Carleigh's memory chest is done and at our home. My Aunt Becky & Uncle Buck (they also created Carleigh's toy box ) delivered it to my parent's house last week and I saw it for the first time Friday evening when we arrived for the weekend. The first thing I thought was 'wow'. The first thing I did was run my hand over the lid of the chest. It is perfect. It is better than I even imagined.
Anthony and I went to visit my Aunt Becky & Uncle Buck on Sunday while we were in their area to properly thank them for the hard work they have done in creating this beautiful masterpiece. It was nice to see them. I think the last time I saw them was at Carleigh's funeral. We visited with them for a couple hours. During that time we got a tour of their workshops and listened to Uncle Buck tell us stories of the making of Carleigh's chest. Aunt Becky played with Kyndra during that time. It was so interesting to hear how Carleigh's chest was made and the effort behind it. They spent many hours cutting, sanding, and gluing just so that we could have a special place to put her treasured keepsakes. I am truly thankful.
The above picture shows a board of walnut that Carleigh's chest was made out of. There were many layers of paint that need scraped off before any work could be done. It doesn't even look like the same wood.
Here are some of the boards that were left over. The pieces on top are walnut and the pieces on bottom are poplar.
This is most of the main workshop. See that bag full of stuff? That's sawdust. They had 1 1/2 of those bags in creating Carleigh's chest. That's a lot of sawdust!
One of the machines in my Aunt Becky's scroll saw area. There's another machine to the right. My Aunt Becky is really good at it.
Here is my Uncle Buck & Anthony in the scroll saw area. Uncle Buck was getting some of Aunt Becky's pieces to show us. He showed us several angels that they were deciding between for the angels that are part of the memory chest.
Here is the email and a writing that was sent to me from my Uncle Buck before I saw the memory chest:
Becky and I are really close to finishing your memory box. Or at least we think we are. All that is left to do is put some lid supports on it and resolve one remaining issue. It may be done this weekend. If so we will probably take it to your Mom and Dad-unless some catastrophe strikes.
Well, there is that and the endless worry that you won't like what we have done. It is always like that for us. We get so wrapped up in things that all the worry is pushed aside until the very end. Now that we aren't thinking about details we have time to worry and we have darn near talked ourselves into starting all over!!
I hope you will forgive the many mistakes and errors I am certain you will find over time. We had never done anything like this before and an experienced eye would tell you we still need a lot of practice. I am worried that it may not be as strong as I wanted it to be and... well, just fill in the blanks. I am worried about everything associated with it.
Holly, I hesitated when you asked about building something like this for your friend because I can't look at it as a piece of furniture. To me it is a work of art. Not really good art, but art from Becky and me. We give it everything we have. But I have no idea how I could ever put a price on the effort. We would spend hours working on something as simple as inlaying an angel or arranging the boards in one manner or the other. Fellow woodworkers that I discussed the project with told me I was insane for worrying about all the tiny details the way I do. They told me I was far too slow to ever make any money doing this. They are probably right. But it is the only way I know. I cry on Becky's shoulder when something goes wrong. I break a sweat over the smallest of details. And if you ever do a DNA test you will find that Becky and I both left blood on the wood after cutting our fingers doing something or the other. There you have it, blood, sweat and tears! I am not complaining, it was part of our own little journey. I just don't know how to place a price tag on it. I guess if someone is interested in us building a box for them we would consider it. But please be sure they know who they are dealing with first. This is all new to us. We are slow and we make a lot of mistakes!
The truth is you could probably go to WalMart and buy a better box. No one there would have ever tried to use the wood I chose. And I am sure that whoever makes boxes for them has a jointer so their joints and seams are much tighter than what I can achieve. I have no doubt they are more highly skilled and have better tools to work with. The only way Becky and I can compete is in the story. So here it is.
Memories of Carleigh
When Holly first discussed her need for a memory box I hoped and prayed she would find someone else to build it for her. My logic was very simple: Things like that take so much out of me I didn’t want to face the mental strain. Others may see it as simply building a box but nothing is that simple for me. I find brushing my teeth to be a major decision making process so something like this was completely out of the question.
For me, building a memory box for Carleigh was far more than cutting and joining wood. It is like this anytime I decide to build a project with wood. When I take sawdust from a piece of wood it takes something out of me as well. It is an exhausting process. Each project ends up being a memorable journey, a part of my life that I never regret. But as much as I enjoy seeing the picture in my head come to life, getting it from concept to finished product is tough. Running away is much easier!
