Keeping memory together is harder than it appears

September 30, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Last Saturday I wandered into the world of joinery, and a one-afternoon table-repair project morphed into a two-weekend obligation. Now fixing the old table has a chance of becoming one of my lifetime goals.

Joinery is the process of connecting two pieces of wood through the use of various forms of wood joints. There are many forms including dovetail joinery, mortise-and-tenon joinery, biscuit joinery and the lowly dowel joinery.

I learned this after the table that I was attempting to fix fell apart, repeatedly. It uses, as you might have guessed, the lowly dowels.

Woodworking purists regard dowels as cheating. A fine piece of furniture should, the woodworking elite believes, be held together with interlocking pieces of wood. While wooden dowels and pegs are scoffed at, they are not as lowly, I gathered, as screws and nails.

The parts of the 3-foot-tall end table did fit together snugly in its prime. Didn't we all? But things have slipped.

The table was built more than a half-century ago by my father's Uncle Arthur. He was a house painter and skilled craftsman. When I was boy, he came to live with us once, for about two weeks, while he painted our family's wood-frame house. As a kid with time on my hands, I watched him work. He wasted nothing, straightening bent nails, then reusing them.

His workmanship was also visible in the table when I examined it last weekend as it sat in pieces on my basement workbench. The table, more a memento than a treasured antique, had traveled over the years from Uncle Arthur's house, to the home of my parents in the Kansas City area, to our Baltimore abode.

It was a clever piece of construction. The top of the table locked into its two sides. These sides functioned as legs and were held together, at their base, by a long piece of notched wood. Midway between the tabletop and bottom of the legs was a V-shaped shelf. Small dowels, pegs really, connected the ends of the shelf to the table legs.

Decades ago, the table was held together with nary a nail or a screw. But as happens with family furniture, this table had taken some tumbles and had weathered some less-than-expert repairs. Four screws, probably called into action years ago by my father, now held the tabletop. Dowels that once held the shelf in place had snapped off. One had been replaced with a tiny nail.

I wanted to bring the table back to life for practical and sentimental reasons. The table would just fit in a space next to my easy chair. It would provide an excellent resting spot for the remote control, a book and a beer. Moreover, my wife had been after me for weeks to repair the table. Finally, the sight of the old table brought to mind thoughts of long-gone relatives. It is funny how old furniture can stir up memories.

Putting the table back together, however, has been a challenge. Reconstruction started well. Using a small drill bit, I drilled out the snapped stubs of the old dowels. Then employing a tip I got from Maurice, one of the gurus of my local hardware store, I swabbed the drilled-out holes with a Q-tip dipped in heated white vinegar. This removed the old glue residue. Next, I eased new dowels into the old holes.

Yet when it came time for assembly, the table parts, like Humpty Dumpty, couldn't be put together again.

Several times I thought I had succeeded, only to discover that a dowel had popped free, or that the wood piece holding the legs was secure at one end, but loose at the other.

I carried the table, and its flapping parts, back to my workbench.

I thought of Uncle Arthur, a man who would always have his dowels lined up and fitting snugly. I thought of my father, who, judging by the old glue stains, had once solved this joinery issue with a heavy dose of Elmer's Wood Glue.

I would prefer to join wood like Uncle Arthur, but I am my father's son.

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