Shaker Oval Boxes

My completed Shaker oval boxes.
My completed Shaker oval boxes.

Aside from building a tiny plywood boat in 2012, most of my woodworking projects don’t feature curves. They’re all straight lines and right angles to make my life easier. This year, however, that changed when I attended a class on the making of Shaker-style oval boxes with the expert on the subject, John Wilson.

John’s shop is in Charlotte, Michigan, four hours from Columbus if you drive the most direct route. Since the first session of the class started at 5:00 PM on a Friday, I took most of the day to meander along scenic two-lane highways through some of the small towns and countryside of northwest Ohio. I passed through Marysville, Bellfontaine (Ohio’s highest point), Ada, Kalida, Defiance, Bryan, and a host of small towns I can’t remember. After continuing into Indiana and turning north at Angola’s lovely town square, I arrived at John Wilson’s workshop right on time.

My classmates and I spent the first evening exploring the history and techniques of Shaker oval boxes; preparing the wood; and heating, bending, and assembling the sides for five different sizes of boxes. It was a long night for me: five hours of driving followed by five hours in the shop (and after all that, I didn’t even sleep well at my hotel).

On the second day, we completed assembly of our boxes by cutting, sanding, and installing top and bottom boards. I finished in the early afternoon and, before hitting the road, bought supplies so I could make more of these boxes in my own shop.

John’s parting words to the class were: “Whatever you do, finish these boxes.” Five months later, I did just that with Old Fashioned Milk Paint and three coats of spray lacquer and I couldn’t be more pleased with the finished product. I suffer from a common problem among woodworkers: incomplete projects however, had I known how beautiful these boxes would be, I would’ve prioritized them.

If you ever have the opportunity to take a class with John Wilson, I highly recommend it. If you like the boxes but can’t make them, check out the Shaker Workshops’ offerings.

House-Building Inspiration

When I was in high school, I used to read over house plan magazines that my dad brought home and spend winter evenings drawing my “ideal” house plan on grid paper. One of my favorite books to use as a reference was Your Dream Home: How to Build It for Less Than $3500, the best-selling non-fiction book of 1950. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be in a position to build my own house but I’m still interested in the process.

For several months, I’ve been following a YouTuber called “Mr. Chickadee” who is building a timber-frame house and separate workshop in the woods all by hand. His videos are amazing. He never talks but he doesn’t need to: his presentation and editing convey all you need to know. I would highly recommend him.

Another inspirational video I came across recently on YouTube is “The Birth of a Wooden House” published by John Neeman Tools. The house is built by Jacob, a carpenter in Latvia, mostly with hand tools from resources nearby. His skill level and attention to detail are astounding. So is the videography: the documentary is 24 minutes long and my intention was to skip around, but when I started watching, I became riveted.

Death of a Sycamore Tree

For a very long time a giant American sycamore tree lived just south of Hopkins Hall at the heart of the Ohio State University campus. The National Arborist Association certified the tree as having been alive at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787; a bronze plaque installed near the tree’s base reminded passersby of the designation. Today, the long life of the so-called “Constitution Tree” ended.

Sycamore leaf.

Having stood for more than a quarter of a millennium, this sycamore was a true witness tree. It was surely home to countless generations of squirrels, birds, and insects through its long life and well loved by humans, too. When Native Americans walked the banks of the Olentangy River (Keenhongsheconsepung as they called it), gathering flint, the tree must have been just another sycamore among an expansive forest of hardwoods. The tree stood silently as hundreds of slaves slipped by its outstretched branches following a nearby Underground Railroad path to freedom. Its bright green leaves might have felt the heat from the flames that consumed the nineteenth-century Armory building, a few hundred feet to the east, on a June day in 1958. Ohio State’s Constitution Tree lived with the students of every class since the first graduated in 1878.

Earlier this summer, the tree lost a massive limb in a storm, an event that must have spurred a closer look at its health. It bore evidence of earlier substantial pruning and, to my untrained eye, did not look like a very healthy tree. Undoubtedly, the concrete sidewalks surrounding the sycamore on all sides and extending almost to the drip line accelerated the tree’s demise. That said, whoever is in charge of caring for the trees at Ohio State University has a very big job and does it well. I am sure the decision to remove the Constitution Tree was not taken lightly.

Donald Culross Peattie, the most prolific nature writer of the twentieth century, wrote of the American sycamore in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. “By the beautiful bright smooth bark, the sycamore is known as far off as the color can be descried; it shines through the tops of the forest even in the depth of summer when the leafy crowns are heaviest. In winter, against a stormy sky, it looks wonderfully living amidst all the appearances of lifelessness in other deciduous trees.” Indeed, Platanus occidentalis is a constant companion of the forest here.

I am grateful that I was able to know this tree for a small part of its life, for the shade it gave me at lunchtime on a few hot days, and for giving me food for thought every time I passed it. That something so large and of such old age can be felled by three men in a matter of hours leaves me in a contemplative mood. Members of the Ohio State University class of 2020 will descend upon campus a few short weeks from now and almost none of them will know that a majestic sycamore tree once reigned over a small corner of their new home. But other trees abound here and I know that somewhere another sycamore sapling pushes its roots into the earth and stretches toward the sun.

My thanks to the anonymous arborist from Russell Tree Experts who allowed me to interrupt his work, answered my questions, and indulged my request for an offcut that was destined for the chipper.