I knew Carleigh’s memory box would be even more difficult than other things I have built. In this case the box would have to be as special as the memories and mementos it would hold. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. I’m still not sure. There are so many decisions. Do you use dark wood or a light wood? Should it be soft wood, hard wood or plywood? What style looks best? Flat panels, raised panels or should I go without panels at all? How about hinges. Should they be hidden, flush, or surface mounted? Should they be continuous, round, square, or rectangular? What type of box should it be? Should the box have a lock on it? Would it even turn out the way the family wanted? Oh yeah, would it be the right size? On top of everything else I had never built a box like I thought she was talking about so I wasn’t certain I could even build one that would withstand the rigors of ordinary use. Since the box would be housing something as special as Carleigh’s things I knew every detail would be of the utmost importance to me. My head was spinning with all the different questions and concerns so I ducked when the idea of a memory box was being floated. Or at least I thought I ducked.
Becky had a different idea and told Holly we would make it. So begins the tale of building the memory box.
When I set out to create something like this I need to be certain the wood is right for the project. Becky and I discussed making the memory box out of cedar. Nope. How about wood recovered from the family barn? Maybe, but it didn’t feel right for this particular project. We looked at wood we found in our own barn and even considered having lumber cut from elm, hickory or oak trees harvested from our property. We looked at using some quarter sawn oak Becky had bought at a store in Toledo but in the end none of it felt right. We, mainly me, spent months looking for the right wood for the project because I just can’t get started on something like this unless the wood feels right for the project. Then one day Rosie, our neighbor from across the pond asked if I wanted some old walnut from her storage building. She said if I didn’t take it she was going to burn it to get rid of it. I agreed sight unseen. Any woodworker would understand. You just don’t pass up something like that.
The wood was stored on a small loft and Rosie, at 76 years old, had climbed a ladder and was in the loft ready to hand down the wood when Becky backed the trailer down her driveway. I hope I am that nimble and active at 56! Rosie explained the wood had been recovered from a house her husband worked on years ago. She didn’t remember the house or any details, just that her husband Howard had recognized the walnut under the many layers of paint and decided to keep it for a special project that he never got around to. The minute I touched the first piece Rosie handed down to me I knew what that special project was. This wood was always intended for the memory box. Don’t ask me why because I can’t explain it. All that matters is that I was being granted the opportunity to give this wood a second life and I was finally out of excuses for not getting started.
This may sound really strange but I honestly believe some wood is destined for specific projects. If you don’t believe me look for the tiny face in the figured wood on the memory box. It wasn’t visible when everything was covered in paint. I have no idea how it survived the multiple passes of the planer that I had hoped would eliminate most of the defects in the wood. Even the endless sanding Becky did wasn’t able to remove it. I thought about digging out the small amount of white paint that forms the mouth of the face but in the end I decided to leave it. After all, it had been through a lot and it seemed pretty determined to be a part of the memory box. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Working with second life lumber is far more difficult than working with anything you purchase at a lumber yard. To begin with it is never the exact size you need. Every piece of wood is cut or planed no less than 6 times. In my case it is closer to 20 times if I need to plane it to size. And that is before you start sanding or shaping it. I always laugh when I read about a woodworking project and the author tells you to order 10~15% more wood than the plan calls for. The idea is that you will need to trim some ends and widths so you will have a small amount of waste you need to account for. I must be a lousy woodworker because my projects with second life lumber usually end up with about a 50% scrap rate. To be fair, not much of it actually goes to waste because Becky takes everything larger than a gnat’s backside and keeps it for her scroll saw projects. But it is too small for me to use again.
Given the difficulty of working with used wood, any sane person would do the logical thing and buy new lumber to begin with. But I enjoy the journey so much I don’t mind the battle. I guess it is like the difference between taking the interstate or a 2 lane road in the country. You can get there in a hurry on the 4 lane. But there is a lot more history on the 2 lane. It just takes longer. The key is to look for reasons to enjoy the journey. Second life lumber usually provides me with enough challenge to keep me interested.
This wood had several layers of paint that I scraped, sanded and cussed for hours before I could even cut the first piece. John and Linda saw me working on it one day and after laughing at me commented that it didn’t look like a lot of fun. There is some truth in that statement! I was attempting to find and extract the nails that were buried in the wood. And I did remove a dozen or more nails. Unfortunately I wasn’t overly successful because the fasteners of craftsmen past resurfaced and took out 2 sets of planer blades and 3 band saw blades. One of the nails pretty much ruined a table saw blade. And all this was after I thought I had carefully checked each board for nails. Look closely and you will find the end of one nail that single handedly wiped out a band saw blade and a set of planer blades. I figured if a nail was going to fight that hard to stay embedded in the wood I would let it be. Maybe it just wanted to stand as a record of the history of the wood and remind everyone its life did not start as a memory box. Fortunately, no one recorded the choice words I had for that darn nail.
