Mallets are the driving force behind chisels, the workhorses of hand-tool woodworking. For a couple of years I’ve owned a cheap wooden mallet that was mass produced in some far-flung country and, although it worked fine, it had no character. This weekend I made a mallet that’s imbued with meaning and should last for the rest of my life. The head is made from American white oak—the king of the forest—leftover from my boatbuilding project in 2012. The handle is made from pecan sapwood that came from a tree that grew at my best friend’s rural, childhood home. Through the years, my friend and I have spent untold hours there hanging out and having loads of fun; it’s one of my favorite places to be. Just after Christmas in 2013, my carpenter grandpa helped me mill one of the pecan logs in his workshop and I’ve had the wood drying for a year and a half, waiting for a special project like this mallet. The handle is held in place by wedges of walnut that I got in Virginia when I lived there.
The finished tool has a sturdy solidness and weight in my hand, physically and symbolically. When I hold this mallet and use it in my woodworking, I’ll be holding a tool whose parts are tied to people and places that mean so much to me. I’ll think of my friend and her family and the memories we’ve made and I’ll think, too, of my grandpa, who’s fighting cancer. A tool as simple as a mallet can be used not only to strike chisels, but also to strike a chord of memory.
I recently moved back to the Midwest after living for five and a half years in the Washington, D.C., area. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and reminiscing and my mind sometimes returns to Gravelly Point, one of the capital’s lesser-known attractions. From Gravelly Point I could see many of the things I loved about the city: the Washington Monument, the distant, gleaming white Capitol dome with the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building nearby, and the stately Potomac River speckled with sailboats. Gravelly Point was a place to which I enjoyed taking visitors and a place where I sometimes went just to be outside and have some time for reflection. It also happens to be one of the best plane-spotting locations in the United States.
I’ve always been a transportation enthusiast with an interest in ships and boats, trains, and planes. The first time I flew was on a hot summer day when my parents and I went to the “Fly-In/Drive-In Pancake Breakfast” at the Macomb Municipal Airport near where I grew up in Illinois. Demonstration flights were on offer and, though it’s hard to believe, my mom agreed to go up in a small plane. A few years later, we flew to New York and I still have photos I took through the window on my first jet flight as we climbed steeply over the railroad yards near O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Thanks to my grandparents, I was able to take a short flying class in Lawrenceville, Illinois, when I was 14, the culmination of which was fifteen minutes at the controls of a Cessna. In the summer of 2012, I had the privilege of going up with a friend of a friend, a former Air Force pilot and instructor, for a short flight over Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve never had a desire to get a pilot’s license, preferring rather to leave that to the professionals, but I’ve had a long fascination with flight and enjoy flying and learning about it. David Lodge summed up the feeling in his novel Small World:
To some people, there is no noise on earth as exciting as the sound of three or four big fan-jet engines rising in pitch, as the plane they are sitting in swivels at the end of the runway and, straining against its brakes, prepares for takeoff. The very danger in the situation is inseparable from the exhilaration it yields. You are strapped into your seat now, there is no way back, you have delivered yourself into the power of modern technology. You might as well lie back and enjoy it.
Gravelly Point is a place where you can experience that thrill Lodge describes from outside the airplane from a vantage that’s just about as close as the general public can get. Most tourists and travelers only see Gravelly Point as they land and depart from Washington National Airport (DCA) but it’s easy to get to on foot or by car and a few times I even jogged there from the Arlington Cemetery Metro stop. Gravelly Point is maintained by the National Park Service and sits at the north end of the airport’s runway 1/19, under the direct flight path of approaching and departing aircraft. The plane-spotting is prime when the wind is from the south. With that wind direction planes approach over the Potomac River to the north, bank right to line up with the runway over Gravelly Point, and fly low over the park before leveling off and touching down. A few seconds after the planes pass overhead, you can often hear the wind vortices swirling above.
Like those vortices, many fond memories of Gravelly Point have been swirling in my head. Shortly after meeting my partner, Emily, I took her there despite the cold, uncomfortable wind that day. I’ve taken family members there who were in town visiting and it makes me happy to remember the wonder and amazement the place stirred in them. And twice in the summer of 2014, when Emily had to take long trips for work, I spent time in contemplation at the park after dropping her off at the airport. Gravelly Point was a refuge for me in the city and gave me access to many things I love: water, boats and planes, green grass, and the limitless sky above.
