I took this photograph the other day while replacing some trim next to our back door. I’d cut the pieces of wood but needed to make a couple of notches to fit them just right. I don’t get to use my chisels much. They are not expensive or fancy, but they do hold an edge and I keep them sharp. I enjoy chiseling but don’t get to do it much; mostly for little things like this. I’m okay at it, but can’t really do any fine work.
I learned this skill from my grandfather. When I was a teenager, he had emphysema; and while he could no longer work on projects around the house himself, he often enlisted my cousin Stevie or me to provide the labor. When I was fourteen, on the first day of a week-long stay, he invited me to take a drive. The drive, of course, ended up at the lumber yard. You see, he’d decided to expand the back porch.
He was patient. He pointed to each piece of lumber that he wanted and asked me to put it on the cart. Then, I pushed the cart to check out for him. The real adventure happened when we got it outside. He did not have a truck but drove an old Buick. He handed me the trunk key and told me to get out the blankets to protect the roof of the car and the ropes to hold the lumber in place. He directed me in how to place the blankets and lumber. Then he told me which bumper to tie the rope to and then to toss it over the wood. He had me wrap the rope around the boards and then attach it to another bumper or perhaps through the open doors of the car. This went on for some time until he was satisfied it would hold or at least until we’d used all of the rope. I was an awkward teen and I’m sure the slowness of it all was frustrating for him, but he never let it show.
On the third day of this project, he had me wrestle out an 8 inch by 8 inch timber that must have been six feet tall from the basement to use as a corner post. I was skinnier than I am even now and it probably weighed almost as much as I did back then. Somehow, I got it out there. But it needed some notches to receive the cross pieces that it would support. And that is when I learned to use a chisel to cut notches in wood. Chipping away a little at a time under my grandfather’s supervision, I patiently but cleanly created a space that could support the weight of the porch.
It was one of those times that you look back on later and realize how perfect it was.