. At times, when I hear a hand saw scrape through wood, I feel something close to atavistic. At times I imagine this is one of the few ways I can rejoin my predecessors. Perhaps it was experimentation encoded into our DNA as well as the evolutionary actions of hundreds of generations of humanity from the dawn of tools that draws me toward the wood. When I was given my first jackknife around age eight, I picked up a stick and began to whittle. The shavings piled up at my feet until I shaved a bit off my finger. Despite the cut, I found a stick and began shaping it and never really stopped.
Under my grandfather’s calculated movements, retracing those masters before him, hulls of ships took shape. Under my hands,tables and bookshelves come into their own. Was it something planted in my DNA from the movements of the craftsmen in the Neolithic past, the Egyptians, Britain’s Tudor craftsmen, the Arts and Crafts masters, my grandfather and others that brought him to the craft, brought me also to wood?
I took a walk through a local arboretum and began to see trees as upright boats or desks or chairs, irreverent as that may be. The grass is short and well-kept in our arboretum. We don’t pretend we’re in a forest but accept its artificiality. The array of tree and plant life in my local arboretum is staggering. There are trees from Asia and Europe, as well as the Eastern and western United States. I’ve walked this arboretum with Abbie many times over the years, and I enjoy bringing visiting friends, but I’ve rarely truly observed what was around me. The arboretum is on a softly sloping south facinghill, and as I progressed down the manicured hill toward a pair of willow-linedponds,I began to realize a real transformation had taken place in me.
For the first time, I began to look at the trees as more than organisms and parts of the scenery. I don’t mean to say I looked at them lustily, wondering what their wood would resemble quarter sawn, sanded, oiled, and waxed. Well, I did do that, but it had more of a purpose than greed. It was an understanding of my place in the life of nature. I am a scavenger. No matter how I try to trick the goal into becoming some higher transcendental longing, I only feed off the corpses of dead things.
I have friends in the business of chopping dead trees. One routinely calls when he is about to saw an old maple or elm after it dies or becomes a hazard in a park. “Come by quickly,” He says, “or we we’ll chip it, and chop up the rest for firewood.” In one instance, it was an elm. It sat in a park, and though not dead it had begun to show signs of an insect infestation compromising the roots.
An elm had never shown up in my shop before. I have never even used it but figured I would try. I borrowed my grandpa’s truck and loaded up as many six-foot sections of the main tree trunkas possible. I drove home slow and heavy laden and unloaded, tipping the trees over the edge and onto the gravel.
They are drying in my wood stack beside the house, and I hope to mill them soon. They are dead and only slightly resemble their cousins in the arboretum, but what they do resemble is a continuation of history.
Milling wood to dimension is an act that is too often left out. Against the insulation of the garage door is my bandsaw. This tool is one of the few power tools that I consider essential, mostly because I don’t want to labor for hours with a long-crosscut saw ripping boards of wood lengthwise by hand. I’m not skilled enough for that.
My grandfather worked wood by hand when he was younger. I’ve seen his hands as nearly rheumatic claws from clasping a hand saw for hours attempting to rip wood. I don’t really mill with my bandsaw but I do prepare the wood for the planer, which cleans the surface like glass. I often was caught by my grandfather hand planing planks of wood with a long, thin hand plane. He would just sit there and shake his head. That’s what power tools are for now he would seem to say. I guess that’s the difference between generations where handwork was essential instead of a novelty.
So many furniture makers I know are content with only buying the lumber from their lumber yard prefinished, but I love the surprise when I flatten the wood and the figure, the grain pattern, and the true color begin to show piecemeal. I get to know the wood. Its shell has been cracked, and the hopeless romantic in me delights in running my hand across the grain. I can almost see it as a chair or table as I feed the plane over the surface, one hand before the blade, flat, applying slight inward pressure to keep the wood securely against the fence, the other, pushing the lumber through in a slow and consistent way. I try not to be rough. Lumber, though no longer living, will react to abuse. If I move too rashly, my machines and the wood bite back.
