37: A Carpenter for Life

37: A Carpenter for Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

A Carpenter for Life

Nothing is forever, if you have enough power tools.

~S.A. Sachs

“Daddy, will you teach me to use a band saw?”

My father’s sisters operated heavy machinery at Grandpa’s shop so it didn’t surprise Dad when I posed this question to him. The only difference between my aunts and me was age. They were in their twenties, while I was barely nine.

Dad took my request to heart. First, he taught me to weave rocking chair seats, rewarding me with shiny quarters. Eventually, I nailed slats and drilled holes in posts for rockers. My newly learned skills transformed me into a carpenter-in-the-making by the proud age of eleven.

And then our house burned down. The fire was so hot that most of Dad’s equipment in the shop next door was damaged. That ended my carpentry lessons.

Twelve years later, my husband and I were married. Soon we had a family. After graduate school, Herb landed a position teaching at McPherson College. His books were everywhere in our house, filling stand-along bookcases, tucked in the crevices between cushions, perilously perched in piles.

One night, while Herb was reading, I ventured, “I think I’ll try building some bookshelves here.”

“You can’t do that!” Herb said.

I blinked in surprise. “Why not?”

“We need to contract a real carpenter for a job like that,” he said. “It’s too expensive for our budget now.”

I recalled my days with Dad; he had taught me the basics. I secretly drew the blueprints, imagining how the finished project might look.

One day while Herb was at work, I could stand it no longer. Mustering courage, I zipped to the lumberyard to purchase power tools — a rotary saw, skill saw, drill press, and sander. I hid the tools in my underwear drawer and behind canning jars in the basement.

That January, Herb traveled again on a three-week trip to Germany with his students. As soon as he left I carefully measured the living room, purchased oak planks from a lumberyard, and meticulously created built-in, ceiling-to-floor bookshelves on the longest wall of our living room. With a manual in one hand and a jigsaw in the other, I finished them with fancy scalloping, even around the picture window. When Herb returned, his jaw dropped. Then, he admitted that he loved it!

The following autumn, I planned early but said nary a word to Herb. As was his weekly ritual, he brought Friday classes to our home to hold discussions. Because our living room was small, the space was very crowded.

Adjacent to the living room, a narrow side room with a long row of windows faced the southern sun. The room had no real purpose.

“Why waste that space?” I thought. “When Herb leaves for Germany again this January, I’ll knock out the wall and enlarge the living room!” In the days that followed, I secretly created a blueprint.

The day he left, I called a builder. He carved out the wall between the living room and side room and edged the new archway with maple molding. Sunlight flooded the room! Above the south row of windows, I installed more bookshelves. My confidence grew as I mitered a charming cornice above the long side windows.

The extra book space was great. However, the long, flat floor seemed drab.

“Aha!” I thought. “I’ll transform it into a split-level!”

And so I did. I measured, sawed, and nailed floor joists in place. Installing slabs of 8’x12’ subflooring. The last piece, however, confounded me. Hard as I tried, it wouldn’t wedge over the joists into its allotted space. I trekked outdoors in the snow, climbed a stepladder, and seesawed my torso across the windowsill to heave the heavy subflooring into place. Then, I quickly jumped from the ladder and tore inside to nail it down and call the carpet installer before my neighbors called the cops.

This time when Herb returned home, he shook his head in disbelief. But he took our friends on tours of the house and bragged about my carpentry skills!

The following year, the kids and I purchased Herb’s dream gift at Christmas — an antique cast iron stove. We scheduled an expert to install it. After all, my house had burned when I was a child, and I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.

But I am an impatient type. I wanted to finish the job while Herb was in Germany so I called the fire chief and insurance company for their wisdom. They graciously came to the house, gave suggestions, and explained regulations in detail.

Quickly, before Herb returned, I laid a base and a semi-circular firewall of bricks for the woodburning stove. A professional carpenter dropped by to saw a hole in the roof and install a quaint little chimney. When he completed the job, I had an extra week to retrofit wainscoting around the lower half of the family room.

This time when Herb came home, he shook his head. In disbelief, he jokingly said, “I’m taking you with me on future trips, to save my sanity!”

Twenty years and forty countries later, I have been cured of “doing it myself.” The children are gone, my saw blades are rusty, and my osteoporosis is acting up. Plus I’m too old to wiggle my derriere out the window. With graying hair, Herb and I cozy by the fireplace and luxuriate in our books.

And I am the woman who did it! Dad would be proud of me!

~Jeanne Jacoby Smith

More stories from our partners