I love the subdued tone walnut brings when used in an application like this. I particularly like the mystery of where the wood came from and why it ended up here. To me the parallel with the journey Carleigh took to be a part of our lives is so obvious it couldn’t be missed. In the great story of life, both are unknown mysteries.
The beauty of the figured grain is offset by some of the straightest, most boring grain I have ever seen. I imagine it is a lot like Holly’s pregnancy was. A whole lot of boring days where not much was going on, but then we witnessed those moments when the clock stopped ticking and memories were fused forever in the minds of everyone who was a part of the journey.
I even like the dings and flaws in the wood. A fellow woodworker once told me there is no such thing as a flaw or mistake when you build with wood. There is only character. In building the memory box I had to accept this wood lived a life before I got my hands on it. The battle scars you see stand as proof of that life. In a sense the wood hasn’t changed, I am just reworking it for a second lifetime protecting precious mementos. It felt wrong to remove all the character that has defined the wood for decades. So I made sure some of that remained. I even added a few of my own “character marks” but you will have to find them yourself.
Hard as it is to believe, simply deciding on how the figured grain would be arranged on the box turned out to be a several hour affair. I spent time trying to arrange it one night and finally gave up in total disgust. The next day I asked Becky to do it for me. As always she was more than willing to help any way she could. She spent the better part of her evening sorting and arranging the wood to make sure the look we achieved was the one we were after. We went thru the whole process again just before the final cuts were made. Then we talked about which side would be out and which would be in. It was a torturous procedure because we are both pretty particular when it comes to things like this. Even after all the wood was cut and fitted Becky was turning individual pieces this way and that looking for a better match of color and grain. It is like this on every project we do together. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I changed the design of the box with each different wood we considered so there were probably half a dozen ideas rejected. Even the size and style of the box changed depending on the wood I was considering at the time. I ended up choosing the design you see for 2 reasons: one was the symbolism of storing treasured memories and mementos in a treasure chest. The other reason was far more practical. It is difficult to store anything heavy on a curved top chest. I have never made a piece of furniture like this before so I wasn’t sure how strong the lid would need to be. Call it cowardice if you like. I call it self preservation.
I wrestled with the idea of handles on the box. My first thought was to not have handles at all because I didn’t like the idea of memories being lugged around. Handles are on trash cans for Gods sake. I preferred the mental image of embracing the box and the mementos stored within it. But in the end the reality of hugging the box to carry it overcame any romanticized visions I had. It is a lot heavier than it looks. But that stirred up a several hour investigation of the different types of handles that are available. More on the handles later.
I debated the lock issue for the entire length of time it took to build the memory box. I really wanted to work with a full mortise type of lock, the kind you see on all the really old furniture. I have never done this before so it seemed like it might be kind of fun to try on this project. In the end I decided against it. I am not sure why. I guess it has to do with the realization that memories aren’t meant to be locked away. They should be readily available and a key just gets in the way.
The pile of wood that Rosie gave us included a few pieces of poplar. Years ago poplar was often used for the interior portions of furniture. I guess the green and purple hues that are sometimes present in a piece of poplar weren’t considered attractive so this wood was often stained and hidden from view. I wanted to keep with tradition so the bottom of the box is from the poplar Rosie gave us. But you can see the purple and green hues. Again, it is the character of the wood and I wasn’t about to hide it. Besides, it had spent several decades stacked right beside the walnut waiting to be used so I figure they can spend the next several decades beside each other. I think Howard, Rosie’s husband, would agree.
I wanted to use wood from the family barn on the memory box but it was tough deciding how to go about it. Ash and walnut are so different and I didn’t want the color contrast to detract from box. (Just another worry in an endless line of major concerns for me!) In the end Becky and I decided to use ash from the barn to make the handles for the box and lid. We also used ash for the feet of the box and for a center rib I decided to put on the lid (Fear of the lid breaking got to me in the end.) Since I was so worried about a potential clash between the ash and walnut we stained the ash that is visible on the outside of the box.
The angel accents Becky made were also cut from wood that was recovered from the Putnam family barn. But we didn’t stain these pieces. We thought it was better that way. It just seemed like a good way to finish things. Besides that, I like the idea of the wood representing several generations of the family always looking in on the mementos of Carleigh, a child we never got to know.
And now here are some pictures of Carleigh's memory chest. I really don't think that these pictures can adequately show how beautiful it really is. You just have to see it in person.
Last night I put all of Carleigh's keepsakes into her memory chest. I actually took a video of it but it was like 13 minutes long so I didn't want to post it. I am sure that her chest will be reorganized later at some point but at least for now her stuff is in there. I can't wait until we have a new house and will be able to create a special area for her and Jordan.