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Nostalgia, Part Trois…

December 15, 2014

Blocks 08

After my recent blog post about my grandpa, my mom and I chatted a bit about his past. She clarified some of my inaccuracies and provided me with more information on other topics. I wanted to write some of it down before I forgot it. Hopefully I’ll be able to achieve a balance here of showing you some of the cool things my grandpa did, while avoiding the cookie cutter “I got into woodworking because of my grandpa…” bit. I do understand why Popular Woodworking doesn’t want that kind of topic for its End Grain articles, but I also want to get some information written down, even if just for my own future reference.

Among the various jobs he had over his lifetime, my grandpa was a cabinet maker for several years. He built his own cabinet shop in the 1940’s. The building is long gone, the location now a parking lot at the Saint Louis University Eye Hospital. He had one employee and mom thinks he might have always used pallet wood; he always did after she was aware of what he did for a living, in any case. That resonates well with me, if you can imagine.

In addition to the things I already listed in Nostalgia, Part Deux (blocks, a kid’s sized workbench, a cutting board, and the kitchen countertop), he also made a baby bed and child-sized stove, china cabinet, and doll beds. He made a lot of the equipment he used as an artist. I’d hate to see the condition they are in, but we might have a few easels somewhere on the farm. I think they’re in the garage (you don’t know how much this scares me). Mom says they are more likely in the basement (this does nothing to alleviate my fears).

He made kitchen cabinets for at least a decade. After that, he became a layout and design commercial artist. He did lettering on advertising signs for a living. NO STENCILS! (Before I updated it, my last blog entry said they were “hand stenciled” letters on the blocks; I meant to say they were hand-painted. I knew he did them by hand, I just used the wrong word.) Mom said he stayed up late at night practicing his lettering for months years in order to get good enough to get the advertising job.

Over the weekend, I made a trip down to the farm and got some pictures of the blocks and the workbench. My mom sent me some pictures of the cutting board, as well.

The blocks came with trays and extra boards that had themed words on them – days of the week, farm animals, fruits, that sort of thing – I’m pretty sure his intent was for them to be learning aids as well as toys.

My name is first on the larger tray, a significance I was quick to point out to my older brother...

My name is first on the larger tray, a significance I was quick to point out to my older brother…

The blocks are full-mitered hollow cubes with a shellac finish.

I've always been impressed with these blocks...

I’ve always been impressed with these blocks…

One has gone MIA over the years – I have no idea what happened to it, though I’m pretty certain it was not done on my watch. Apparently, there were only ever 13 blocks (something about there being 26 letters in the alphabet and using half that many blocks to make out all of the letters and numbers… at least I can confirm none were lost on my watch). Excepting one or two minor splits and a few chipped edges, they have held up remarkably well.

I know there was some pattern to the way he lettered the blocks; you can spell out my name in the green upper-case solid letters and my older brother’s name in the orange outline letters at the same time. I think there is more to it than that, even, but I’d have to study them a bit more to figure it out.

Maple and Walnut Cutting Board 01

The cutting board is showing its age, but the glue lines are still tight. Mom said that my little brother did have to re-glue part of it a few years ago. It would probably respond well to a few swipes of a hand plane and some salad bowl oil. You might note it has a finish on it at the moment – probably a polyurethane – that has almost completely worn off the top, but remains on the sides and bottom. I don’t think it hurts anything being on the bottom, but if I renew the cutting surface, I’ll not replace it with more polyurethane, for obvious reasons.

Seriously, don't soak it.

Seriously, don’t soak it.

The lips on either end facilitate picking it up, but the cutting board was also sized so that these overhangs set on the rim of a standard-sized sink. He obviously put a lot of thought into everything he did.

GK Workbench 06

The workbench was also made with recycled pallet boards. I don’t have any pictures of the top of it, but along the back was a series of square holes; I always assumed they were for holding chisels or screwdrivers, even when I was a kid. Oh, and for holding Star Wars figures – they did that just fine, as well. Unfortunately, it never really worked out well as an actual workbench; it’s just too light.

GK Workbench 04

The base is a little wiggly now, though I suspect it was not like that originally. I think I might be able to make it more solid if I were to examine it closely with that goal in mind, though it would still be too light for a proper bench of any sort. The problem is not due to loose bolts connecting the legs, but one of design. The tall, thin legs set into a dado in the base does not create the inflexible base a workbench requires. Mom says it really was meant to be used more for an art table than an actual workbench.

Which is good, because we used the workbench as an art table, more than anything. The drawer was a great depot for art supplies and the top was a perfect area for large drawing and watercolor pads. Mom said the vice was put on the right side so we could use it for sawing. I’m not sure we used it for anything more than trying to crush old toys (don’t tell my mom that, though…).

Speaking of art… Unfortunately, some of his art equipment – wooden tables and storage devices I now realize he must have built himself – was poorly stored over the years and did not survive the challenged living environments of The Machine Shed and The Garage. As mentioned above, we might have some easels somewhere still; I plan on trying to find them when I have a few free hours.

Any more than 1/24th gross and I probably wouldn't want to pick them up!

Any more than 1/24th gross and I probably wouldn’t want to pick them up!

While the equipment did not fare well, I was able to salvage a good amount of his art supplies many years ago. I wasn’t being nostalgic at the time, though, I was being cheap. I needed supplies for my design and drawing classes and I had an easy source of quality materials nearby. I have an art box with pretty much all of the supplies I didn’t use up still in my basement. I use some of them in the workshop today and have found nothing better for marking on rough and finished lumber than Koh-I-Noor 2B graphite and blue polycolor sticks.

I was using 2mm lead holders before it was cool...

I was using 2mm lead holders before it was cool…

I believe my mom has (and uses) some of his artists paint brushes still. She keeps them in a semi-free form block of Douglas Fir he made into a paint brush holder with the addition of several holes of various sizes. My plan is to duplicate it at some point in the near future.

In the mean time, I’m still digging stuff up and making notes. I know we have (had?) several drawing pads full of my grandpa’s sketches and cartoons; I’d like to try and locate them when I look for the easels and see if any of it is worth saving.

Hopefully this is slightly more interesting than a history lesson on wood?


Addendum:  My mom wanted me to point out that my grandfather suffered a serious stroke when he was older, but that the kitchen counter and blocks and the child-sized kitchen appliances were all made after this event.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2014 8:59 am

    What a great story. You have such a rich woodworking history, and it must be nice to get some information verified and corrected. Wonderful mitered and lettered blocks. He really did put a lot of care into making them!


    • December 23, 2014 9:44 am

      Thanks, Barb! I agree! And I’m still always impressed that those blocks have survived whenever I see them, because my brothers and I were quite rough on them. Like, really rough.


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