When I was a kid, most of my favorite television shows were on PBS. They weren’t the ones most kids liked though; they were The Woodwright’s Shop, The New Yankee Workshop, and This Old House. These shows weren’t my only exposure to the wood crafts: one of my grandfathers was a carpenter, the other was skilled at building machines of his own invention out of wood, and my dad did most of the remodeling of our house himself during my elementary school years. I watched and helped them build. Because of this exposure I always had access to tools and loved building things out of wood (and Legos) but I was frequently frustrated by my less than perfect results. The things I built didn’t look like the things Roy Underhill and Norm Abram built on the PBS shows!
My passion for building went on hiatus when I was in college but I managed to build a CD shelf and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in my apartment after graduate school (it may still be in place because the only way to remove its 8′ × 8′ mass would be to cut it apart). After moving to the east coast, I embraced another lifelong love of mine: sailing. I read dozens of books and websites to learn about building wooden boats but I never had the space to start building one, although I did manage to build an 8-foot paddle boat using a friend’s driveway for cutting and my studio apartment for epoxy work. While that boat floated, it was unstable and rarely got used however, I learned some valuable boatbuilding lessons from the exercise.
When Emily and I moved to a larger apartment together in Virginia, she gave me the go-ahead to build a liquor cabinet in the living room. I dusted off my big-box store hand tools and actually produced an interesting and functional piece of furniture. I knew nothing about mortise and tenon joinery at the time so the door is held together with very rough glued half-lap joints cut with a Japanese-style pull saw and the shelves are screwed in. I am proud of the woven dowel rod door though!
A year after finishing the liquor cabinet, I enrolled in an adult education woodworking class offered through our county public school system. The class was heavily focused on machine woodworking and I learned a lot about how quickly machines can destroy your projects and injure you. Most of my previous woodworking experiences involved hand tools and handheld power tools. In the class I managed to build two wooden toy airplanes for Emily’s twin nephews and a decent dovetailed box from rough-sawn walnut lumber. I started reading books and searching for information on the Internet where I discovered the great rivalry between the hand tool camp (represented by Roy Underhill) and the power tool camp (represent by Norm Abram). My tendency toward quiet and my lack of space steered me toward the hand tool camp. I started watching episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop again after all those years, now via the web. By a stroke of luck, I discovered The Woodwright’s School, Roy Underhill’s very own woodworking school, and I was determined to attend with high hopes of improving my technique by learning from a master. It was a strange feeling being able to send an email to Roy himself asking to be placed on the school’s mailing list.
After a month’s wait, the long-anticipated email finally came: registration was open! Within five minutes of receiving the message, I signed up for the dovetail and mortise and tenon workshop for January 10, 2015; when I finished registering, there were only two spaces left out of ten. Emily booked us into the Rosemary House Bed and Breakfast in Pittsboro, North Carolina, just a block away from the school, and we drove down the night before class. I was bubbling over with excitement.
The Woodwright’s School occupies an old storefront in downtown Pittsboro. Each student works at an individual bench outfitted with tools and coffee is always on. The day is packed with information and Roy’s stream of jokes. I was surprised by how many people walking by stopped to look in through the large plate glass windows; one couple even came in. After a full morning of cutting dovetails, the class adjourned to S&T’s Soda Shoppe next door for lunch. The soda shop was worth the trip alone; the vanilla coke was hand mixed and they gave me a Kennedy half dollar as part of my change: almost as good as time travel. After lunch, there was plenty of time to visit the tool shop above the school and choose some fine old tools. A few of us burned off some lunch calories by helping Roy rip an 8-inch diameter apple log with a frame saw. We continued with half-blind dovetails and moved on to mortise and tenon joints and I discovered that I’m in need of a lot more practice on those. Five-thirty came too fast and it was hard to believe I had the great opportunity of spending a day learning basic joinery from Roy Underhill. Now … practice, practice, practice.