Of ROLLTPOS, GOATS, and GLUE
In central Ohio you can always tell an Amish farm because there are no power lines going to the farmhouse. I was looking for Ezra Muller's place. Ezra is a young but up-and-coming cabinetmaker, and I was hoping he would do a special job for me. I'd seen some Amish-made furniture in a city store and wanted to go right to the source. With a little bit of nosing around, I had discovered Ezra's reputation, and I was excited to visit him.
Riding along the dirt farm road across rolling fields, I soon saw what must be his place. Two buggies were parked outside the barn ... and, sure enough, no power lines.
We pulled in next to the buggies. Several kids scurried to get back closer to the house. We got out and called to them to ask if Ezra were around. He was out in the fields, and while they went to get him, we looked around the cabinet shop.
Clearly, cabinetry was a tradition in this family. The barn was divided in half, the front part for buggies and livestock, the back for woodworking. Projects in various stages of completion were scattered around: benches with carved backs, lovely kitchen cabinets, and just what I was hoping to find - a brand-new roll-top desk.
Hand tools of every description, ancient and modern, covered work surfaces. Ezra soon came in, a small slender man with the requisite large black hat, beard, and blue coveralls. After introductions and a few pleasantries, I posed the question: Could he make me a solid cherry roll-top desk? To my delight, he quickly answered, ``Yes, if you're not in a hurry.''
I love the feel of a well-finished wood. I have done just enough amateur woodworking to have deep admiration for those who can do it right. And black cherry has a special place in my heart. You see, the northwestern part of my home state of Pennsylvania is the black-cherry capital of the world. The forests are full of it. After years of traveling around the world and never being in one place long enough to own a real desk, it now seemed fitting to have one made by a local craftsman of local wood.
We talked about the design of the desk. It should have an array of those mysterious little cubbyholes across the top and slots for ledgers and such. But this one would also have a custom-designed space for my word processor, an important concession to modernity. And the file drawers would be specially sized to take hanging file folders.
Ezra wanted to put some carved flourishes at the base of each pedestal; his true love was woodcarving. This was going to be a functional beauty. In Amish fashion, he would put in extra-heavy hardware, drawer glides, and such. This desk would never wear out.
We worked out a satisfactory price and I was almost ready to go. But first we had to have a look in the barn. The stalls were full. Not only did he have horses for pulling his buggies in style, he had a beautiful pair of palomino Hoefflinger draft horses - short, stocky workers. And of course, he had his milk cow, rabbits, pigeons, and chickens, and a very curious nanny goat. The air was warm and smelled of goat-cow-chicken-horse. What a joy it was to be in this wholesome place!
We drove away on a cloud of pleasure, with visions of the finished product in our mind's eye. But before it would be completed, we would come back for intermediate visits, to see the progress being made, to rub the wood, to be amazed by the tightness of the joints, to discuss the process ... and to see the animals again.
Four months later the news arrived that the job was done. I had arranged to pick it up unfinished, so that I could have that pleasure for myself.
We arrived in a friend's pickup truck ready to carry it home. But first we had to glide our hands over the amazing smoothness of the surfaces, admire the way the rolltop opened and closed so perfectly.
Did you ever wonder how the roll is held together? Here's how: Long cylinders of the appropriate diameter are cut in half lengthwise to provide the rods. Then they are glued flat-side down on a big sheet of heavy canvas, which is attached to weights on the back and a handle on the front. The really clever part for the cabinetmaker is forming the beautiful curved track that the whole assembly runs in.
We got this behemoth home all right and then had to get about eight strong friends to help carry it up the steps. Now in place, it will only be moved in major emergencies!
It was finished right in place, lifted up on little blocks to protect the carpet. I spent days at the library, investigating all the possible techniques. I even got Ezra to send me a set of unfinished blocks of cherry, so that I could try different colors of stain and different staining methods.
In the end, it came out a soft golden brown, close to its natural color, nothing like the deep red stain so popular some years ago.
It is so different to acquire something with this kind of investment of time and attention to the process, to know the craftsman, to love the materials, to honor the traditions, and finally to have a role in its completion oneself.
It's not what it costs that matters (although it was a good deal). This is my idea of a real treasure hunt. A very satisfying adventure.