“Now,” said John, “we will put the work away for today.”
“Why, I am not tired,” said Benny.
“Neither am I,” said John; “but uncle Edward said, that, if we meant to make a good job of it, we must always leave off our work before we began to get tired.”
This was excellent advice; for the work of this kind that boys do after they begin to get tired is almost always badly done.
— “John Gay; Or, Work for Boys: Work for Summer,” by Jacob Abbot (1864)
This week I’m deep into building a small table for Popular Woodworking Magazine that is from the forthcoming book “Furniture in the Southern Style.” Definitely pre-order this book if you have an extra $20 lying about. This will be a landmark title. Seriously.
I first encountered this table while visiting the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts last February. The table is thought to be an early 18th-century (1710-1725) example from Charleston, S.C. I fell for the table the minute I saw it.
It has a lot of early touches, such as the stretchers at the floor and the way the top is attached to the base-pegs. But the table also has a lightness, grace and loads of detail.
It also is made from cypress.
Here in Kentucky, I can get cypress if I look around a bit. And wanting to be authentic, I found some 8/4 and 4/4 cypress for the table this summer and set it aside.
Now I’ve worked with cypress before, but I’ve never turned the stuff. I expected to be a little splintery, but nothing too bad. So when I made up the four legs for the table I roughed out two extras – just in case things went to heck on the lathe.
As it turns out, cypress is murder on the lathe. While turning the long vase shape on the legs, my skew grabbed a section of earlywood, ripped it off the the leg and threw it across the shop. I shrugged my shoulders and chucked up another leg on the lathe.
This time I ripped the bead off the leg with a spindle gouge.
At this point I thought about giving up for the day, but I’ve also been reading the “John Gay” series of books (thanks Jeff Burks!) and the lessons in these books have been sticking deep in my craw.
The “John Gay; Or, Work for Boys” books are four separate titles, one for each season of the year. In the books, John and his brother, Benny, have lots of little adventures. And almost all of them are about building something, usually out of wood.
Every chapter has a lesson for a young boy about life, it could be about the importance of contracts, how to ask advice of your elders, or how to saw – a good deal of the books are about woodworking.
But the over-arching lessons in the books are about patience and planning your work. Every time John sets out on a project, most of the advice he gets is on time-management. He is told to set small, manageable goals for every day in the shop. And when he meets his goal he should stop work, even if he really wants to continue.
I’ve felt these lessons seep into my own work on this table. I’m not on a crushing deadline (for once), and so I am allowing my pace to be governed every day by small goals. Break down the stock. Surface the stock. Cut everything to size. Turn two test legs. Turn all four legs.
It’s a different way to work. Usually, I try to get as much done in four hours of shop time as possible. I finished these four legs at 4 p.m. and still had an hour before I needed to start cooking dinner. I put the legs aside, came upstairs and read another few chapters of “John Gay.”
The John Gay books are available in Google Books, though I prefer the printed editions.
— Christopher Schwarz
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