‘Tis the Season to Make

This Thanksgiving was the first in several years that my wife and I have not hosted. My mother-in-law decided her hips hurt too badly to climb our front steps, so we made ours a moveable feast. For the past three years or so, my daughter has been an able and eager sous chef, to the point where my only real responsibility is to roast the turkey and keep us organized. She even made a delicious pie crust for the pumpkin pie. Katie and I made many of the dishes the night before, leaving only the turkey, stuffing, and Katie’s mashed potatoes to cook at Grandma’s house.

While I rely heavily on Cook’s Illustrated for recipes, I do have a few family recipes that come out this time of year: my great-grandmother’s pumpkin pie, my grandmother’s egg noodles. We aim for a large turkey so that we have plenty of leftovers for turkey noodle soup over the weekend.

We have one more tradition for Thanksgiving weekend: we head up to the small town of Weston, Missouri on Black Friday. It started several years ago when Bonny began working retail. Of course she had to work, so the kids and I would have an adventure with my mom. These days, Bonny joins in the fun. We enjoy the unique shops, and measure the health of the local economy by the number of empty storefronts. This year looked promising, with several new and flourishing small businesses.

Father Christmas is a fixture in Downtown Weston, and we were pleased to catch him out and about this year.

Bonny and I both grew up in small business families. Her mother sold rare books for many years; my mother owned a salon, and continues to work as a hairstylist (she has a knack for fixing bad hair color experiments). I’m excited to see Bonny’s work as a fiber artist take off, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the new year brings for her.

I did manage to spend some time in my own studio this weekend, making good progress on my dining room table and catching up on some much-needed jigs: a circular saw guide for cutting down plywood accurately, and a miter shooting board (which will work nicely with the Bedrock No. 605 that Bonny bought me in Weston last year).

Testing my Bedrock No. 605 with the miter shooting board.

My circular saw can get jiggy with it now.

Bonny got in the act in 2013.

Here is the 2012 installment.

A Century in the Making

This evening’s dinner-time conversation started with my wife asking me a seemingly innocuous question. “Did you get a run in today?” A reasonable question; I took my gym bag with me this morning with the hope that I might get some time on the treadmill this afternoon.

“No, not today,” I answered, thinking she’d respond with sympathy. Yesterday’s workout completely changed the course of my day, leaving me relaxed and engaged, so she’s pretty supportive of my running habit.

“Good. You can walk the dog tonight” was her answer. It’d been one of those days.

Dinner eaten, dishes washed, Jack is reaching the limit of his self-control, so out the door we went for our typical half-mile trek through our neighborhood.

Just past the half-way point, I notice the mass-produced dresser that some renter left on the corner as they moved out. It’s been sitting there for over a week, the particle board soaking in the rain, the once-trendy drawer fronts with their integral drawer pulls routed into the faces now looking dated and crude.

Our neighborhood isn’t all rental houses, but we’ve lost a lot of ground in the battle for home ownership, just like the rest of America.

I don’t know very many of my neighbors – not nearly as many as I should having lived here for fifteen years – but the neighbors I know are good people: talented and hard-working.

Down the road a few blocks is Mark, who replaced our privacy fence about eight years ago. Mark didn’t just tack up a bunch of dimensional lumber straight off the truck; his work is furniture-grade. Tonight as I walk past his house, I wave to Mark as Jack barks at his three dogs.

Right behind us is Matt, the general contractor I wouldn’t hesitate to call on if we had a project I couldn’t handle on my own. Bonny and I went to high school with Matt; he has a wicked sense of humor, a fierce loyalty to friends, and a commitment to quality.

Next door to us is Mike, the tree trimmer who deftly removed the damaged and diseased elm from our back yard last fall. His crew was fast and efficient, and they left a clean job site. I didn’t get any good-neighbor discount (nor did I ask for one), just a competitive bid and a handshake. With the tree gone, we could get a start on our current project, a flagstone patio.

