Dad Whittled Away

A block of wood was all it took for him to see… See what was inside.  Not yet revealed – not yet released – not yet visible to any other eye, yet obvious to him.  I looked at the block of wood in his hands as he proclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful?!”  It was more a statement than a question.  “What is it?”  There was something I was missing?  To me it look like a big block of wood, that’s all. 

“We’re going to make a gun.”  Inspecting and appreciating the many subtle grain variations, he began to point out details, “Look. See the lines?”  I saw lines as his fingers traced, my blind eyes now more opened.  They looked like the stripes on a tiger, only faint and lemony blond.  The overall block was the color of a manilla folder, and the ‘tiger stripes’ were peach, or a warm honey tone.  There wasn’t much contrast to speak of, unless you were Dad, who was tickled pink by his ornate block of wood.  

It was typical for Dad to spend hours working on projects.  He loved to create!  In the basement workshop of our home, he had an old dentist drill (another of his ‘finds’/repairs) that he used to whirl away endless pieces of wood.  The pool table, in the adjacent room, served more often as a showcase for all his work-in-process, especially guns. A great amount of time and focus went into each piece, as each was quite involved in its own way. (Dad was patient and diligent in this respect.) They laid on the table waiting their turn at the bench – a rebuild, an awesome find, a repair of one sort or another – he was a bona fide gunsmith. Yet another self-taught profession that people would seek him out for.  The man had a gift, he could fix, fabricate, create from scratch – pretty-much anything.    


We had blueing tanks in the garage, as he would blue the barrels himself. (These are not his tanks – just an image for reference purposes.) Click image to see source site.

In order to spend time with Dad, one had to meet him on his playground.  For me it was always time well spent, and an educational adventure.  I loved following him around, ‘helping’ him.  (I know I must have been annoying at times, but he never let on.)  Learning how to reload ammo was fun.  I can remember him calculating the precise amount of gun powder on a scale, then setting a series of dials accordingly.  He rechecked the measurements to ensure it was set properly.  Each used casing was polished and ‘trimmed’ to make them near ‘new’ again.  In the meantime, I would sort and set up primers.  It was all quite mechanical and methodical – quite assembly-line-ish – and it gave me a means to have some awesome one-on-one time with my Dad.  (It wasn’t like he was going to hang with me and my dolls… though I didn’t much care for dolls.)  

images-1As I write this, I am flashing back to the day I watched him make the round, musket bullets for the muzzle-loaders he had built.  I can still remember the heavy smell of molten lead, it was quite distinct. (and probably not the healthiest thing to be smelling/breathing!)  (I wasn’t allow to ‘help’ during this process.)  

Wearing a protective leather apron, he poured the bubbling ‘lava’ into a mold. It was so shinny, like the silver-white mercury from a broken thermometer, and it took only a small amount to fill the hollowed chamber.  We then waited for the lead to cool and set.  The left over was stored for future use.  

{Years ago my mother bought the concentrated Tropicana Orange Juice.  We had to pop the top off, then add three cans of water to the content.  Those containers are now made of paper, back then it was some type of sturdy metal.  He actually melted the lead in one of those cans.  I don’t know how it didn’t melt!  But it didn’t… }

One time, after that old OJ can of lead had cooled, he innocently handed it to me to inspect.  My senses expected a similar weight to that of the concentrated OJ can ~ the one my Mom so often handed me when the time to make juice was upon me.  Dad laughed as he released the heavily weighted can into my grip and my arm was suddenly overburdened.  (“Lead weight” – my lesson for the day. ;))

Once the lead was cool, the mold was opened, dropping out a perfectly round ball.  (Aside from the seam-line where the sides of the mold met, and the dimple where the pouring hole was…) The process was repeated until my grown-man father, transformed into that of a kid holding his new red-velvet-pouch of marbles. 

The ritual of muzzleloading was intriguing.  Though the musket balls were made first, they were the last step when it came to loading.  The first step was a measure of black powder, poured into the barrel from a gun powder flask.  Next a wad of cloth was placed over the barrel opening with a bullet in its center. A ramrod, that was moments ago attached along the gun barrel, stuffed – or I should say more appropriately – rammed both into position.  The last step before firing – a small amount of gun powder is placed where the flint is to strike, the hammer gets cocked back – – you are ready to shoot.  

