All I have to do is turn on the table saw.
As soon as spinning steel teeth bite into wood, the warm sawdust smell fills the air inside my shop and he’s there.
Which is a little strange, because he never spent much time there. He would not have appreciated the dirt and disorganization.
I have to clear off space on the workbench when I start a project, blow the sawdust off a tool whenever I grab it. When I need a bolt or a screw, I toughen my fingers by pawing through a big tray where I’ve dumped every odd bolt, nut, washer, nail and screw for years.
I almost always find what I need, but that kind of random search through chaos was never his style.
His shop was a marvel of organization, a converted neighborhood wash house that came with the duplex he bought and turned into our home. Yard tools hung neatly on the wall, mowers and edgers parked in military precision below the shelf holding gas and oil.
Where the big built-in wash sinks had been, he stored power saws and drills. Over the top of the bins, he built a bench out of 2x6s, strapped together on the underside with galvanized steel brackets and hinged at the back so the whole bench could be raised and lowered.
On pegboard over the bench hung every tool I could imagine. Above that was a long 2×4 with a neatly-spaced row of jelly-jar lids nailed to it, attached at each end to shelf brackets that extended it and allowed it to pivot. In the jars were screws, nails, bolts, nuts and washers of every size and length.
You just unscrewed the jar, got what you needed and screwed it back into its lid. Genius. I mean to build one of those someday and get my stuff organized.
Everything he had was labeled. I used to wonder why he didn’t crank up that Dymo labelmaker, press out the letters S-O-N and stick it to my forehead.
I’ve got quite a few tools he gave me, including that table saw. I still rake through a toolbox he filled with a wondrous array of odds and ends as a housewarming present when we moved there – and I cherish a note he wrote under the lid, urging me toward organization.
I’ve only had the shop a few years, and they didn’t visit that often. He didn’t retire until he was 81, and he remained busy even after that. He never did a lot of the sitting around that many retired men do.
But he sits on my shoulder, every time I build something.
He claims to have taught me very little about building. I did learn a lot by working construction one summer, having friends with professional expertise, reading This Old House magazine and watching DIY shows.
But I’ve learned mostly through trial-and-error, and he laid the foundation for my excursions into that world.
When he bought that duplex, he bought the project I grew up in. He took out the wall, turning two-bedroom, one-bath apartments into a four-bedroom, two-bath house with perfect symmetry and parquet-wood floors.
A bedroom became a den. One kitchen became a laundry/utility room. A pantry off the kitchen got opened up and a built-in table mounted on the half-wall that remained. An entry door was closed and bookshelves built in above a desk he made out of the door.
What had been a sticker-infested yard became a green, tree-shaded paradise. We poured a patio, then a backyard basketball court, a few square yards at a time. On that concrete, he painted a pitching rubber and home plate, 60’6″ apart, and he built a ping-pong table out of a 4×8 sheet of 3/4-inch plywood.
He taught me, more by example than with words, that if you wanted something, you could probably build it – and if you never, ever threw anything away, you could probably build it with stuff you have on hand.
He could drive a nail with three hits and cut straighter with a hand-saw than I can with a power saw. And once he started sawing, sweat dripping from the end of his nose, I never saw him pause until the cut-off end of the board fell to the ground.
Spring before last, I replaced the fence around our yard. I’m using the old boards now to build pot-shelves, birdhouses and other little items. It’s fun, and it’s nice to have something I made to give away.
But there’s another benefit. Anytime I work out there in the shop – despite all the mess and disorganization – I feel like I’m working with him. I hear his words of encouragement and see his kind smile.
It’s amazing what the smell of sawdust can do for your soul.
Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.