Finality   1 comment

Before our very last days prior to our scheduled pick-up, the thought of leaving Minnesota didn’t sink in.  We were too busy to think about it.

On top of job-hunting, packing, stacking, dealing with movers, the INS, the IRS, Canadian Border Services, Poplar Bridge’s management office, et al, a special project remained for completion.

Over a year earlier, Paul and I commissioned  a custom pair of desks: mirror images with three drawers and a slide-out keyboard shelf.  Each includes an optional side arm easily clicked into place, transforming the desk to an ‘L’ configuration to accommodate two computers and laptops or peripherals if necessary.  Even back then, we knew we wouldn’t be in Minnesota forever; the desks were designed to be disassembled if necessary for moving.  We anticipated them to be the last we would ever need.

Ironically, the desks were not a vanity purchase.  Shortly before, Paul lost the ability to fully move one of his arms.  He was diagnosed with bulging discs in his upper back and lower neck – a byproduct of decades spent in front of computers in workspaces lacking proper ergonomics.  Most days before his layoff, Paul worked from home.  His work area in our home office contributed to the injury.  Determined by his orthopedic surgeon to be a prime candidate to go under the knife, Paul blanched.  He chose an alternate treatment of physical and occupational therapy combined with ibupropen.  It worked.  Ergonomic improvements to his existing desk set-up were needed.

Unsure we had the woodworking skills to build the desks ourselves, we asked Rory King, the woodworker from whom we leased our workshop space, to handle construction, assembly and coating them with a protective clear matte urethane finish under the proviso that we assist under his supervision.  In turn, we agreed to cut, assemble and glue the sold wood desktops, apply the oil finish beneath the clear urethane and receive a discount on labor, knocking off nearly $2,500 off the combined price.

Choosing a design and plan was not easy.  We are fans of American and British Arts and Crafts-style furniture created roughly between the late 1800s and 1945.  Old school design does not translate into new school functionality.  No single plan accommodated our needs.  Original period designs didn’t work; they were created long before the computer age.  We poured through available design plans to no avail.  Most were based upon desks created by Gustav Stickley or L. & J.G. Stickley prior to 1920 or in the later California Mission style.  Nice, but not unusual.  The ‘wow’ factor just wasn’t there.

Stickley desks – regardless of which Stickley brother designed them – executed in darkly ammoniated quartersawn white oak, have a manly and heavy air about them with bases often extending clear down to the floor.  Mission…well, everybody seems to have Mission, most of it not truly functional.

I wanted something different, something more light and airy like the Mission style, but with a combination of Stickley and new school function.

Finally, while perusing through plans in a local woodworking supply store, I found the plan that screamed wow.

This desk was inspired by one in Pasadena, California’s Gamble House designed by its architects, Charles and Henry Greene in 1908.  The original was done in Honduran mahogany with ebony trim inserts.  Mahogany and ebony were no-go zones because of their high price points and the difficulty of working with ebony.  Convinced the same result could be accomplished using a combination of American cherry and black walnut, I was undeterred.

The desk still didn’t suit our needs, however.  That’s where Paul’s drafting skills learned in junior high school came in handy.  Certain he could modify the design, we bought the plan.  Within weeks, Paul had a design.

Besides knocking off one row of drawers plus the center drawer to incorporate the side arm and keyboard slides, only one truly major change was made.  Sadly, we opted to swap out the distinctive Greene & Greene wood drawer pulls for something a little more conventional.  Looking forward, they presented problems for arthritic hands.

We quibbled at length about the type of wood to select.  Paul leaned towards oak for its easy availability and low price.  Cherry, he feared, was too expensive.  From where I sat, it had to be cherry or bust.  Oak just doesn’t work with a Greene and Greene design.

Rory knew of a wood wholesaler selling American cherry at discount directly to woodworkers at rates comparable to retail rates for quartersawn red or white oak.  We had our cherry.

Before us, our workspace was occupied by Kevin, a woodworker who opted to move to Canada to be closer to family members there.  Kevin left us his remaining treasure of hardwoods.  Never one to work with ugly wood (he actually created a workbench, purchased by someone else for a fire sale price but still used by us, out of surplus American cherry and purple heart), his trove included pieces of purple heart, cherry, Honduran mahogany and black walnut.  We had walnut.

For the most part, the desks were done except for the finish by the time it seemed certain we would move.  Indecision ruled the day.  We couldn’t decide on what type of oil finish to use.  We agreed it would probably be Danish oil, gel finish or possibly shellac.  We couldn’t agree on going neutral or with a combination of oil and stain.

The problem was solved by snatching scraps of our cherry supply from the re-use pile and buying samples of two different Watco Danish oil products, one being neutral and the other a combination of oil and a cherry stain.  We applied the stain to two pieces of wood and allowed them to age for a month.  Next to a sample of the cherry finished in shellac, we lined them up in a row.

The shellac was mostly brown with a slight red hue.  The neutral was just plain brown.  The combination of Danish oil and cherry stain popped.  We had our answer.

Anticipating we would move soon, Paul spent much time during December, January and early February applying Danish oil to our desks.  The black trim inserts were done using a black stain.  Rory spray varnished the desks in March.

Paul returned to the workshop to inventory and pack the glass and wood supplies and tools.  The desks were finally ready.  Paul wanted me to see them.

They were stunning.  As if surrounded by a halo, they glowed.

Rory was there.  From Day 1, he became one of our favorite people in Minnesota, easy to work with and always willing lend advice to improve our woodworking skills.  We would miss that, but also miss his friendship.  It would probably be the last time I saw him before leaving.

I came to realize how much I would miss our workshop.  Probably no one else shared Kevin’s audacity in constructing a cherry workbench topped with purple heart.  Except for lacking a sink, the space and its layout were perfect for working with both glass and wood.  Paul and I could work in it together and never collide with each other – a necessity when working with glass and power tools.  It couldn’t be replicated in total.

But there was no going back now.


One response to “Finality

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  1. You’ll need to post some pictures of these desks! They sound beautiful!

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