Rarely does an experienced cabinetmaker have the opportunity to pass his knowledge on to a new generation before he dies. Generally, cabinet making falls to a factory, likely in China.
A lot of skill isn’t needed to mass-produce the cabinets or furniture now found at big box stores. Don’t get me wrong; I recognize this is the next logical step to increase efficiency and reduce costs so average people can afford many products. What I bemoan are the skills and techniques of the experienced wood craftsmen that are lost forever when these old gents are gone.
I once knew a cabinetmaker of such skill. I only knew him as Mr. Thompson. He was many years my senior. Simply being around him made one want to show respect. He lived, with his gracious wife, on lower Normal Hill. I’m not sure I knew his first name, but I wouldn’t have dared address him that way if I had.
Mr. Thompson specialized in building things like grandfather clocks, and every one was a work of art. He kept photographs of the clocks and other things he had made during many years. When showing these to a visitor, his gnarled old hands caressed each one as they would a new baby, and a smile and twinkling eyes lit up his weathered face. These were his “children,” after all. In hindsight, I wish I had known this craftsman longer and asked him to build a clock for me, although such things were far out of my price range at the time.
We became acquainted with Mr. Thompson as the result of an accident. An uncle of my late first wife while in the military in Germany had sent her a magnificent antique Bavarian walnut music box of the kind that played perforated metal disks about 14 inches in diameter. This was back when freight was still delivered to the old Lewiston depot by train, and I remember the shock we had when calling for the package. The music box had been shipped with a refrigerator placed on top of its wood crate, and the treasure was in thousands of splinters. The only part remaining intact was the cast-iron mechanical works inside. But the beautiful inlaid music box was, it seemed, beyond repair.
Recounting this disaster to a friend, I was told of Mr. Thompson: “If anybody can put that disaster together, Mr. Thompson can.” Hardly hoping anything so damaged could be resurrected, we found Mr. Thompson in his wood shop, a small building that had once been a single-car garage.
Mr. Thompson said he believed he could repair it, although we hardly believed him until we were shown his photographs. Then we knew we had to let him try, regardless of the cost. When I asked him about that, he mumbled something about this being a treasure that couldn’t be discarded, that we would work something out. He and his wife invited us into their home, and we spent a delightful couple of hours looking at their antique furniture. Each piece had a story that either Mr. Thompson or his wife were excited to tell. Several pieces were noted as having been repaired by Mr. Thompson, but I could not see evidence of repairs, even when he pointed them out.
About four weeks later, Mr. Thompson called to say we should stop by and see what he had done with the music box, and to bring the metal records that had survived. We were astonished at the transformation. The beautiful old relic had been restored with virtually no sign of damage. The inlays were again pristine and the wonderful old antique glistened from a new finish. After noting he had added a feature to prevent the lid from pulling out the hinges, Mr. Thompson wound the mechanism, placed one of the records on, and moved the lever.
The dulcet tones rang out, amplified by the repaired cabinet. It was hard to imagine that this beautiful instrument had, just weeks earlier, been little more than a pile of splinters. Mr. Thompson had truly worked a miracle of his skill and occupation.
At the time, I made $1.75 an hour at a local factory. I hesitantly asked how much we owed for this extraordinary feat of craftsmanship. Smiling, he answered: “Is 25 bucks too much?”
With a busy life, I lost track of this fine old craftsman over the years, and finally heard that he had passed on. I’m glad I knew him, however briefly. If you know someone like Mr. Thompson, treasure them.
Rogers of Clarkston is a retired manager at CCI-Speer (now Vista Outdoor). His email address is email@example.com.