Tom Kerr writing on woodworking…
Every time I work with wood I am reminded of my good friend Lonnie.
He was the most capable woodsman I’ve ever known. He grew up in a small log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains and spent most of his life working as a surveyor for the National Park Service.
Lonnie would shoulder a backpack and hike out to high elevations in the wilderness to survey public land…making sure greedy developers weren’t moving the fence lines and stealing what belongs to you and me.
When a forest fire erupted, he’d be one of the first people on the scene, helping to organize the basecamp and securing provisions for the “smoke jumpers” who fought the fires.
If a blizzard socked everyone in, I could always count on Lonnie – a tall man with a long white beard who resembled Rip Van Winkle – to show up at my door with homemade biscuits or cornbread, and a steel thermos of coffee.
With a grin on his face he’d say “It’s a good day to be us!” and invite me to go for a long walk in the woods. He’d have on a Stetson cowboy hat and by his side was his trusty, seven-foot-long, hickory walking staff …which he measured, carved, polished, and finished by hand for a custom fit.
Whenever vacation time rolled around, he’d pack up his tent and portable kitchen and go camping at a music festival…or drive down to the ocean for a change of scenery and the smell of salt water in the air.
One time he attended a workshop on how to make an old-timey flintlock rifle. The metal parts – barrels, trigger assemblies, hammers, and sights – were made by a local blacksmith, but Lonnie had to learn how to carve and shape the rest of the long gun from a piece of raw wood and then put it all together.
He carefully sanded each curve until it was smooth as silk, then stained and finished it a rich, dark color that brought out the grain and preserved the wood. By the end of that session, Lonnie had himself an authentic-looking frontier flintlock…the kind that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett used when they were alive…not too far from the same woods where Lonnie was born and raised.
You’d think that Lonnie had won the lottery.
“I made a rifle,” he laughed, “almost from scratch! Can you believe that?”
Yeah, I could believe it. Lonnie knew wood better than I know the lines in the palm of my hand. He could observe bare trees in the dead of winter and accurately identify all of them.
Many times, he’d look at my woodpile and name off all the species of wood, just by noting the distinguishing characteristics in the cut ends of each piece. He didn’t need to see the leaf patterns or even the bark.
When a tree died, he might dig out his well-worn tool box and sit down with a piece of that old wood, fashioning it into a cutting board or bookends.
That way it would still be alive in practical ways that reminded him of the tree for years to come…
Sort of the way I found myself remembering Lonnie this morning.
You don’t have to live in a log cabin in the mountains to enjoy woodwork. Even in your own shed, in your own backyard, you can start reclaiming the skill now and have fun making things with your own two hands.
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