Mary Alice Hostetter
The Way of Wood
It all started with the floor loom. My friend Robin said her mother was downsizing and wanted to sell hers. I had taken a basic weaving class at the local art center the year before, and the place mats I had made for Christmas gifts on a very simple table loom—only a step up from a Playskool toy—had impressed the recipients. For some reason I don’t now understand, I thought a floor loom was a good idea. I imagined myself after a stressful day sitting at the loom, rhythmically tossing the shuttle back and forth, perhaps some soothing music playing in the background. It would be so relaxing.
I went to look at the torn-down loom in Ms. Harper’s garage. The pieces were tied up in bundles, and it might just as well have been a pile of lumber. Ms. Harper said she hadn’t had it together in thirty years but was sure it was all there. I could undo the bundles and check if I wanted, she said. She thought one hundred dollars was fair. I wasn’t sure about either the loom or the price, but I paid her and loaded it into the truck.
“Bring it back if you have any trouble,” she said.
Once home, I undid the ropes and, with considerable trial and error, fit the pieces together. There hadn’t been nearly so many pieces on the table loom. The assembled loom took up more space in a small house than I imagined it would, but I convinced myself that the handmade loom was really a piece of art and imagined how it would look with a colorful weaving in process. When I was trying to fit in some of the smaller pieces, I noticed that one of them was broken, but it seemed such a small repair. I was sure I could find someone to fix it. It was no reason to return it.
A friend dropped by and saw my loom. It was hard to miss, dominating the end of the dining room. I showed him the broken piece. “That would be so easy to make,” he said. “You could do that.”
“Except that I don’t have any tools and don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Oh, that.” He laughed. “Why don’t you take an evening class at the tech school? They have all the tools you need there.”
The loom was sitting there in its needing-to-be-repaired state the following week when the adult evening class catalog arrived in the mail. I checked, and there was a basic woodworking class. I put it aside. I would think about it. I needed to let the idea of me in a woodworking class bounce around in my head for a while.
I received my primary and secondary education in the fifties and sixties before Title IX mandated gender equity in education and school athletics. In that time the curriculum was set: girls took home economics, and boys took shop. In PE, when boys played basketball, they were permitted to run the length of the court; girls’ rules stopped players at the center line, and each player was permitted only three dribbles.
In the sewing unit of home ec., I made an apron I would never wear, the mandatory first sewing project, and then the green shorts. They were my first shorts, and I thought they would provide me something to wear in PE, since the girls in my family were not permitted to wear shorts. My green shorts were longer than the ones sold in the school store, and, although my mother wasn’t happy about them, she did allow me to buy the fabric I needed and the Simplicity pattern. She would not, however, let me buy a new zipper, since she had some she had torn out of my brothers’ worn-out pants. I never could get the recycled zipper to work, so I had to use safety pins to fasten the shorts. With my shirttail out in PE, I hoped no one noticed.
In high school, the shop was a totally unknown and mysterious space to me. On the way to the chorus room, I could see through the window, and there was usually a group of guys, the “shop boys” we called them, hanging out with Mr. Brenner, the teacher. They would be leaning against big power tools, straddling sawhorses. Only occasionally did I see anyone cutting a piece of wood on one of the roaring saws. Now and then I would see someone loading a picnic table or a cedar chest. The shop always felt like an exclusive boys’ club. They were learning to work with brawny, dangerous power tools, while the girls were trusted with irons, sewing machines, stoves, and ovens.
But all of that changed when someone discovered that there was no chromosomal predisposition determining how many times you could dribble a basketball, work with a saw rather than a needle, a mixer rather than a drill. After Title IX nothing was ever quite the same. But old habits die hard, and, even though I was in my forties, I had never had occasion to learn my way around a workshop.
The evening class catalog lay there on my desk for a few weeks, waiting for my decision, until one day I filled out the registration page and sent in my check, just before the deadline. After I sent it, I had moments of hoping I would be notified that the class was filled, but I received no such news. I was committed.
With some anxiety I entered the shop the evening of my first class, not knowing what to expect. There was a cluster of older men standing around one of the tables chatting, looking like they could be Mr. Brenner’s “shop boys,” all grown up, with less hair. There was a twenty-something looking guy, a sullen teenager, and one older woman. At first I couldn’t tell who was the teacher. Then one of the men in the group chatting picked up a clipboard and came toward me.
“You must be Ms. Hostetter,” he said. I could see when he pointed to his list that he was missing half of his right index finger and the tip of the next one.
