Earlier this year, Tasha and I decided we wanted to focus on building an outdoor dining area, since food and being in the outdoors amidst our creations are both very important to us. Some time in the spring, we began thinking about what we wanted in an outdoor table: big enough to seat at least 12 comfortably, charmingly rustic, yet simple enough in design that it could be built from several lengths of structural 3x10 and 2x10 rough hewn beams that we bought from Noonkester Lumber just up the road.
After giving it some thought, we decided on a design where four massive, 12-foot 3x10s that form the table surface would rest on three 3x10 trestles, themselves supported by five 6x6 legs. The fifth leg is in the middle of the table, connected to the other four legs by centerboards, which hold all the legs together. The challenge was in working with materials so big and heavy that I could barely move each individual piece myself, which made building the table in situ necessary. When I had finally assembled the table, upside down, Tasha and I had to ask our excellent and very gracious neighbors Donnie and Anita for help. All four of us were able to turn the table rightside up and nudge it into place on the patio. Since our patio isn’t excactly uniformly flat, made as it is from river rocks of various sizes, we had to shim a couple of the legs.
But back to the building process. As I mentioned, working with lumber that cumbersome and heavy made me think, and I thought of the old days, and of how people used to routinely build much larger things like houses, barns, and boats from beams heavier and more difficult to work with than the very forgiving locally sourced yellow pine we chose for our table. Not only did they lack flat bed trucks for delivery and band saws to mill the timber, they would have had to fell the tree with axes and saws, not chainsaws and skid-steers.
While I found it difficult enough to put the table together using engineered bolts, a worm-drive circular saw, and a power drill with specialty bores and mortise bits, I thought of how differently it would have been done in the days before electricity or mass-produced steel hardware. The mortise-and-tenon style of carpentry that I was faking (using dowel plugs to hide the countersunk bolt heads) would have been one of the only ways. A carpenter joining wood with mortise and tenon construction would have to turn the dowels (tenons) on a lathe, cut them to size, and then hammer them through a bore hole (the mortise) cut in exactly the right place at exactly the right dimension for a snug fit.
My friend Ted has made some beautiful benches in this style, but he’s an accomplished wood worker and carpenter, and the precision and attention to detail necessary to build a large table and benches this way are far in excess of my current skill level. Such a project would, I imagine, have taken rather longer than it took me, and required skills with hand tools and an understanding of wood that could only be acquired through a lengthy apprenticeship. In contrast, anyone with the money to buy the materials and power tools necessary to build a table can readily do so, with big box chain stores stocking everything from pre-milled lumber to build with, to electric saws and cordless drills, to the chemical varnishes and weather proof finishes one might wish to apply to the finished product.
We wanted to use rough-hewn, locally sourced timbers and to give the table and benches a rustic feel, rather than simply bolting together a bunch of pressure-treated lumber, and I’m happy the table and benches turned out as well as they did. It is truly humbling, though, to consider how differently and with how much greater skill a craftsman of even 150 years ago would have had to approach the task of something so seemingly mundane as building a dinner table.
Lately I find that I appreciate the outcome of a process in proportion to the amount of effort and thought that go into the process. Conversely, things that are built without thought or consideration are rarely worth caring about. The sourdough bread I spend a half hour working by hand just tastes that much better than what I might toss in a mixer. While people may think it’s strange that I prefer to cut the grass on our homestead using a scythe rather than a lawn mower, I get a great aerobic and core workout in the process and the satisfaction of using a tool that requires no external inputs besides the labor and the skill of the user.
I’m not about to grow a (much longer) beard or insist on traveling by horse or anything like that, but if I’ve learned anything from our homesteading experience so far, it’s that the closer I can get to the land and the work, the more fullfilling and rewarding the final outcome is. Technology and power tools are wonderful for saving time and getting a job done quickly, but they also separate us from our work: Artful things that once required skill and love to craft become just another product, just another process. Building this table was fun and I’m proud of the end result, but it’s truly humbling to consider how it would have been built in the days before electricity.
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