It had taken a lifetime to come to this point.
Ben's Dad had brought him into the shop on his sixth birthday, nearly
eighty years before, and introduced him to what was to become his life
long passion. The small softwood workbench that greeted him on that
day was now only a childhood memory but the Stanley bit brace still
hung on the wall of the shop and was still taken down and put to work
when the mood was on him.
So too did the Millers Falls block plane that he'd been presented with
so long ago continue to give good service. The edges of the body were
smoothed by almost eight decades of use, as he'd grown from a child's
clumsy grip to the sure and steady strokes of a seasoned craftsman.
Ben's hands were often unsteady these days. Time and the illness that
would soon claim him had turned his handwriting into something
feathery and nearly incomprehensible. But, with a plane in his hand
he steadied down as though his hands remembered and acted according to
their memory, in spite of his condition.
Old Ben's memory was still pretty good and it took him back to that
happy birthday and the feeling of his father's guiding hand on his as
he made his first pass with the block plane. A small pile of hardwood
had shared the bench that day with those first tools that were,
"really his." There were short lengths of maple, white oak, cherry
and walnut; cutoffs from his Dad's projects. He now clearly recalled
the magical transformation of the indifferent looking walnut board's
edge, as he'd run his first chamfer with the block plane. The once
rough surface shimmered smoothly in silky purples and warm browns,
revealed by the passage of the cutting edge.
As Ben's Dad would often repeat to friends and family over the years,
"The boy was hooked both good and deep." So he was.
It was that same old Millers Falls block plane that Ben now used to
stroke down the sharp edges on the big box, making the corners
pleasing to the hand and eye. He still took deep pleasure in the
sight of a board length curl rolling out of the plane's mouth and over
Oak, Maple, Cherry and Walnut had become and remained the Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John of Ben's woodworking life. They grew in abundance
on the land around his shop and his father had taught him their ways
and workings with as much zeal as his mother had applied in teaching
him the gospel.
He'd chosen cherry for the sides and top, as he had for the much
smaller box he'd made for his wife, Charlotte, some sixty five years
before. That jewelry box still sat on Charlotte's dressing table in
the house, looking much the same as it had when he'd presented it to
her on Christmas morning in 1938, containing only two small rings and
a note saying how much he hoped that she would see fit to put on the
diamond now and wear the gold band on the following June.
Ben had lined the insides of this big box with quilted maple, which
was a favorite of Charlotte's and which she'd asked him to use when
she said to him at breakfast one morning, "Ben, have you ever made a
Two sons and a daughter were rocked in that maple cradle, which then
sat waiting in the attic for a score of years before being brought
down, cleaned and refinished to hold the first in what would become a
series of eight grandchildren and, so far, four great grandchildren.
Ben only ever made one cradle but it was a pretty good one. Just last
week he'd sat next to it for an hour, watching baby Emily sleep but
seeing all of the tiny faces that had occupied the maple cradle over
more than sixty years flash, one after another through his mind's eye.
He'd decided on quartersawn white oak for the bottom of the big box,
as it could be planed down thin enough to be light while still being
strong enough for the job. He kept all the other parts of the box as
light as possible too, so as not to be too great a burden on those who
would have to do the lifting and carrying.
Of the four woods that occupied most of his working life he'd used oak
the least, relying on it mostly for its strength, as when he'd built
the children's workbenches. Ben thought a proper workbench should be
made of maple but young children needed a bench that they could beat
up without hearing about it from their father - he figured that's why
his dad had made his first bench out of pine.
Each of his children and all of his married grandchildren received
four poster walnut beds on their wedding day. Charlotte had always
been a little uncomfortable with his decision to make beds for newly
married folks, thinking maybe that Ben was making some kind of sly
joke. Ben could never figure that one out and would just say, "Better
a bed first and then a cradle, than the other way around."
He used walnut for the handles and the hinges on the big box. Oak
would have been stronger but wouldn't have looked as nice next to the
cherry. Ben figured the walnut hinges would hold up fine for the
amount of use that they were likely to get.
When Charlotte had passed on five years ago, Ben had been making a
sewing box for her that was made of walnut, with an inlaid rose made
from cherry and maple. Since she had passed so quickly from sickness
into death, Ben had not had time to finish the inlaid box and it still
sat on the edge of the workbench - a daily reminder of her presence.
Ben had taken the inlays from the unfinished box and cut them into his
big box. Fitting, he thought.
He also included one item that he couldn't strictly account for. He'd
taken a piece of beveled edge glass from Charlotte's collection that
she used in her stained glass work. She was crackerjack with that
sort of thing and Ben had made many frames for her pieces over the
years. She'd thought this particular oval piece to be something
special, the way it would bend the light out into colors running from
violet, into blues and greens, and so on into a soft red. It was
bigger than most of her clear pieces and she'd always said that it
would need to be a large composition that could take so strong a piece
of glass. Ben worked it into the lid of the big box, not far from the
inlaid rose. When the light would shine through it just right it
would light up the maple lined insides of the box, as would the soft
glow of a candle.
As Ben stood back from his work, he thought of all the wood that had
passed through his hands over the years. He thought of the special
pieces that had gone into things that he had made for his loved ones,
what they meant and would continue to mean. He thought of all that he
had learned about wood and life and all that he would never learn.
The big box stretched nearly seven feet across the sawhorses. Ben
raised the lid and grabbed the short stepladder. He climbed slowly up
the ladder and then stepped gently down into the box. The lid made a
proper closing sound as he pulled it shut.
While he lay there thinking on his work and his life, he was happy for
the glass above his eyes. He watched the rainbows play on the quilted
maple and the dust motes winking in the windowed light outside the
Ben said out loud, "I've had a good life and I've made a fine box."
He blew out a breath onto the glass and watched it fog over, turning
the outside world into a soft haze. As the glass dried and cleared,
and the world looked ever so much clearer than before, Ben wondered if
that is what it would be like - when his time finally came.
Thomas J. Watson-Cabinetmaker
Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania