How Little I know About Carpentry
The other day as I woke from a refreshing noon-time nap, I realized that my eyes were focused on a tall, second growth Douglas fir in my neighbor’s yard. Lumber from this tree has supplied most of the material I have worked with all of my life. Given the chance, it can grow well over 300 ft. tall, more than 10 ft. in diameter, and has a long, branch free trunk.
I had a friend, Clyde, who worked here on the Oregon coast in the mills for nearly 40 years. He told me that old growth logs used to enter the mills that were 40 ft. long with maybe a 2 or 3 in. taper from end to end! I know that some Douglas fir trees can live for more than 1000 years. I know that after they clear cut these precious giants, they burn the slash and denude the hills, allowing dirt to fill the streams and wipe out the gravel beds used by salmon to spawn. Someone say amen to plentiful west coast salmon.
I know that lumber from this tree is structurally strong and a pleasure to work with. Yesterday I ran some old growth baseboard in my small shop. This beautiful, straight grain trim had 22 growth rings per inch. You can’t buy such trim today. The plantation wood we get today often has as few as 3 growth rings per inch. This I know.
But what else do I know about this tree that has supplied lumber to me for some 63 years? Well, not much! What do I know about its cones, its interior chemistry, its cellular structure, bark, sap layer, how it grows and regenerates, and on and on? Well, not much!
What I don’t know
Maybe I should have stopped there. My mind then drifted into how little I actually knew about anything—even carpentry that I have worked at for decades. The fact that I came to this is not an exercise in “eating humble pie” or feeling sorry for myself. I have always considered myself to be a life-long-learner who has a lot more to learn. Rather than this being a downer, lack of knowledge can be rather exciting. I see it as a jab in the butt that keeps me reading, observing, studying, and trying new things.
Besides that, not being a know-it-all has saved me lots of energy. I recall a good carpenter that worked with us. His name was Frank. And, like his name, he was frank about the fact that if you needed information about anything, he was the go-to guy. He would spend his lunch time and before and after work defending his know-it-all knowledge with guys that thought he was “full of crap.” Having a fixed mind and needing to prove you are right takes time and effort.
Further thoughts, then, made me realize that I had much more to learn about carpentry. I thought back to a Fine Homebuilding article about how to build a double-helix stairway. I did know what a double-helix stair was. I had visited an old church in Santa Fe, NM with an example of this type of stairway that was built in the late 1800s. But how to build such a beautiful structure was way beyond the knowledge of this old production framer.
What I do know
Yes, I can build houses. I am a framer who worked as a door hanger and trim carpenter for several years. But the trim work I was doing was not the amazing work you see someone like Gary Katz, and many others, doing. They can carve volutes and build custom cabinets with incredible joinery. I have never built most of the amazing coffered ceilings I have seen. I have spent little time building high-end houses. So the list of what I do not know about carpentry is literally endless!
So what do I know? I think that the most basic, secure knowledge that I have from my years working as a carpenter is that I know how to work with my hands, use tools, cut and shape products, and I can figure out how to build something I have never built before. And I know where to go when I need help with a construction project.
Not bad for a country boy who was born in an isolated, treeless, rural area in W. Nebr. where we lived in an old house without electricity, running water, telephone, or inside toilets. People did have Model-T cars. They also used the Sears catalog for toilet paper.
So I find no need to despair. I am grateful that I have knowledge about production framing that I can share by writing books and articles for those who want to learn this part of carpentry. And, if the need arises, I reckon I could build a double helix-stairway with information and help from many of you reading this Blog.
What do you think?