“I’m Bob McDaniel. Everyone calls me Mac. You done any work with wood before?”
“No,” I said. “I thought this was Basic Woodworking.”
“Well, it is, but some of these people’ve been taking it for years.” He pointed toward the group of older men and then at the gray-haired woman who had invited me to share her worktable. “Like Margaret here. Margaret, how many times is this for you?”
“I’d have to think about it,” she said, “but I’d say at least two years, maybe three.”
“So it’s fine, no matter how much experience you have.”
“Believe me. I don’t know anything,” I said.
Mr. Mac had already walked away. He stood in the middle of the room and said loudly enough that he could be heard over the ventilation system, “For those of you who are new, or if you need a review, I’d like you to come into the classroom. I’ve set up the safety film for you to watch before you start in with any of the equipment. The rest of you can work on whatever you’ve got going. If you need me, you know where to find me.”
I moved toward the classroom. Only one other person, the teenager named Tony, was in there to watch the safety film.
“I’m Mary Alice,” I said. “You new to woodworking too?”
“No. Been taking it for a couple years. I’m in the day class, but they kicked me out. Said I was disruptive. Only way I can graduate is if I come to the evening class the rest of the year. They were going to expel me but said they’d give me one more chance.”
“So you’ve probably seen this film before?”
“Yeah, but anything to get me out of the shop. Hate that dirt and noise.”
The man in the film was explaining the importance of the safety devices on all of the power tools. So many kinds of saws, so many kinds of shields and feathers and clamps and fences, the names started to blend into each other.
“That’s some pretty scary stuff,” I said when the film finished.
“Boring. I’ve seen it all before,” Tony said.
Tony sat at the table in the classroom and started flipping through books and magazines.
I went into the shop and walked toward the table where Margaret had spread out her wood. Her gray hair looked as though one day, in a moment of frustration, she had taken out her scissors and hacked it ov. And the waistband of her jeans was too tight to button, so she had a big safety pin holding it together.
“So what are you going to make?” she said.
“I need to make a replacement part for my loom,” I said. “I brought the good one along for a pattern.”
I put it on the table, and Margaret looked at it.
“That’s it? Cutting that out won’t take five minutes. Class goes for ten weeks.”
“I’ve got some old furniture I need to repair, stuff I picked up at auctions and antique stores. I think some of it may just need to be glued.”
“Why don’t you make something?” she said.
She pulled some books out of her canvas bag and got more from the bookshelf.
“You could look through these for ideas.”
“It would need to be simple. I’ve never done any of this before.”
“Look in that Shaker book,” she said. “They have some good designs, and they’re really basic.”
I started flipping through the books, marking here and there designs I liked. Power tools were roaring, and everyone except me and Tony seemed busy with a project. Margaret was laying out her boards for a tabletop, turning them this way and that, trying to get the best match on the grain. It was walnut, she said. She had shown me the drop-leaf table design in the book.
“So what have you marked there in the book?” she said.
“This little Shaker candle stand doesn’t look too hard. And I could really use a table like that to put a lamp on.”
She looked at the picture. “You could easy do that,” she said. “I’ll be glad to help you out with it.”
“I don’t quite understand this materials list,” I said.
“That is a little confusing. I’ll write it out for you, so you know exactly what to get. And the best place for lumber is Barnes. They’re really helpful. Just tell them Margaret sent you.”
“What kind of wood you think I should use?”
“First project I think I’d go with something easy to work with . . . pine or fir. Soft wood. This piece isn’t going to take much. And for that broken piece you have to replace, just get a finished quarter-inch pine board. No need to plane down a board for that little thing.”
I looked at the list she had written out for me, wanted to make sure I understood.
“And you need goggles and ear plugs, too, if you don’t already have them.” She shifted her boards again, still trying to get the perfect layout. “That book’s mine, so you can take it along if you want to read over the instructions for the table or look at ideas for your next project.”
The following week I unloaded my lumber. Margaret was already there. She cleared half the table for me, and I spread my wood out.
“Nice wood,” she said.
“Barnes,” I said.
She helped me plane the boards, joint the edges so they would be good to glue together, cut everything to length on the radial-arm saw. She showed me how to use the doweling jig, glue the boards and clamp them.
“You can leave the clamps on until next week,” she said, “and then we’ll cut our circle for the top. Mac’s going to have to help you turn that stem. I’m not that good on the lathe. Notching that joint on the bottom crosspiece shouldn’t be a problem. You’re going to have yourself a nice little table.”
