Rebuilding a toy chest is a connection to the past and the future.
I do not stem from woodworking lineage, at least not the kind you hear about. My dad wasn’t overly handy. While growing up, I recall most things either went unfixed or someone else was called to remedy the situation.
My grandfather worked as a maintenance man fixing this or that. Generally speaking though, grandpa was more of a frugal DIYer than a fine craftsman.
Nonetheless, their hearts were always in the right place and sometime in the early 1970s, they both set forth to cobble together a toy chest for my siblings. Over the years, the chest held action figures, dolls, baseball cards, and most likely someone’s illegal stash. It moved from the bedroom to the basement sometime in the late ’90s. There it sat until recently.
While visiting my mom, she asked me if I could reconfigure the toy chest with a new lid and safer hardware. This way, my two little girls could use it when they came to grandma’s house. I made my way into the basement and, with one look, became awash in childhood memories.
As I took second and third glances, I was able to see the piece with a woodworker’s eyes. I noticed the construction techniques: less-than-perfect case miters, screws, wood putty, and heart.
How did they cut these long case miters? Did they fill these screw holes with plugs? They didn’t have a table saw or a plug cutter, did they?
Over the course of several months I rebuilt the chest. I disassembled the structure, discarded the ugly plywood top, and planed down the boards to discover a beautiful pine bottom and maple sides.
More importantly, I was able to create linkages between my aging grandfather, my deceased father and my little girls. Working with this piece conjured up unexpected memories, questions and connections.
Not to get lost in metaphysics, but it’s as though I could feel my dad’s hands through the boards. It created an unanticipated comfort, because I no longer can touch those hands.
My dad was both a farmer at heart and by trade. As much as I rejected the simplicity of his ways as a teen, I rejoice in them now.
I scored some reclaimed wormy chestnut for the new top. I broke down these old boards by hand using grandpa’s recently restored (by me) Disston D-8. I experimented with breadboard ends, milk paint and cut nails for the first time. New and old intertwined at each step in the process. In my mind, I could see their smiles and I appreciated their guidance on this build.
The chest is back in use at the old homestead. Currently, it stores lots of pink and purple, but one day it might house an anarchist’s tools or grandma’s blankets – or maybe it will just be a place to set down a well-deserved drink. I look at it fondly each time I visit: a vestige of a life cut short and a legacy I promise to pass on. –Shawn Nichols
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