Woodworking tools on wood
Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash


Four percent for thickness, my woodshop instructor says. Eight percent for width. These, the margins of expansion and shrinkage for a plank of wood. Long after a tree’s been felled, its breath remains, taking in moisture from the atmosphere and expelling it back, swelling and shrinking in turn. You’re working with a living thing, he says. Make no mistake, it’s still a living thing, see? It’s just dead now.


I know a house in Kansas that took its shoes off. When they laid the floorboards, they forgot that eight percent. Or just didn’t care. They laid board alongside board alongside board from wall to wall, no room to breathe. Then summer came, the air got wet, and the wood inhaled. Or it took a great gulp of water, however you want to look at it. Floorboards expanded, squeezed against each other until they just couldn’t take it, and crack-fwoom! The whole kitchen buckled, a hill a hump a heap of timber in the center, table upended, planks flung into a pie cooling on the windowsill, like a kid home from the last day of school, shoes kicked off clear across the room.


My grandmother was a carpenter. For her, my grandfather converted their garage into a woodshop. She made the bed I slept in as a child, the one still in the guest room of my parents’ house. She made the Adirondack chairs on the porch, the kitchen table. My woodshop instructor says that woodworking is a selfless act, that a good woodworker creates not for himself but for the generation five generations from now. That when you make something well, you’re making it for longevity. For length.


A woman dices lamb on a butcher block.  The block is all-natural, maple, unlacquered. That’s the problem, this third bit. She liked the way it looked, the raw wood grain, so she stacked the planks end-to-end, glued and sawed and sanded it into something she could slam a blade into. Self-healing because when you slice the vasculars of the plank that way, at their ends, they’ll gather themselves again when the plank breathes, expands. But that four percent got her. See, when you let a thing breathe, you’re letting it live, by definition. So she swung her blade and the whole block cracked down the seam, the glue unable to bind the respiring wood. A dead thing, living. Even under the knife.


My woodshop instructor doesn’t mention the point-zero-one percent on the first day of class. This figure is the margin of lengthwise expansion. So small as to be negligible, even for fine woodworking. When you inhale, you don’t get longer, only wider, he says. Same with a tree.


They’d stopped speaking at some point, my mother and my grandmother. It was after the blowup at my grandmother’s house. Low voices in the middle of the night, restrained but flaring. They sat side-by-side in hand-worked, maple chairs. I was a child, then, listening from atop the staircase, clutching the bars of the railing that I know today to be mahogany. She’d never had room to breathe, my mother said. She left the house that night, and it was years until she returned to it or that she and my grandmother spoke again, and even then only from a guarded distance, a distance eventually closed only by a funeral. I theorize that my grandmother made her walnut casket herself—it bears her marks, her preferred joinery and bevels. She saw the length of her own life, and she cut the planks accordingly.


How high should the table saw blade be? I ask him. How much of your hand do you want to lose? he answers. Where do I stand when I’m doing this? Anywhere but where the splinters come out. And I plane at this angle? If that’s how the wood wants you to plane it. How short do I cut? It’s reductive sculpture, he says. That depends on how much you think you can sacrifice. You won’t get that quarter-inch back. A plank doesn’t expand that way, remember? The point-zero-one percent.


The house in Kansas. The split butcher block. I’m explaining these to my mother. She’s beside me, so close I can feel her ribcage against mine when she inhales, and then retreat on the exhale. She’s not understanding. Or, she’s following but not understanding why I’m telling her this. But she will, I think, later, when the day comes that I introduce her to my partner. I want to think that on that day, whenever it is, she’ll see us—me and herself, me and him—as planks of wood. Maple, maybe. Unlacquered and growing, expanding, breathing, at least for the moment. This is when I’ll tell her about the point-zero-one percent. See, she’ll have a cut to make, then. It’ll be her choice, and she’ll know that a plank doesn’t expand lengthwise. She’ll know that if you cut here, the plank won’t grow that way. It’s reductive sculpture. How much can she sacrifice?


My grandmother left us in a walnut casket of her own making. When I return to my parents’ house, I sleep in the bed she measured-twice-cut-once. When I return to my grandfather’s house, I stand in her workshop, among the tools she used to make her futures. Not grand visions or sweeping plans. Small things. A bench that opens to hold toys for grandchildren. Enough chairs at the dinner table to seat a horde. A clock that chimes on the half-hour—that still chimes.


My woodshop instructor says that to work wood is to step outside of time, or at least to cheat it. An eventual corpse working the current corpse of another thing, he remarks with a wry smile. But it’s all alive, he reminds me. It’s all still alive, moving. Even if length is definite, unchanging, determined, when the weather warms and the rain falls, the planks expand in other directions to touch the planks around them. The tree is dead. The floor buckles and kicks. The tree is alive. The air smells so sweet like cedar.

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