Tony was lurking about, looking in books now and then, as if he was still undecided about his project. Margaret had him help her carry some boards from the storage closet, and he was brushing sawdust ov his black Guns N’ Roses T-shirt when she said, “So Tony, what are you planning to make?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something for my girlfriend.”
“Maybe something for Valentine’s Day.”
“That’s a good idea. What does she like?”
“Other than me, you mean?” Tony smiled. “She’s crazy about butterflies. That’s like her trademark. Even dots her i’s with a little butterfly if she’s not in a big hurry. When she writes me a note, there’s always at least one butterfly somewhere.”
“Well then, make something with a butterfly,” Margaret said.
Before I remembered that I wasn’t really in the conversation, I said, “You could do little wooden butterfly cutouts, attach them to each other, and she could hang it in her room, like a mobile.”
“And I could paint them,” Tony said. “I could put a little heart on each of them somewhere, since it’s for Valentine’s Day.”
“Do you still have a note with one of her butterflies?” Margaret said.
“Sure. I have every note she ever wrote me.”
“What you need to do is trace it ov and make a pattern out of cardboard or something to trace around on the wood. We’ll enlarge it on the Xerox up in the office if we need to.”
“What about wood?” Tony said.
“For something like that, you could find more than enough over in the scrap bin,” Margaret said.
Tony spent the rest of the evening sorting through wood scraps, pulled out a whole pile and put them on the shelf in the storage closet with his name on them and a sign that read, Do Not Touch. I worked with Mac getting my four-by-four ready to turn on the lathe and got the pieces ready for the base. Margaret said we would do the lap joints the next week, since someone was working on the radial-arm saw, and that was the one I needed.
My Shaker table was finished by the sixth week of class, and I almost finished a bench and step stool before the semester ended. Tony’s mobile turned out well, and he said his girlfriend liked it. He made a little box for his mother for Mothers’ Day. He thought he might put something special in it for her, maybe not. He made a wooden frame for his graduation picture.
On Saturday mornings I started watching The New Yankee Workshop, amazed that Norm Abrams could finish a complicated piece of furniture in thirty minutes, and it took me weeks to do a simple piece. I knew he had all the pieces ready and organized and just put them together, but still. My home library expanded to include books on furniture designs, box designs, birdhouse designs. I dropped hints about woodworking tools and accessories I might enjoy as gifts and soon had my own collection of clamps, a sander, a drill, a router, a circular saw, and an accessory to turn a drill into a drill press. The language of wood joinery was no longer alien to me—dado, rabbet, dovetail, miter and spline, mortise and tenon, tongue and groove.
After a while I tore down the loom and put it in storage. The replacement piece I had made, with the stain and oil, had aged nicely to match the rest of the seasoned wood on the old loom.
The house filled with handmade furniture: a couple desks, tables, a nightstand, a coffee table, indoor benches, stepstools, outdoor benches. I made pieces for friends, a communion table for my sister’s church. When I no longer was enrolled in the evening class, I would go to Margaret’s house to work in the shop in her basement. We would work together on her projects, then on mine. When I would suggest something I had considered making, no matter how complicated, Margaret would say, “We can do that.” She was sure we could do hand-cut dovetails for a blanket chest I had in mind. She had always wanted to try those.
The lumber piled up as friends heard I was working with wood. Margaret frequently gifted me with lumber, especially after she was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer and became too weak to make furniture. At first we tried to do woodworking together, with her sitting on a stool in her workshop explaining what needed to be done, but it wasn’t the same without her being able to show me. Soon she was too weak to make it down the basement stairs.
The loom has been in storage now for twenty-plus years. Weaving never really took ov for me, and I know it is time for the loom to go. It needs to get out of the way for the new workshop I am designing. I hope to donate or sell the loom to someone whose passion for weaving has not waned.
The dogwood tree we planted after Margaret died, next to the grape arbor she helped me design and build, has thrived. I can see the top of it from the window over the desk where I write in my second-story room. I can’t believe she has been gone that long. The tree was so small when we planted it.
I still have books and tools Margaret lent me. Her husband said I should keep them; she would want me to have them. They will join the rest of my collection in the new workshop, right next to the dogwood tree.
Mary Alice Hostetter has had the opportunity to devote more time to her lifelong passion for writing since recently retiring from a career in human services. She lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she continues to work with wood, rubbing tung oil into her handmade furniture.
“The Way of Wood” appears in our Summer 2012 issue.