If I look at the end grain of the wood, a central drop radiates out with twenty or thirty rings an inch. This is good. There will be less sapwood in between the rings, possibly making the future boards less susceptible to warping and cupping. More than that, the rings indicate a long and interesting life. Hot summers, brutal winters, teenagers cutting into the sapwood with knives, and climbing the young tree, breaking off weaker branches, squirrels skittering around on all seasons, an arborist on a cherry-picker with a sharpened pair of sequiturs identifying good and weak branches, my grandfather and I inspecting it and wondering what it will become. The rings are a history of the earth. The future furniture will be a continuation of that history.
It is hard to look at wood and not see symbols. For my workbench, I chose ash. I did so for its strength and the aesthetic inherent in the light wood, which acts as a reenergizing presence after my day’s real work is finished, and my infant son is asleep. I step into the shop and run my hand along the grain. Ash is not an enjoyable wood to shape. There are no vermiculations of quilted waves or liquid illusion in the wood that trick the eye to see beyond it into the heart of the natural world. There is simply interwoven strength. It is unyielding. Where other woods bend and break, ash usually retains its strength. Ash is perfect for pounding and hammering and planing. Perhaps this natural unyielding quality drew me to it. Perhaps the ability to exude such strength and rigidity even in death makes me envy the wood.
Centuries ago, my predecessors also chose ash for its capacity to absorb abuse as well as its direct connection to the spiritual world. Ash in some circles was directly associated with the world of the supernatural and gave some people an eye into creation itself. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil, the world tree, is ash, which is portrayed holding and containing this and all other worlds. Its roots yearn deep into the cosmos to the underworld, the trunk reaching to the heavens holding the boughs that connect all the worlds. Likewise, of the five legendary guardian trees of Irish lore, three are ashes. Ash is enjoyed by many professions from archers, hunters, woodworkers even gods.
The ash wood workbench sits directly in the center of my woodshop. It is the heart of my shop. Its ash boards receive all of my projects at some point. The strength of ash means it makes great tool handles, yet it also can bend without breaking and recover to its original position. If you were to look at the lengthwise cut section, peering down the grain, little dots, or tubes, show on the wood. These tubes are what provide the strength and bendability of the wood. When a tree is cut into flat sheets lengthwise down the board from top to bottom contrary to the grain, it is called flat sawing. This is the most common cutting technique and produces the least amount of waste. It’s how I cut with my chainsaw mill. When this flat sawn wood becomes furniture, the grain curls upward. The legs of my workbench are flat sawn. The wood flames up and the tongues lick the legs of the bench. The effect almost betrays an altar. The flames point to what is being made on the workbench’s surface. They seem to advocate meaning in the project, not merely support it.
For many, rebirth is personified by growing and living forests surrounded by rot, animals, and fungus feeding on the old and fallen. When I don’t mill my own lumber, I like to visit my local specialty wood store. I enter his small storage shed and wander between trunks of hewn Douglas fir, dead and dried, ready to turn into an heirloom. I sometimes find a piece that I can break down and re-forge, the tight rings shining with new purpose. I find a piece by sight and feel. I look for grain direction and wood firmness and conjecture on its future beauty. In its rough form, even the slowest, most thoughtful eye misses what sanding and oiling may bring out. The grain patterns sometimes align to the initial picture in my head, but often the result is a complete surprise, despite sheets of hand-drawnplans and blueprints.
My father is a Lutheran pastor. He has been his whole adult life. He never taught me to build with my hands because he worked with his mind. That is not to say he could not work with his hands. He helped his father build houses as a teenager. He owned the tools that adulthood required. He had chisels that were never sharpened, a circular saw, slightly rusted with age and changing humidity, an oiled miter box, ancient, a relic from my grandfather’s father, and a table saw. They sat on shelves, and the wood and metal boxes collected dust. The tools remained inanimate, rarely touched. My education came in the form of thinking and fishing in the mountains of Western Montana and Idaho. I could not do better for a classroom. Instead of moving lengths of wood, I measured hours in the sun on high mountain lakes, and I measured lengths of fly line or distance to a Mule deer buck. What this education taught me was patience and a love of woodcraft. I walked the forest and ran my hands along trees and explored dark and forlorn caverns recessed in the wood.
