The Shop

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange loves his day job, carpentry, and knows exactly why.

(LANGE) The first thing I notice when I open my shop door in the morning is the aroma. Depending how we feel about our jobs, the aroma that greets us has a powerful effect. The smell of my shop usually gives me a lift.

The sweet smell of pine is bookcases or old-fashioned cabinets. The sour smell of hardwood means I’m into something special. There’ll be lots of sanding, stroking joints to make sure they’re glass-smooth, and standing back in admiration.

Today I’ve got fifteen drawers to do; seventy-five pieces of wood, cut to exact size, ploughed, and rabbeted; glued and screwed together perfectly square and lying flat; sanded and ready for finishing. That may sound boring, but it isn’t. In everything a carpenter does, he’s right at the limit of his ability. There are occasional slipups, even calamities. Among tradesmen, carpenters are the biggest consumers of Rolaids.

I can’t imagine any material more pleasurable to work with than wood. Unlike steel, stone, and clay, it was alive, and in ways, still is. The texture of its life determines how it’ll be used. And each piece has its own personality.

Just by picking it up you can tell a lot about how well it’ll work. It’s not a science, just a feel. Like a boat, a horse, a fly rod – or another person – you can tell whether you’re likely to make music together or fight each other.

The best wood is old-growth. From the moment of its germination it was challenged and protected by its elders. It flows past the saw blade straight and smooth as cheese. But I once camped in an old-growth forest, and I’ll never again knowingly buy lumber sawn from the remnants of any that are left.

The next-best grew in a mixed-age forest. It’s straight-grained, light for its size, and free of stress. It also benefited from the shelter of its elders. It seems almost to understand what I’m doing with it, realizes I’m doing the best I can, and reciprocates. It’s like dancing with a very good partner.

Then there’s lumber suspiciously heavy. I can sense the strains within it. Its halves either curl away from each other as they leave the saw or pinch until the blade begins to smoke. It’s going to take a lot more jointing, sanding, and forcing before it settles down to what I want it to do. And even then it’ll be fractious.

It grew up in a crowd of its peers, all the same age and competing for sunlight. The strain of that is in its grain forever.

In the early-morning darkness of the shop, I take a sniff and turn on the lights and radio. I scrape up some shavings from under the jointer and light the day’s fire.

I address my stack of lumber. “Okay, today we’re going to create fifteen drawers to go into those cabinets over there. Any comments?” If I hear any, I’ve been alone in the shop too long.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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