I find this entire activity ceremonial and nostalgic.  As if making a perfect cup of brewed tea, arranging a bouquet of flowers, or tasting a fine wine... There is something to the detail and intention of a fine task.  It was beautiful.  Still is, in my mind. 

I must say, hunting with a muzzleloader, back in the good ol’ days, had to have been nerve racking.  Being accurate was necessary beyond current day imagination.  You only had one shot… lest dinner runs off with a flesh wound, or worse you piss off whatever you just wounded and you yourself become the prey.  It is for this very reason, rifling came about. (Not to mention the evolution of bullets…)

Dad spent endless hours whittling in his tiny basement workshop.  (CD101.9 was always playing in the background – he loved his Jazz.)  Carving, sanding, etching – until the vision in his mind appeared in his hands.  I do not know how he stayed so focused for so long on one minute area, but he did.  Painstaking detail, disciplined resolve.  He stuck with each task until it was to his liking.  As the carving tools created their little piles of saw dust, they covered his work.  I loved to shadow over his shoulder as he blew the dust away, revealing his progress.  Shavings covered the workbench, the floor around him, his clothes – permeating a scent of fresh cut wood into the air.  (Many times I was ‘nominated’ to clean this dust… and the files.  A crimped bullet casing worked wonders on clearing out the wood clogged ridges.  The copper was softer than the metal, and worked like a comb as it was run back and forth over the grooves.)

When that ‘big block of wood’ – that tree corpse of sorts – was shaped into the stock of his liking, and the fine sanding was finished, it was time for stain.  It was at this moment all the hard work revealed.  I would say it was akin to cleaning a dirty window, disclosing the beauty of nature outside… but it was a hunk of wood, now coming to life in a whole new realm.  Rich, and warm, and vibrant, and detailed.

When it came time for the scope to be attached, a problem arose.  The cross hairs inside somehow came undone.  Being of creative innovative annoying mind, Dad reached over and yanked out of few strands of my hair.  I thought he was moving closer to dust something off of my head – or give me a supportive pat… but no. 

“Owww!  What the heck are you doing?!”  Pleased with the successful ambush, he laughed, “I need to make some cross hairs.  I need really thin strands.”  {Oh really?!}  “So what makes you think mine is the finest?!”  And with that I reached up and yanked out a few of his hairs for comparison.  After his “Ow”  and ‘Hey, I don’t have that much hair to be ripping out…’ We compared measurements with a precision micrometer.  (another lesson…) It turns out, his was the finest.  (Yup – Dad fashioned new crosshairs out of his own hair!)

I spent hour upon hour ‘overseeing’ his work.  From time to time he would crane his neck up to get a stretch, or bebop to a tune… We chatted about nothing and everything.  I fetched him snacks and drinks, I cleaned when asked, I handed tools when asked, all while he tinkered and whittled away.  As I hold the finished creation in my hands, of what was of his mind, I can’t help but be humbled by the pricelessness – so much more than the rifle itself.   It serves as a porthole to all the time spent with a man that is no longer gracing our great Earth.

 (I miss you Dad!  Happy Birthday!!)

*{I am compelled to add this side note and share another story. (How could I not?) The prompt was due to a bird – Just as I hit the ‘Publish’ button to post ‘Dad Whittled Away’ – in honor of what would have been his 83rd birthday – a bird flew into my air conditioner!  (Read Messages from Above and Beyond to learn about my Dad, birds and ‘signs’…) It sat atop ‘visiting’ for a few moments, then flew off.  Crazy timing!  Well… maybe not.}



Not only the wood was embellished…DSC_0115


4 comments on “Dad Whittled Away

  1. William McNaught

    Wow…I remember him doing that stuff. He invited me into the “room” many times. I love that man and your family so much Nan. Thank you for the memories!

    1. Nancy

      I know! 🙂 the more I wrote the more I remembered! Love you too Billy! (so sad to loose our loved ones – just so surreal. Feels unfair, and yet here it is…)

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