All Roads Lead to Home.

It ‘s fitting that the last blog post on this site was entitled “Empty”. Originally intended as a descriptor of my workshop, vacated in advance of my relocation, I also serves as an accurate assessment of the volume of my writing during the intervening year. I’ll not bore you with excuses or apologies. I didn’t feel like writing, so I didn’t.

It doesn’t help – not one bit – that I’m in the midst of the longest stretch of my adult life without a workshop. When my family moved from Fernandina Beach, FL to Athens, GA last December, we were prepared to spend a couple months in my Dad’s guesthouse while we searched for a home of our own. We were in the market for our “forever” home. A place to put down roots and watch our children grow up. More acres than neighbors. An open patch for a garden and blueberry bushes. A forest to explore and trees to harvest for firewood and woodworking. And, of course, a spacious and inviting workshop.

The search was fruitless for about a month. My wife and I had different ideas of perfection. My heart was set on a small, outdated (read:ugly) home on 46 gorgeous acres of oaks and pastures. She gravitated towards a stately new home on a cul-de-sac with seven acres and four neighbors (at least the acre:neighbor ratio was right). We kept searching for a month, but my Dad’s tiny guest house seemed to grow smaller by the day with three kids underfoot. We finally compromised, and by compromise, I mean I agreed to make an offer on the home she wanted.

It took a week of back-and-forth with the inflexible corporate owners (the home’s builder had been a casualty of the financial crisis and was purchased out of bankruptcy), but we finally had a contract in our hands between Christmas and New Year’s. She was ecstatic, and I had warmed up to the fact that I wouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars and hours of my life on repairs and upgrades.

The day after we signed the contract, our dream home hit the market.

It was only on 8 acres (plenty for my wife – a bit paltry for me), but they were the most gorgeous 8 acres in the county, as far as I was concerned. The house was perched upon a 100-foot bluff and nestled among soaring oaks and sprightly beeches. The elevation declined towards the north end of the property as the oaks gave way to tulip-poplars and river birches straddling a wide, lazy creek. A garden spot was already fenced in, as well as a dozen blueberry bushes and two rows of blackberries. A small orchard of peaches, pears, apples, and figs dotted one side of the garden, with a chicken coop and a garden shed on the other. The home itself was clean, cute, generously-sized and well-built, with spacious decks in the back and a covered porch on the front. It was Perfect.

I showed the pictures to my wife. She was…not happy. Quite the opposite, in fact. She knew I had initial reservations about the home on the cul-de-sac. Nonetheless, I assured her that I would be happy there (which was true. I’m happy most places). What was I doing still looking at houses? And besides, we have a contract!

Well, here’s the thing about real estate contracts: contingency clauses. We had 14 days to arrange financing and inspect the home, and during that period we could walk away for any reason. I was not prepared to go through with the biggest financial decision of my life when a home that we both liked better was on the market and ready for offers. She grudgingly agreed to let me arrange a viewing.

She was ready to make an offer the moment we walked through the front door. A month later, on January 31, 2017, we closed on the house. We’ve made it through one Gardening Season, and the Firewood Season is just getting started. It is home. It is Perfect.

Well, except for one little thing. There is no workshop. Not yet, anyway.

Remembering My Role

“A craftsman, from the bottom of his or her heart, is to serve society. Every profession has social obligations and responsibilities. The craftsman’s social responsibility is to fulfill society’s demands as best they know how. Unlike craft, society does not ask the artist for what it needs. The artist’s social responsibility and obligation is to find a valid concept and execute it, then share it with society…whether society likes it or not.”  -Toshio Odate

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the “Quick and Dirty” table that I built for my son. As a child’s play table, I didn’t fuss too much over the finish. I did get Elam’s input on the color. He said he wanted blue, so I gave it two coats of blue milk paint and slapped on a coat of shellac and called it good. The quality of the finish matches the aesthetic of the rest of the table. In other words, it’s functional and not necessarily bad-looking…but don’t look too close.

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Now, time for an admission. The need for this ‘quick and dirty’ table came about due to some piss-poor planning on my part. You see, originally, it was the tavern table that was supposed to serve as Elam’s play table. When my wife first asked me to build a table for him, the wheels in my head started spinning, and before long, I recalled the attractive little Charleston tavern table that had been featured in Popular Woodworking and in “Furniture in the Southern Style“. I had always wanted to build that table, and here was my wife asking me to build at table! Perfect!

Now, most children’s tables can tolerate a fairly broad range of heights, sizes, and designs. After all, kids grow, so you can either build a table that’s too big for them now or one that will be too small for them in a couple of years. What they really need is a chair to match the table, so the kids can work and sit at a comfortable height.

However, our Elam is a special kid. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Thus, with the height of his chair pre-determined, I had to built his table at a height that would match. I measured and determined that 23.5″ would be the ideal height for his table. The original table was 27″ high. Hmmm…dropping the height by 3.5″ seems like it would ruin the aesthetic. I decided to compromise and build the table 25″ high instead. Surely that extra inch and a half would be okay, right? And he would eventually grow into it anyway, right? That was mistake No. 1.

Next, it was obvious that the lower stretchers that are found around the lower perimeter of nearly all tavern tables would be in the way of his wheelchair. No worries, though – I could just nix the front and back stretchers and use a single stretcher in the middle instead. And there’s mistake No. 2.

