A handmade table to set for Christmas dinner

One man remembers the time when he built a dinner table from scratch as a surprise for his parents on Christmas Day.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Table legs crafted by professional woodworker Jonathan W. McLean who uses hand tools to make fine furniture in his workshop in Framingham, Mass.

In 11th-grade shop class, I worked all fall on a dining room table. It would be a Christmas present for my parents, and a great surprise. 

My teacher offered me the project based on something he had seen in a woodworking design book – a butcher-block table, five feet in diameter. It was the biggest shop project I had ever done. 

Week after week, during the two periods before history class, I worked away, sawing two-inch-thick pine boards into square strips, laminating them into 12-inch sections, joining the sections, and then cutting a circle out of the large square blank. After weeks sanding the round top, I had a heavy, smooth wafer. Coat after coat of oil and finish were applied. I buffed it to a golden luster. Then I built a solid base. It was not quite a Shaker reproduction, but it was constructed with similar affection. “Hands to work, hearts to God,” as they said. Done. 

Almost. It weighed a ton. My plan was to move it by car, under cover of darkness, and sneak it into the house on Christmas Eve. Though I did not yet have my driver’s license when I began the project, I scheduled my road test at the registry of motor vehicles just a week before Christmas. I had one shot at getting my license in time for my delivery date. I did. Plan B would have risked arrest. 

After school one day, I moved the table to a friend’s barn as my staging area, and at midnight on Christmas eve I wrapped it in blankets and strapped it to the roof of our old Volvo station wagon, drove it across town, and eased up our driveway, headlights off. With great stealth, my brother and I rolled it through the front door and into the dining room, set it on its pedestal base, and covered it with a sheet. 

In the morning, I unveiled it. Mom cried. Dad was impressed. My pleasure in making it and giving it away was far greater than any pleasure I remember from receiving gifts – that year, or any year. We ate Christmas dinner on my table. 

As I look back, it feels as if I was setting the table for so much more. Many years later, the table came to my own house where, by then, a series of infants had joined the dinnertime conversation. Five new Nelsons, in a new family that I couldn’t have imagined in 11th grade, spent many a meal laughing and talking and spilling juice before that table was finally relieved of duty and sent to Table Valhalla. 

These memories returned when I read Matthew Crawford’s "Shop Class as Soul Craftrecently. “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives,” writes Crawford, “and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future.” 

He built his own mahogany table at a time when he “had no immediate prospect of becoming a father, yet . . . imagined a child who would form indelible impressions of this table and know that it was his father’s work.” 

I like a table as a metaphor for all the ways in which we gather ourselves together. Aren’t we always setting the table and inviting one another to dine, in one sense or another? A class, a school, a home, a community – we gather at the table of learning, friendship, sustainability, mirth, ritual, civility, and spilling juice. If we can see ourselves as sharing a table, we can see one another in a very accurate and true sense. We can share. We can pass the bread. 

Most teachers would recognize the feelings of table-maker and host, fashioning sturdy lives that they cannot quite predict out of vocabulary lessons and the multiplication tables. We share a few “meals” and move on to the next sitting, to take place in a myriad places and times of evolving lives. Our children will, we hope, think back on the shop projects we’ve shared, a multigenerational gathering of makers and hosts. 

“I imagined the table fading into the background of a future life,” says Crawford, “the defects in its execution as well as inevitable stains and scars becoming a surface texture enough that memory and sentiment might cling to it, in unnoticed accretions.” 

We abandon our shiny shop work to the wear and tear of experience, children, and life, allowing it to acquire the burnishing and patina of use and rugged care. My big round table had countless lovely scratches, burns, and bangs that made it all the more valuable. 

Today, we gather at an old architectural drafting board-turned-table. It came from my wife’s father, Lowell Brody, and bears the pinholes, grooves, and scribbles of his early draftsmanship, back when architects used pencils and rulers instead of computer-aided design programs. “Move door to left,” or “Window goes here,” can still be discerned in the impressions that he routed in the wood, vestiges of clients and projects lost to memory but preserved beneath the blueprint by the pressure of sharp lead bearing down to write instructions for the builder. 

And now children and grandchildren that the young architect couldn’t have imagined sit and reimagine him, working back in time thanks to the “stains and scars” on a humble few planks of dark, storied wood.

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