There’s also Leo across the street. If I remember correctly, he owns a skid steer loader, and I’d love to get to know him better, maybe sit down with a few beers and find out what makes him tick.

If I were to guess, there’s something about this hundred-year-old neighborhood that drew all of us: the chance to be a part of something that lasts, something that survives; to be stewards of these modest homes; to leave our marks.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we’ll leave these homes in better shape than we found them.

One Good Yarn Deserves Another

Taking cues from Peter Follansbee and Pete Galbert, I thought I’d share what my wife is up to.

I haven’t written much about Bonny here (as an eloquent writer and a keen-eyed editor, she is quite capable of telling her own story), but over the past year, she has taken up crochet and knitting with a passion and integrity that I admire as a fellow craftsperson. I’m in awe of the skill and creative vision she’s developed in such a short time.

Knitted and felted purse

Knitted and felted purse

I also find her work remarkable as a symbol of the transformation we’ve made together with our two kids, from a family of consumers to a family of makers.

Crocheted scarf in wool and acrylic

Crocheted scarf in wool and acrylic

Just over eighteen months ago, Bonny was running herself ragged as a retail manager, working late and thankless nights and rarely seeing her family. We spent her income freely, but had little of meaning to show for it. The spring of 2012 changed our lives profoundly, though. We lost my stepfather to heart disease in early March. Then in late April, just seven weeks later, we lost her father to cancer. By mid-May, we had reordered our lives so that she could leave her job and have a family life again.

Knitted baby hood in acrylic

Knitted baby hood in acrylic

Bonny’s story embodies what I’ve been aiming for with this blog: creative work as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy. Needless to say, I am a huge fan.

You can find Bonny’s ready-made work for sale on Etsy. She is also quite happy to take custom orders through her Facebook page (although her dance card might be full until after the holidays). You can find her on Twitter as well.

Letter to a Young Woodworker


It’s a common refrain among novice woodworkers that there is a lot of contradictory advice out there. Hand tools vs. machinery. Oil stones vs. water stones vs. Scary Sharp. Japanese vs. Western saws, chisels, planes, etc. Roubo or not Roubo (that is the question). Local vs. exotic woods. Professionals vs. amateurs.

The potential for polarization can be off-putting, and I’ve spoken to novices over the years who find our tribalism intimidating. (That tribalism is often compounded by the limits of our ability to communicate over the Internet.)

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. The craft of woodworking is complex and diverse, full of ways to grow and learn. It’s a life-long pursuit, and few paths are patently wrong. As individuals we make choices that further us on our paths. Each of us must make our own choices, but we need not see each other’s choices as repudiation of our own. (The converse is also true: we need not seek each others choices as endorsement of our own.)

While there are few patently wrong ways to get started, there are some pitfalls and some false starts that well-intentioned woodworkers can guide you past. Here is what I would say as one of those well-intentioned woodworkers:

Find some friendly people who are excited about their craft. Maybe it’s your local woodworker’s guild. Maybe it’s a buddy from work. Maybe it’s a family member. Learn what you can before investing too much in your own tools.

Don’t spend your money on cheap tools. After an exciting start in my dad’s shop, I tried to fill my own shop with the first tools I could afford, and struggling with them was worse than not having them. If you don’t have a generous family member, that’s reason enough to join your local guild. The Kansas City Woodworkers’ Guild has a variety of excellent, well-maintained tools, both machines and hand tools, and plenty of members who are excited to share what they know.

Don’t worry about not knowing something. This craft takes a lifetime to learn, and there are many ways to achieve excellent results. Be open to coaching. A good coach will help you learn quickly. A good coach is not necessarily a master of the craft. The best coaches are observant, analytical, communicative, and able to adjust their demeanor to match your temperament. Most of all, they are generous with their time and experience.

Choose projects that fit (and advance) your skill level. Projects that are too easy lack challenge and leave you bored. Projects that are too difficult lead to anxiety. Moderately challenging projects grow your skill and leave you feeling excited.