My wife packed up the kids and headed to off to visit her parents for a weekend. I was tasked with building the table for Elam. And I worked a 30-hour weekend building that table. With hardly any sleep, I kept single-mindedly to the task at hand, and was just pegging the top in place when my wife rolled into the driveway on Sunday afternoon. I was so excited to roll Elam up to his new play table so he could try it out.

My excitement quickly soured as I realized that 1) the addition of 1.5” of height above my “ideal” estimate placed the tabletop in a position where he could barely see anything on the tabletop, and 2) I neglected to ever measure the distance between the front wheels of his wheelchair, and as a result the distance between the table’s front legs was 1/4″ too narrow for the wheelchair to squeeze in between. My own disappointment was only exceeded by that of my wife. It was not a good way to start off a week for anyone involved.

I certainly didn’t slave away for 30 hours over two days to build a non-functional piece. I thought I was doing heartfelt work that would genuinely be appreciated by my son and my wife. But I got caught up in my own aesthetic preferences and lost sight of the original purpose. It was a painful lesson. And one that I quickly made right, two days later, in a two-hour flurry of workshop activity.

The new table may not measure up to the tavern table in style, but it well exceeds in the category that counts: function. Now, I know there is a big arts vs. crafts debate that has been raging for centuries and addressed ad nauseum by folks far more experienced and eloquent than I. I don’t intend to weigh in on this debate, because for me, there is no confusion. I am not an artist; I am a craftsman. If Toshio Odate is to be believed, my primary concern in this specific role is “to fulfill society’s demands” as best as I know how. And since I the lion’s share of my work remains in my own home, the “society” to whom Toshio refers would be my very own family.

I would do well to remember my role. I know of one little guy who certainly appreciates it when it when I do.

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We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming…

…to bring you a very special announcement. A birth announcement.


Avett August Tyson was born at 10:45 AM on Wednesday, December 2015. Weighing in at 8 lbs. 10 oz., the little chunk was a full week late. I guess that means he takes after me. His mom is the punctual one.

You can be on the lookout for “Shop Night with Avett” posts in about fours years, I suppose. And now we rest.

Shop Night with Ellery – Finishing the Birdhouse

Last week, Ellery and I went about finishing up the birdhouse that I’m helping her build. The girl loves to paint. I taped everything off and handed her a paintbrush and some acrylic paint and she did the rest. I just touched up some of the corners when she was done.

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When the paint was dry, we were ready to bore a couple of holes – a big one for the door and a small one for the peg that goes below the door.

The big hole is 1-1/4″. Ellery couldn’t quite turn the brace on her own, so I bored that hole. But she did a great job on the 3/8″ peg hole – I never even had to touch the brace once we got the hole located.

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She’s a natural! The bit is vertical and she’s bracing the pad on her forehead. She must’ve seen me do this a few times…

I thought we would be done once we glued the peg in place, but Ellery was adamant that the birdhouse needed a bird to live in it. I couldn’t argue with that, so I grabbed a scrap of cypress and my knife and quickly carved a bird.

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Then it was her job to paint the bird. She chose red – a nice choice since it will contrast so well with the teal birdhouse.

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I’ve really been enjoying my time in the shop with Ellery, and I think she has too. She has been begging me to build her own birdhouse, since this one is a Christmas present for her mom. And I have another special gift in mind for Ellery as well…

Shop Night with Ellery

If you’ve been following the blog for a few weeks, you probably already know the pattern: I tend to post something substantive (nearly) every weekday, but weekends and holidays are generally met with either an abbreviated post or more likely radio silence. I spend 10-12 hours of each weekday in front of a computer screen, so I relish my days away from electronics and prefer to spend that time with my family or in the workshop.

Even better is when I get to spend time with my family in the workshop. My daughter Ellery just turned four a couple of weeks ago, and she has taken to the workshop like a pig to mud. I generally just had her a hammer, some wood scraps, and a handful of nails and let her pound away in the corner while I work on some other project, but she has enjoyed it so much that I decided to take a page from Joshua Klein’s book blog and spend one night a week working together on a project with her.

Since Christmas is coming up, we decided to work on a special project for Mommy – a birdhouse. I gave her some posterboard and a pencil and let her sketch out what the birdhouse should look like (in case you have trouble interpreting a 4-year-old’s architectural plans, the birdhouse is the steep-roofed structure, and it’s sitting on the end of an apparently truncated branch).

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Blueprints for a birdhouse.

We searched through my wood stacks for some suitable stock and pulled out some sassafras scraps and some 3/8″ Douglas-fir plywood. I sawed out the shapes and Ellery planed them to size (with a bit of help. I should really build her own workbench so she can get some more practice with planing, but I’d have nowhere to put it in my tiny shop!)

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Her form is impeccable. At least it is when she’s posing for a picture.

She needs no assistance at all with the hammering, though. She has practiced diligently for the last couple of months, and she can easily sink 4d nails to the head without any pre-drilling. I did pre-drill the holes for the birdhouse, though, to make sure things were aligned properly.

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This girl swings a hammer better than any 4-year-old I know.

Ellery was rightfully proud of the end result, but it’s been a bit of a struggle keeping Mommy’s Christmas present a secret. Next shop night will include painting the birdhouse, drilling the doorway, and turning a peg for the residents to land on.

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A proud carpenter.

I had to take a video as she was driving the nails. There was one brief pause to kiss a boo-boo, but she immediately gets back to work afterwards.