Nailed It!

An ode to the craftsman.

Illustration by Laura Pacheco

My oldest son is walking beside my wife as we hike along the Appalachian Trail. “It’s the perfect gift,” he says of her walking stick. “It’s cool. It’s functional. It’s strong, but light. It’s from the heart.”

He knows I’m just within earshot. He thinks I don’t know what he’s doing, but I’m incompetent, not dumb. He’s complimenting the saguaro rib walking stick I made for my wife many years ago so I feel like less of a loser. 

I’m moping because I’ve spent several months trying to become a craftsman, but failed. Things I made didn’t look like the things in the pictures on the Internet. I made a coaster so slanted a glass slid off it. I have bled every single time I have used power tools. You see glue on everything I glue, then on everything I touch in the minutes after I’ve glued—I can adhere glue to absolutely anything other than the spot I’m trying to stick to another spot. 

Every man I know out here in western Loudoun County seems to be an expert at making this or that—tables, chairs, wines, whiskies, wine-glass holders, wood-pallet Christmas trees, whatever. One buddy, Marty Fair, builds acoustic guitars that sell for more than the Bluebook on my car. People have written songs about his craftsmanship and craftsmanly ways. Odes! I’m not jealous, per se. I just think it would be fun to have people write songs about my own craftsmanship. Is that so much to ask? 

I recently finished writing an overlong book, and while struggling with page 520, I decided I needed time off—maybe an eternity—from writing.

I would become a craftsman with my neighbor, Rich Corpe, a mechanical-engineer-turned-semiprofessional-craftsman who has a woodshop and small sawmill by his house in the woods just across the creek from our place. 

Rich started a company, Red Truck Woodworks, to sell the stuff he makes online and at local craft shows. He can’t keep up. He asked if I wanted to help occasionally. Sure! He asked if I was handy. I lied. So, a few months ago I started walking over a couple times a week to help him build stuff. I would be the apprentice. I’d learn a bunch of stuff, then someday the servant would become the master craftsman. You know, that old chestnut. 

How to compress so much failure into a few words? Beyond the glue, broken stuff, and blood, I can’t make a 90-degree angle. I apparently will never learn the difference between the “miter saw” and the “chop saw.” Resin is supposed to be clear, but I find a way to make it cloudy and fill it with bubbles and debris before it sets and breaks. Nothing—and I literally mean nothing—I made in three months will be used personally or sold. 

Rich is kind. He says I’ll figure it out. But he calls less now. It’s tough for nice people to release liabilities, but I need to be let go.

That’s okay, I tell myself as I walk. I mow the lawn fine. We’ve never gotten botulism from something I’ve grilled. I once installed a ceiling fan that worked. Some people are gifted, some less so. I’m just okay, I’m fine, and I’m okay and fine with that.

“I know what you’re doing, Andrew,” I yell to my son. “Thank you. You’re an angel. Now move along.”

“No, seriously, Dad,” he responds. “Stop being a wuss. Don’t give up. You’re the guy who made this stick.”

Nice kid—I whine, he tries to mend. We have three sons who care about people. That’s worth something, right? My wife and I perhaps helped craft empathetic hearts. That should be plenty.

But, no, right now I really need to focus on that walking stick. You know, because my kid told me to. It really is pretty (a passing hiker even said so earlier in the day). It took a couple months to get that one right. The sticks I gave the kids and my parents are pretty cool, but my wife’s is my masterpiece. It’s light, strong, balanced, perfectly fitted, nicely figured, nicely finished, and it works. It has survived dozens, if not hundreds, of hikes—and near slips and falls—over the last 15 years. 

Wild swings in confidence aren’t new; I have a fragile psyche. My children know it, and they know how to correct my childish fits with a bit of praise mixed with insults. Works every time.

“Steady,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said. Don’t give up. Keep honing. Follow the code of the craftsman: Measure twice, cut once. Or measure three times and let your buddy do the cutting; whatever works. Keep learning. Keep trying. Don’t cut corners. I’ve been here before. I’ve got this. Just keep working and trying to improve and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be a craftsman—again.

Rich calls after we get home. “I’ve got an idea for a cutting board,” he says.

“I’ll be right over.” 


This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue.

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