Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ken Laundry: Craft

Ken is a hero to me. I deeply respect the man and his work. I’ve learned many lessons from him, beginning with the coffee cans that I mentioned in an earlier post.

He’s a difficult man to work with. You do it his way or you’re wrong. And even if you do it his way, you won’t do it as well as he thinks you should have. I’ve heard him berating people who with all good intentions were just trying to help. I once offered to help him install a dock. Though he respects me and the skills that I have, he smiled and shook his head and said, “No thanks, I want to stay friends with you.”

So is he a meticulous perfectionist? No. Are his projects precious works of art? No. Does he have a unique method, a signature style? No, and no. But these are the wrong questions. Does he build to last? Yes. Has he survived over 90 years in a hardscrabble corner of the mountains, weathering the Great Depression and raising two fine boys while building what needed to be built for whatever meager budget was available, making the best of it, earning the respect of everyone he’s ever worked for? Yes. Absolutely.

I read many woodworking blogs. They inspire and instruct me with photos of wonderful carvings, inlaid patterns, perfect dovetails, handmade tools. But they rarely talk about the meat-and-potatoes of carpentry: Get it done. On time. On budget. In a workmanlike manner that won’t fall apart. Which is what Ken has been doing for nearly a century.

Check out the dock he wouldn’t let me help him with. It wouldn’t be boastful to say I could build one just as good. Possibly better. But he wouldn’t let me help because, for example, if you don’t tighten the bolts enough, they’ll slip, and if you tighten the bolts too much, you’ll strip the threads. How can he be sure they’re tightened just right unless he does it himself? And Ken wants it right. He builds to last. You’ve seen it in his barn.

Now, here’s a cabin he built about 1940:
It’s still sound. I sleep in it every summer. We replaced the roof shingles a couple of years ago. I’ve repaired the foundation, which is simply cedar posts on flat rocks:
When I began the repair, I was amazed that he’d built a cabin on flat rocks that lay on top of the ground. I thought you were supposed to dig a hole below frost line (which is about 60 inches here) to prevent frost heave. Ken patiently informed me that for the time and money available, a flat rock was the way to go. He built that cabin 7 years before I was born. Now I’m 61, and the cabin still stands. The cedar posts were rotting at the bottom; the cabin was out of level. But now I’ve fixed those little problems, and maybe the fix will be good for another 68 years of Adirondack freeze and thaw.

Here’s Ken’s toolbox:No dovetail joinery here. Wood scraps, probably recycled, joined by nails. And here are the tools he carries in that box:Nothing fancy or top-of-the-line. Here’s a house Ken built:And here’s a boathouse he rebuilt when the original was in a state of collapse (and he rebuilt it, of course, with logs he’d salvaged from somebody’s old barn):Here’s a corner of that boathouse:

It’s possibly the most beautiful building Ken ever made, and there was a flaw in how he made it. But this blog entry is getting too long, so I’ll continue later.

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