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A boring task turns into a history lesson.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking
OROne day in Williamsburg, a message reached me from the carpenter’s yard that the locker was understaffed and needed help. I thought it was a high-level task like wedging a trunk or shaving the legs of a cabriola, so I dropped the ax and went to the locker across the stream.
I walked into the crowded shop and waited for a couple of Japanese honeymooners to take their photograph. Along the wall, I saw the work waiting for me: a large pile of heavy walnut spindles, waiting by the lathe.
Well, I’m a good turner, so I happily worked my way through the visitors to the rack of polished gouges. Then I noticed that David, one of the shop workers, was already at the lathe and was waving at the big wheel that was driving it.
Oh, fair enough, I thought. I climbed over the rope, put my hands on the transmission handle of the 6 ′ diameter wheel and started spinning. Slowly I worked up to speed. The first 10 minutes were fine. I saw the leather drive belt slide from the top of the wheel over my head, run along the wall to the vane pulley, and then rush back towards my feet. I counted the spindles in the pile. I watched the faint stream of brown shavings falling to the floor.
I craned my neck to see if there was water in a mug on the window sill when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw a visitor stooping under the rope barrier. This was easy for him, because he was a kid, as old as my father, but he moved fast. I tried to form words to explain that the ropes were for his protection, but I only got as far as getting some air before he pushed me away and grabbed the crank of the big wheel.
“Out of the way, boy,” he said with a New York accent. “Here, do it!”
I reached out to direct him back through the rope into the visitor world, but the room was transforming. I pulled back. The thud of the wheel and the lazy cut of the turn were gone. The big wheel flew and the floor hummed with a high-energy harmonica. David struggled to hold on to the gouge as a sliced walnut ribbon ran over his shoulder.
“That’s how you do it boy; you have to put your ass in it! “he yelled.
I knew it couldn’t last, but he continued, smiling and shaking his head, never batting an eye. He was still smiling when I joined him again. First he grabbed me and now he spun the wheel as he slipped under the rope again. He stood there smiling.
“At your place! Put your ass in it! “
I had no idea what that meant, but then I felt the belt loosen as David parted from the finished walnut spindle. I let the wheel slow down.
“I never thought I’d do it again!” the boy said.
“What …?” that was all I got.
“I was in the ball turret of a B-17 during the war. Two-six-two got us and the next thing I know I’m in a parachute. I wake up with an Austrian farmer who hits me with his pitchfork. He takes me to his farm and puts me to work. For six months, until the end of the war, I will turn this wheel for this farmer. “He hit me hard on the shoulder as only the old people know.” The only thing I have learned is that you have to get your ass in. “
As it returned to the flowing stream, I tried to re-establish boundaries by increasing my historical interpretation. “The big wheel see here … ”Across the room I saw her head turn to listen. I stopped short. Here’s this guy: one minute he’s flying, a minute later a jet shoots him down, a minute later he’s spinning a big wheel on an alpine farm in a scene from the Middle Ages …
And I’m trying to teach him history.
Roy is the host of the PBS show “The Woodwright’s Shop” and author of many books, including “The Woodwright’s Guide: Working Wood with Edge & Wedge” (UNC Press) from which this story is based.
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