Woodworking Brought Me Closer to My Dad

But it was only in my 20s, and then again when I became a father, that I fully appreciated the lessons my dad was trying to teach me.

by Brian Anderson
Originally Published: 
A middle-aged man woodworking with his dad

“Dad, I want to do a woodworking project with you,” I said. It was the summer of 2007. I was living with my parents for a month before moving to Seattle for graduate school. I hadn’t lived at home since 1999, when I moved to college. The monthlong stay seemed like a good idea in the beginning, but it soon became clear that over those eight years, our daily routines, politics, and creature comforts had diverged quite a bit. So, my question was an olive branch to reconnect.

“You do?” He asked while flipping through the newspaper. He was still a quintessential father figure in some ways. “What did you have in mind?”

“I want to make a chess board.”

He smirked and replied, “OK, let’s do it.”

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He drained his coffee and placed the mug in the sink. Then he led me to the new addition to their house. He had retired six months earlier and built a third garage and woodworking shop. Thirty years earlier, he had given up his carpentry business, and this was his way of reconnecting with the passion he set aside for a series of jobs that were more stable for raising children.

The shop was pristine and days old, but the scent of pine, wood glue, and turpentine hung in the air. He had already christened the space with refinished antiques and household projects for my mom and neighbors. When pressed, he would say he isn’t opening up a business, but rather keeping himself active in retirement. My mother would argue otherwise: given the price tag on the addition, a little business to offset those costs would have been appreciated, if not expected.

But this is their marriage; I’m just a visitor.

My dad motioned to the scrap lumber bin in the corner. “There should be plenty of material in this bin.”

All I saw were random pieces. He sees the building blocks of any number of future projects and trees that gave of themselves.

As we go through the material, my enthusiasm began to wane. With each piece we assessed, a childhood memory of house projects and repairs erupted within me. No matter the project, the common theme to each memory revolved around the phrase “measure twice, cut once.” It is the mantra of any good carpenter.

Those words were the bane of my existence because no matter if I measured twice or five times, I would always cut pieces of lumber wrong. Thankfully, my father’s skills were passed onto my sister, who now has a career renovating houses, so the legacy of my father, and his father before him, lives on.

But I was never one for the precision needed in carpentry. In my youth, I would have preferred writing stories based on the Lego creations strewn across my bedroom or acting and singing in my high school’s drama department. And in the eight years that I didn’t visit home for more than a weekend at at time, those words retreated to the back of my mind. They would only reappear when I would share stories of my father with friends. Some would commiserate because they also had carpenter dads who’d demanded the same thing of children who were never meant to wield a hammer or circular saw.

Those stories would provide a laugh in the moment, and that maxim would drive a wedge in my memories between who my father was and who I wanted him to be for me. Eventually, it would become a bitter pill that undercut my ego as work projects went south and relationships ended. Things that I felt had nothing to do with carpentry would be poisoned by my inability to measure twice and cut once.

Making this chessboard was my attempt to put that behind me and have a fun day with my dad. Yet, within minutes of selecting the last piece of lumber, I knew we were doomed. The methodical, patient person that my dad becomes in his woodworking shop is the antithesis of the big-picture rapid-fire world I had been living in. I ignored the process and saw the finished project. My father saw the finished project, and relished the process that would bring him there.

That evening at dinner, with a finished chessboard drying in the woodshop, my mother steered the conversation to the upcoming wedding of a friend. My father and I played along and let the frustrations of our day, the many mistakes by my hands, and the lack of communication slip away. We had tried, but I was never going to be a carpenter.

Thankfully, while in graduate school, something clicked. As I studied, researched, and applied my knowledge, it dawned on me that my father was speaking the language he knew best, his demands to measure twice and cut once transcended carpentry. Why this had never sunk in before, I do not know. Perhaps, I just needed a quarter-life crisis to awaken me to the simple truth.

Now, 12 years later, his words are no longer a poison in my psyche. They are a challenge. They are a North Star that pushes me to be the best father that I can be for my two daughters. I don’t know what’s in store for them. They are 5 and 3 and show a lot of enthusiasm for a myriad of things. But I don’t trust them to hold a circular saw, so for now, I’ll just figure out a new way to express how to measure twice and cut once.

Brian Anderson is a husband, father, writer, and interfaith leader. During the day, he works with student leaders at the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core, and at night, he writes about fatherhood.

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