Craftsman, Woodworker, Antiques Refinisher, Columnist, Author and Television Host
How I Got Started
During my fifth year as a high school English teacher, my principal, after once again having to come down to the woodshop to remind me that I was supposed to be monitoring study hall in the library, suggested that perhaps I would be happier in a different line of work. He was right, so I resigned at the close of the year, pulled out my state retirement fund, and sat down to write The Great American Novel.
Six months later I was broke and faced with the realization that at the naive age of 27, I really had nothing to write about.
A friend offered to buy me a beer at a local Iowa City watering hole called My Brother’s Place, where I shared with him my frustrations. After listening for a while, he suggested that I get in touch with a junior high school shop teacher who also had a woodworking and refinishing business called House of Wood. I met him after school and he introduced me to Jim, a talented, 32-year-old woodworker who had recently moved from Colorado back to Iowa City to manage House of Wood and its three employees. Jim was a likeable, easy-going guy who, by his own admission, had done too much cocaine and too many hard drugs, and had come back home to Iowa City to get his life together.
A few days after I had started an elegant older man by the name of Thomas Mann came into the shop. He was an antiques collector and former Atlanta dealer who had brought with him that day an early 19th-century cherry dropleaf table. Jim, who had no training or experience with antiques, decided the best way to flatten the warped drop-leaves would be to run them through our enormous, cast-iron planer.
I had my doubts, but no proof to back them up, so I stood at the discharge end of the planer to catch each drop-leaf as it emerged from beneath the whirling, razor-sharp, 24-inch wide blades. The first pass left a bright red streak of planed cherry at either end of the cupped drop-leaves. Jim looked at each leaf, then cranked the blades down a few turns. A second pass widened the two parallel bright red streaks, but still left a dark brown valley of original wood down the center. Determined, Jim cranked the blades down even further, despite the fact that we could all see that the wood at either of the cupped ends was now alarmingly thinner than the wood in the center.
When the first drop-leaf emerged from the third pass through the planer, the valley of dark brown wood had disappeared, along with the cupping, but my heart sank when I saw what had happened. Each leaf had been attached to the center section of the table with three hinges on the underside, each held on with three small brass screws. By the third pass, however, the wood over the hinges had become so thin that suddenly we could see a total of nine holes coming through the top of the wood.
This was a major disaster.
When he saw what he had done, Jim picked up a nearby board and hurled it across the shop and into a wall, then stormed out, headed over to our after-work bar, The Annex. We did the best we could, but the table was clearly ruined. A week later Jim finally worked up the nerve to call Mr. Mann over to the shop. I don’t remember Mr. Mann saying anything, as Jim fell over himself apologizing profusely, but he remained a true gentleman, calm and quiet, as we carried the deceased table out to his car and watched him drive away, never to return again.
It was a hard lesson to learn and one I have never forgotten -- or forgiven myself for not warning Jim what the planer would do to that wonderful, old cherry table. Realizing how woefully inadequate woodworkers could be at restoring antiques, I began reading every book I could find on antique furniture, while making plans to open my own refinishing shop. For six months I slowly filled a storage unit with an assortment of second-hand tools I found at yard sales and community auctions until I was ready to give Jim my notice.
The next week I opened Knock On Wood Antique Repair and Restoration.
Jim eventually left House of Wood as well, doing what he loved best by finally opening his own woodworking shop. Unfortunately, he couldn’t leave behind the damage his carefree days in Colorado had done, and a few years later, while working in his shop, his heart simply stopped.
I spent the next seven years operating Knock On Wood in Iowa City, learning how to save original finishes without harsh strippers and coarse sandpaper. At the same time I began writing syndicated newspaper columns and completing my first book, all by the same name, Knock On Wood. Then one day my shop foreman came to me with a proposal: either he would buy me out – or open his own refinishing shop down the street.
He recognized what I had not been willing to admit, that I had fallen into a rut, and what I still really wanted to do was to become a full-time professional writer. This time, however, I put aside my dream of writing The Great American Novel and instead devoted myself to researching and writing non-fiction books, starting with a softcover trilogy: The Weekend Refinisher, The Wood Finisher, and Fifty Simple Ways To Save Your House.
But what I never stopped doing was what I have always loved doing: woodworking, staining, finishing, and refinishing – the gentle way.
Oh, yes -- and one more thing: teaching.
My second mantra, “Once a teacher, always a teacher.”
My classroom has changed, but not my love of sharing my discoveries with others, through my books and articles, home show presentations and demonstrations, interviews and television appearances, and now this website.
I hope that what you find here will help you with your next project!
Back in the early 1970s, when I was first getting interested in antiques and antique refinishing, I distinctly remember reading an article in a popular magazine explaining how easy it was to turn an old mission oak dining room table into a low, modern coffee table, simply by cutting the legs in half and spraying it with a coat of lime-green aerosol paint.
If you could find that painted coffee table today, it would be virtually worthless.
But if you found that same unaltered antique mission oak dining room table, it could be worth well over a thousand dollars. Well over…..
As my Grandma Hickok often chided, “Penny wise, dollar foolish.”
And history still has a way of repeating itself.
Or as Winston Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
With the number of internet bloggers doubling, tripling, and quadrupling by the day, each competing with the other twenty thousand to come up with the latest fad, suddenly those old family heirlooms and antiques that had been stored up in the attic are as much at risk as any endangered species.
Bloggers and their readers are now dragging those innocent heirlooms out of the attic and into the garage, where they are doing all sorts of bizarre things to them, from turning antique sideboards into bathroom sink vanities to cutting the legs off furniture, this time to make a game table for their children. And they almost always end up with a coat of chalk paint, a stenciled child’s name, a rooster decal, or pink latex paint blotted on with a wadded up newspaper or a sea sponge.
May the gods save us – and our heirlooms -- from ourselves!
My Grandma Hickok had many theories, one being that a respect and a curiosity for family history, including family heirlooms, often skips a generation. She loved antiques and family history far more than her children’s generation, but her love and respect re-surfaced in her ten grandchildren, including myself. My two sons, now both in their twenties, look at my collection of antiques and only see cumbersome brown furniture and dollar signs.
I only hope to live long enough to pass my collection safely along to their children!
Three Important Rules: Always follow the manufacturer's directions, take all safety precautions and first test every product in an inconspicuous spot.