Chris Schwarz's Blog

My Adventures With Metafiction

I’m just about ready to assemble a drawer, so my daughter Katy lays down her saw and heads to the pickle bucket below the drill press. She dumps the cool water down the drain outside the shop door and refills the bucket with hot.

She drops the liquid hide glue bottle into the bucket then comes over to the bench, where I’m paring out the last little bit of the floor of my half-blind dovetails. I’m using a fishtail chisel, which she’s never seen before, so Katy asks if she can give it a try. I show her how I hold the tool to wiggle it into the acute corners, then I put the tool in her hands.

After a couple shavings we knock the drawer side into the dovetail sockets. It fits fine, so Katy shakes the glue bottle and fetches the deadblow mallet. I hold the drawer front and Katy paints the sockets with hide glue using an artist’s paintbrush I’ve owned since college.

I show her how I drive the joint together with a block of wood by spreading out the blows all along the joint line. Two taps. Move the mallet. After the first joint is home, Katy takes over gluing and assembly. We put the assembled drawer on the table saw and check it for square. We press the corners of the assembly against the rip fence until the box is square.

Then Katy goes back to the small bench I’ve rigged up for her and lines up the two handplanes on the end of the bench. She asks when she can start cleaning up the shop.

It’s at that moment that I realize I’m living in a book. It feels a bit like the time I visited Graceland and descended the stairwell to Elvis’s basement. Both walls are completely mirrored and the thousand reflections of your every move are both familiar and disorienting.

A New Book Project
Since January, I’ve been working on my next book project during nights and weekends. Joel Moskowitz (of Tools for Working Wood) and I are expanding a curious book that was first published in 1839. It is one of a series of short hardbacks written to introduce young people to the basic knowledge needed for a trade, such as baking, coopering, printing or joinery.

What’s amazing about this particular little book is that it is an engaging work of fiction that tells the tale of young Thomas, a lad who is apprenticed to a joiner’s shop in a rural English town. Thomas begins his apprenticeship by sweeping the shop, managing the hide glue pots and observing the journeymen.

Then, thanks to a plot twist, Thomas is tasked to build a rough box for a customer who is leaving on a journey that same day. The book follows Thomas every step of the way, from stock selection through construction and finally to delivery, when Thomas brings along an envelope of cut nails for the customer so he can secure the lid shut before his trip.

Thomas goes on to build a schoolbox (which will be in the Autumn 2009 issue of Woodworking Magazine) and finally a large chest of drawers, all the while picking up different joinery skills and the right attitude to become a competent and trusted journeyman.

It’s an idyllic tale, and likely a bit sugar-coated compared to the reality of an apprentice’s life in early 19th-century England. But that detail aside, the book is extraordinary. Not only is it fun to read, but if you build the three projects shown in its pages, you will get an excellent course in working wood with hand tools.

And so with Katy’s help, I have been constructing these three projects by following the instructions in the book. And though I haven’t told Katy much about the story, she is naturally falling into the role of young Thomas.

She has been working alongside me through most of the chest of drawers. When I don’t need her help, she’s off doing her own thing , trying out the different saws, messing with the planes and asking me questions. Such as this one she asked on father’s day:

“Dad, when I grow up, do you think I’ll be a woodworker?”

Well Katy, I think you already are.

- Christopher Schwarz

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10 thoughts on “My Adventures With Metafiction

  1. Jane May

    This same little Katy is my youngest granddaughter. I am very proud of her woodworking skills, her artistic and culinary abilities and many others talents. She has learned a lot with her Dad (my wonderful son-in-law) as coach and cheerleader. She is already a wonderful little person; imagine what a terrific grwon-up she will be.
    Love,
    Momo

  2. Tom

    My "Katy" is named Amy, and she’s a little older (34). Amy and I started working on small projects when she was young, and she has kept her hands-on attitude. She’s now a successful physician with a family, but she does have time to work an occasional project with me. Our current project is a dining table made of red oak. The legs and lower frame are done, and we need to get going on the top and leaves. Amy’s son Ben (4) now has a little tool tote that she built with hand tools. Ben and I recently built one of the "My First Project" kits from Woodcraft.

  3. R Francis

    Metafiction is thus an elastic term which cover a wide range of fictions. There are those novels at one end of the spectrum which take fictionality as a theme to be explored . .. whose formal self-consciousness is limited. At the center of this spectrum are those texts that manifest the symptoms of formal and ontological insecurity but allow their deconstructions to be finally recontextualized or ‘naturalized’ and given a total interpretation . . .Finally, at the furthest extreme that, in rejecting realism more thoroughly, posit the world as a fabrication of competing semiotic systems which never correspond to material conditions.

    Um, where do you fit in?

  4. John Scull

    The Katy I have is a Becky. When Becky was Katy’s age she came with me to work.The simple facts were that I needed help. She was slim and fair, the weather was hot, August in Texas. We were on the east side of a house building a deck. I would lift and Becky would push the posts into line. She was sweating and her face was red, but she never quite and she never backed away from the job. I have never seen a kid work as hard. I have never seen a kid so determined. I have never seen a kid I was more proud of. I have never met a kid that deserved her lunch out more than Becky did. Today Becky is nearly 30 and has a little one of her own. Becky has painted every room in her house and is getting a set of step ladders and a miterbox saw for Christmas. Each time I visit with Becky, I remind her of my very best day.

  5. Ed Furlong

    Chris:

    Thanks for the wonderful story and bringing back a flood of memories. My favorite picture of my now 22-year old daughter is from when she was 5 or 6, standing on an upside down on the ubiquitous pickle bucket wearing a shop apron and running the drill press. Then as they get older you get the chance to tell them that they have surpassed you in a skill, in my case, my sixteen year old son became a much better turner than me.

    In all these experiences you not only hand down woodworking skills, you give them the chance to understand that the material world is one they can use, repair, and create from. Even if, Heaven forfend, they drift away from working wood, they will carry the mental skills, perceptions, and ways of seeing the world that will make them stronger better, more useful people and citizens. You are a good Dad–Keep up the good work!

    Ed in Evergreen, CO

  6. Al Navas

    Chris,

    I am convinced Katie is very lucky, and you too! A terrific tale about an apprentice girl growing as a woodworker, and her caring Dad… I look forward to reading the book!

  7. Ethan

    That is a great story, Chris. And what a blessing to have such a relationship with your daughter! Your parental skills are just as inspirational as your woodworking skills.

    (And the value of my Chris-and-Katy-Schwarz-signed 1st Edition hardbound copy of Workbenches rises…)

    (Not that I’d ever sell it.)

  8. tom fidgen

    Chris,
    This sounds like a gem…nice find and nice project!
    I’ll look forward to it and then in a couple of more years getting my two little ‘apprentices’ into the wood shop. I have a three and four year old so I think it a safe bet to give it a few more years.
    Cheers!
    Tom

  9. Dan Pope

    What an incredible story for Father’s Day! The gift of time from dad is what every son or daughter needs. How wonderful that she wants to share your love for wood as well.
    Dan

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