The poet Rilke once wrote, (and I paraphrase), that God pens a letter to us before we are born and if we’re lucky in life, and live honorably and righteously, someday we can read it, this sealed letter inside of us from God. I have no idea if that’s true, not really believing much in God to begin with, but if there is a letter inside me, written by God, that’s pretty damn cool. Like the prize inside of a box of Cracker Jacks, only not shitty. I take Rilke’s “Letter from God” to mean my own creative force, the conduit through me that my imagination flows and makes it tangible, and that when I exercise it correctly, I get to see some of what God means to tell me. I decided to make a little butcher block table to sit in my kitchen with my creative expression and it came out sweet as all hell. “Thanks, God.” I should probably say. More like “Thanks, Miles.” Because really, God didn’t do shit with power tools or sand that fucker by hand for hours. I did.
It started some five or six years ago when my girlfriend's dad had some material left over from his kitchen remodel. He'd gotten this cutting board surface for his countertop. Cheap Swedish wood cutting board stuff, but it looked cool as shit, however unfinished and raw. I saw a piece sitting there leftover and looked into its tiny wooden soul, all full of potential and possibility and saw myself. I was like, "Hey, you going to use that? Maybe I'll make something with it." I fancied myself a bit of a craftsman having taken a whole year of woodshop as a freshman in high school, some 20 years ago. "You can have it." he said. "Knock yourself out." And so I did.
I took the slab of wood home and held it up next to the stove about countertop height and marveled at it. Well, I looked at it at least, squinting the way I imagined Michelangelo did in front of the marble, figuring with the right kind of eyes and expression on my face I could imagine what I should make with it. Logically, I would use the cutting board for the top of the thing, and fashion some sort of frame with a shelf under it, perhaps, and some legs, I supposed, to hold it up, but what would they look like? What kind of wood should I use? What was the process? I didn't know where to start. I'd heard about this woodshop place in Santa Clara near where I lived that you could go in and use all their tools (for a small fee) to make your own projects. You can find all sorts of useless nonsense to spend money on. This was another one of those. I like to think of profligacy as a hobby of mine, along with woodworking, of course. So I signed up for a beginner joinery class to get my feet wet and went to the exotic wood supply to get some wood for the body of this creature I was about to breathe life into.
Among the racks of burled walnut and multicolored planks stacked from floor to ceiling, strange lumber from hither and yon, I was attracted immediately to the orange wood I remembered from that high school class of my formative woodworking years, called "vermillion", (or African Padauk). It had a warmth I liked immediately and since it wasn't at all cheap I figured the immediate investment of a couple hundred dollars for wood might help carry me through to finishing the damn thing. I held the alien lumber in my hands. It felt like the future. Raw marble, from whence beauty would be shaped. I decided to make a dovetail frame to set the cutting board on and came up with rough dimensions for the legs and shelf, figuring the height needed to be about whatever level a regular countertop is. The joinery class got me that far.
I made a small box out of wood with dovetail-joined corners. The legs would attach to the inside of this and the board would attach to the top of it and that’s essentially all you need for a table. Four legs and a top. Then things got complicated. I had grandiose ideas to accent the legs with walnut inlays. Really spruce the fucker up, add some contrast, you see. So I routered quarter-inch grooves in two sides of each leg. The brown of the walnut would look amazing against the brightness of the orange as I saw it in my mind. Except my routering technique wasn’t as clean as I would’ve liked it. The wood wobbled and meandered as I ran it over the router table and the channels came out uneven. I was fucked, I knew then, because each piece where the walnut was supposed to fit snugly into was a little different and I wasn’t adept enough with my inlaying skills to make each piece fit perfectly. There would be gaps.
This process had already taken weeks, I should mention, many trips to the woodshop place and back. Much head-scratching, copious amounts of eye-squinting and plenty of soul searching, (but very little soul finding). Then the project sat in a box for a few more weeks in the living room. Little dismembered table-legs-to-be thrown together with a disjointed, dovetailed frame and cutting board. Then weeks became a month and the box migrated to the garage and sat some more. I grew a beard and took up an interest in watching hockey, or should I say, I merged my interest in drinking Irish whiskey with my interest in watching hockey and developed a pleasant little drinking problem. The Sharks make the playoffs just about every year and so come late March I really had an active schedule not building the table I had set out to see if I could express God’s letter to me through. Instead I accumulated some lovely dirtbag friends to watch hockey with at the dive bar downtown. Professional drinkers, they were, taking the drinking arts to higher and higher levels, Bukowskian perhaps, but without all the decorum or grandeur you might expect. We’d rant and rave and drink heavily when the Sharks lost, and then cheer and rejoice and drink even more heavily when the Sharks won. It was quite a system.
|The Stanger, a loveable dirtbag.|
Yet the table haunted me. I would see it among the boxes in the garage when I went to look for a fishing pole or some sleeping bags and think “I should really finish that.” It was one of those things like the Great American Novel some men deign to write but find every reason not to. Invariably I'd close the garage and forget about it. Then I broke up with my girlfriend who I lived with at the time. And I moved out and took the box with the table parts with me, among my other things, and moved it into a small apartment with my brother in Oakland. There it sat some more. I drifted through life, worked a boring job, watched hockey now and then. And drank.
I don’t want to infuse an exaggerated sense of importance in this table, but it became a metaphor for my whole life. I wasn’t finishing shit. I lost my ambitions. I used to want to be a famous writer, travel the world and meet important people and write about them but I had ceased to take myself seriously. The table was a tangible reminder of this. Eventually, my girlfriend and I reconciled and I moved back in. I went to counseling and learned about myself. The table called to me. “This is the thing you should be doing!” It said. I still spent time with the hockey and the dirtbags, but I was getting tired of it. Eventually I figured out the drinking was the one thing that had to go and without putting too little emphasis on this part I just quit. I cut off that part of my life and moved past it. I didn't go to meetings or check into some fucking rehab in the desert, I just hardened my resolve not to let myself be lame all the time. I made drinking an activity I didn't have time for. Hockey remained, but no whiskey and no watching it down at the Cinebar. I made room in the garage and took the money I used to spend on booze and bought used tools like a table saw and a belt sander from Craigslist. I resolved to finish what I had started years earlier.
I looked again at the uneven grooves for the walnut inlays and ran them through the table saw to widen them as best I could to make them straight, and though they were still uneven, and there were gaps, I resolved that I could live with it, if just to finish the damn thing and be done with it. I glued the inlays in and sanded them down. I attached the legs to the dovetailed frame and then I noticed the original cutting board material had come apart, delaminated from the moisture in the garage and from sitting around for so long. It was Entropy: as time increases so does disorder.
I went back to the exotic wood store and bought some expensive maple to make a new cutting board out of. I glued two-inch strips of maple together and made a brand new one. It came out awesome and shined like a new bat at the ballpark on a sunny day. I made a shelf out of the leftover walnut and vermillion I had lying around and sanded everything to a fine smoothness. I installed leveling feet to the ends of the legs to prevent wobbling and mounted hardware into the bottom of the cutting board so I could remove it from the table frame and wash it when necessary. I bought special bolts with knobs so I could take the board off by hand.
I rubbed mineral oil in the cutting surface and Tung Oil into the legs and frame and shelf. When the finish was dry I set it in the sunlight on my driveway watched the sun glint sweetly off it. The wood radiated an intangible beauty like a bluesman's guitar in the middle of a howling solo break. It took all of six years from start to finish and many trips to the wood store for material and expensive special hardware plus countless hours of sanding with my own two hands but I think if God does exist, his letter to me says something like “That’s a hell of a table, Miles. You done good.”