The Wood Butcher
Memoir of a woodworker who aims too high and teeters always on the brink of failure
There is a class of woodworkers who read Fine Woodworking with all the yearning of the village idiot hopelessly in love with the village beauty, who fondle those photographs of unbelievable masterpieces with longing despair. These are the wood butchers. The wood butcher embarks on projects that are too advanced for his abilities. He aims too high and teeters always on the brink of failure—when he is not already wallowing in disaster. He is not of the home-improvement breed, those who saw weathervanes in the shape of camels and build lawn furniture from packing crates. His projects are Hepplewhite chairs and Goddard block fronts. He is like the high-school art student who copies the Mona Lisa.
The wood butcher always chooses the most difficult way to go, disdaining the obvious shortcut. If he needs to take two inches off a plank, he will plane with long, soul-satisfying strokes, glorying in the aromatic shavings that litter his workshop floor. He won’t saw the piece in one pass through his tablesaw.
More Wood Butchery
Listen to tales from another abuser of lumber, Saul Isler.
|Episode 1: Pen-pal James Krenov|
|Episode 2: A reunion with Krenov|
|Episode 3: How to make a wall cabinet|
|Episode 4: The world’s worst woodworker|
|Episode 5: The inspiration for a rolling cart|
|Episode 6: Buying a 5-tools-in-one machine|
|Episode 7: Making a little project|
He reveres sharp tools. He has a collection of stones and special oils and gadgets to put the precise angle on plane irons. But he hates to sharpen tools. So he won’t lend them, knowing, by looking into his own heart, that the borrower will dull them utterly—if he returns them at all. He is an insatiable tool collector, always hoping to find one that will cut cleanly forever without sharpening. He buys tools that he may use once, or not at all, and they litter his too-small workshop.
The most distinctive characteristic of the wood butcher is his cursing. When he saws a piece one inch short and it won’t fit, he sincerely invokes the gods with a full and heartfelt desire for lightning to melt the ruler, vaporize the saw, and singe the arm that ruined a beautiful piece of wood. Then he splices and patches to make the offending piece do. A wood butcher’s work, once finished, has unexpected joints and unexplained pieces of wood inlaid in odd places.
Patching is an art in itself, not often discussed at the more expert levels of woodworking. If you ask the expert what he intends to do about a flaw, he will respond, coolly, “Sand it out.” But there’s no way, when making a fluted column, to sand out the flute that winds into the next slot because the fitting wasn’t properly clamped down before the errant flute was run. So the column becomes an exercise in patching, with carefully cut blocks squeezed into carefully cut grooves. What about a rabbet on the wrong side of the board? Saw off a sizable hunk of wood, make a lap joint, glue on a new piece, and start over on the rabbet, or else throw away those dovetails cut with fearful expenditure of time at the other end.
Just about anything can be patched. The expert says, disdainfully, “Dumb amateurs. Ought to start over and make a new piece.” Easy for you to say. The wood butcher knows that if he starts over he’ll make a different error on the new piece—and have to patch that.
But to make up for it all, there’s the moment when the project is going together and it looks so good the wood butcher just can’t believe his own two clumsy hands could possibly have turned out such beauty. He drags casual visitors into his shop, where they stare dumbfounded at raw wood and comment, innocently, “I see you took all the finish off.” His voice trembling, the wood butcher replies, “I made it, the whole thing.”
The wood butcher is thankful that few people know where to look for evidence of his failures and can see only the sanded wood, the chair or chest of drawers with a shiny lacquer finish that most think could come only from a furniture store. They are amazed, as when seeing a monkey painting a picture—not so much that the picture is beautiful but that the monkey can paint at all.
The wood butcher delights in seeing thin shavings peel evenly from his workpiece and in the crisp sharpness of a carving in good stock. Of course, the grain is usually crazy and there’s a knot in the panel right where it hurts the most and there’s cursing. But the wood butcher remembers only the beautifully grained stuff that works true and smells wonderful.
After all the tribulations, the pieces that were off a fraction, the saw that slipped so the corners aren’t quite square, the unexpected splits, the gouges in the surface that was to have been so lovely, the wood butcher remembers the tenon joints he tapped in oh-so-gently with his mallet, the sanded surface that felt so smooth, like the finest fabric, and the curves that flow just right. Everybody has to see the completed work and they are expected—maybe forced—to marvel and to compliment, in strained voices, this miracle of the cabinetmaker’s art.
Cary Hall, of Hampton, Ga., said he took up woodworking in 1953 because golf only made his ulcer worse.
Editor’s note: Fine Woodworking originally ran this satirical piece in 1977, FWW #6, and then again for the 30th annversary issue in 2005. We’re republishing it yet again on the Web, on April Fools day, a fitting time to celebrate a wood butcher!
The reprinting in FWW #180 drew countless angry letters to the editor. See one of them below and the editor’s reply.
Bloody angry over wood butchery
Does Cary H. Hall’s little piece from 1977, “The Wood Butcher” (reprinted in FWW #180, p. 122) really ring true today?
To be charitable, the article may have been a conscious, cathartic, self-directed product of someone who was chronically plagued by the malady described. Only someone with intimate experience in wood butchery could so accurately describe it.
The reader cannot know whether Hall wanted to be taken seriously. Did Hall know? Perhaps it was tongue-in-cheek, meant only to aggravate the reader. Or were these the murmurings of Hall’s mean-spirited, misanthropic alter ego?
Hall’s motives remain unclear. If he was serious, his pretentious, elitist arrogance is almost beyond belief. The act of publishing this piece of effete snobbery suggests the publishers of Fine Woodworking support Hall’s ridicule of the weekend woodworker who may—will—after all, make an occasional mistake. We are not all born experts but learn through our mistakes.
— D.W. Tarman, Claremont, Calif.
Editor’s reply: We’re still getting mail on this article, so let me say once and for all that the Hall piece was written tongue-in-cheek, one obsessed woodworker to another, a friendly poke in the ribs. If you’re wondering, as far as woodworking skills go, we’re a mixed bunch here at the magazine. Some of us are beginners; others are quite accomplished. We sometimes laugh about our mistakes; other times we feel like crying or throwing something across the shop. But we are not so mean-spirited as to suggest that anyone who does goof up should be ridiculed. We don’t have much tolerance for snobbery. It only gives you ulcers.