As a pastor and outdoorsman, my father equated rebirth not only with Christmas, the sacrament, and the Easter story of Christ but with the welcome arrival of spring in northern Montana and high mountain Idaho. But after helping grandpa erect his shop, I slowly began to see more in the rounds of pine and fir I chopped continuously to feed the relentless appetite of the wood stove at home. I looked at the altar in the sanctuary of my father’s church and under the vestments and saw the symbols carved deep in oak. The Alpha and Omega were always present spiritually and physically. They were the cycle of death and birth in a continuum that I struggle to understand in any metaphysical way but to which I find a possible clue though the continual shaving and shaping of a corporeal lump into something new and reborn. I like to think I have found a tie between the spiritual and physical world in the work my hands do in cooperation with my mind.
I find God in nature, I find God in wood and high mountain air, and through that, I find purpose and understanding. I discover that I want to surround myself in my woodcrafts, not just in my shop, but also in my home, my friend’s homes and businesses.
Perhaps my wife is correct, and I have enough wood and furniture already built. Perhaps my excitement when I achieve a mirror finish on cherry, or walnut is reaching into the purview of my childhood and its simplistic pleasures. Perhaps it’s obsessive. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
Our deep understanding of the world around us should both involve and be reshaped with an eye to the past. That is not to say that we should glorify the past in its faults and failures, and that we should not revise it to be more blameless, but that it should inform our future and the evolution of us and what we need individually and culturally to find sanctuary and rebirth. When we embark on the process of creation we need to make sure that we leave ourselves open to the natural changes in our world that will change our narrative. This essay has been in the form of evolution for five years. I have changed locations, had children, changed jobs and shifted my understanding of where I place meaning in the roots of my mind. The sanctuary of my woodshop and the act of creation out of death has evolved as well when new tools and practices come and go. These have formed a harmony between the cuts and shapes I make and the grain of the wood to make my work blend in with what is natural.
I have come to think that all of us go through this evolution. We adapt and throw out the unnecessary to leave room for that which is germane to our task at hand. In 2017 my wife and I moved out of my home state to Oregon. I moved to a larger shop where I could adapt new tools and practices to my routine allowing me to extend my skills, but the Willamette valley is not home to many places where one can wander the high mountain lakes and ancient cedar groves within minutes of our old home in Idaho. I have floundered slightly. Oak and maple surrounded by other outdoor and wood enthusiasts does not excite me as much as long forgotten cedar off any trail. The old groves certainly exist, but generations of intense logging and an incessant press of people have taken their toll visibly on the landscape.
I rarely earn a profit for my work. Often, I trade my services for goods, homemade beer, fine wine, or even restaurant gift certificates. In a way, this seems more meaningful than the unceremonious trading ofeffort and love for mere paper money. It may not be sound business practice but does make for loyal customers who allow me to experiment on their furniture.
When I see a finished piece, I find something similar to what I imagine real understanding is. I can feel the grain patterns and see years of drought and others of plenty, years of pain in occlusions and cuts deep into the ordered parallel grains. The lives of trees are not much different than those of humans, we just are better at hiding what ails us. When I see something finished I have a connection to my past and that of the whole artisan community stretching deep into prehistory. A woodshopis a sanctuary where the veil between worlds is thin, where the connection as organisms rather than a hierarchy of human verses nature, and the spiritual and physical collaborate to become one single meaning through the singing of tools through wood.
Bio: Paul Warmbier lives, teaches, and writes in McMinnville, Oregon. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Idaho where he also served as Associate Nonfiction Editor for Fugue. He writes essays based on place, trauma, and the value of craftsmanship in our new world of replaceable throwaway objects. He is a writer, high school English teacher, custom furniture maker, and co-founder of the Dauntless Wine Company winery.