I've done wood working since I got out of graduate school. My father had been a carpenter/builder and had a nice woodworking shop in the garage (which I didn't much use). After I finished graduate school in Boston, a friend of mine started to make a dulcimer. I thought, if he can make one, so can I. So I made one, and then another for a friend, then another for the friend's daughter, then one to sell. By the fifth one I had figured out a unique (to my knowledge) way to set the frets accurately by ear using harmonics rather than with a pattern, and it sounded really good, so I kept it and still have it.

I then went into production, and made somewhere close to 6 dozen. I got ahold of some nice rosewood--sides shaped and thickness-sanded for Martin guitars, but rejected because of pinholes or little flaws (Brazilian rosewood, it would never be rejected now). For a brief and impecunious time they were my sole source of income. Later, when I had a job, they enabled me to purchase tools.

A few years after I moved back to D.C., I started renovating town houses in D.C. with the help of my father. Out of 8 I did, 6 were total gut jobs. I made kitchen cabinets out of walnut for one of them, and for another I made walnut window trim. For the last house I lived in, 3 blocks from the Capitol, my father and I made about 600 feet of cherry door and window trim--4 and 5 inches wide--using planer blades I had made following a Capitol Hill molding pattern.

My father's faculties were just starting to fail when we began putting them up, and we switched jobs--I became the lead carpenter and he the helper. We always had a good working relationship, and the time we spent together was a treasure to both of us (though I would say that the material benefit to me was disproportionate). I read later that it takes 3-5 times as long to put up clear wood trim as trim that is going to be painted--because everything has to be perfect--you can't fill gaps with caulk. It was a labor of love, and ended up looking great.

Since then my focus has been smaller. I like to make boxes which have no hardware, so simple drop-in tops. But I want the wood to be as highly figured as I can find. In the pictures, the drawers for the little cherry chest are single pieces of wood cut and routed out, with the fronts of the drawers showing the features of "ray fleck" like quarter-sawn oak.

The walnut top and sides of that little chest are made of "crotch wood", where a heavy limb has grown out and the weight causes compression and distortion of the wood. This wood is hard to work with cutting tools because the grain goes every which way and chips out easily. With careful sanding you get very pretty figuring. I also use curly maple and birdseye maple, and I have some highly figured cherry, and a little bit of the rosewood left.

My latest favorite for boxes is spalted wood. Spalting occurs when dead wood lies on wet ground. Fungi and molds grow through the wood, and different colors and border markings can occur between colonies. This is a first stage of rotting, but if the process is interrupted and the wood is dried out, everything is stable (if weaker than fresh-cut wood). The figuring only shows when cut across the grain (which further weakens the wood).

I found my first piece of spalted wood (sycamore) laying by the side of the street near the Supreme Court building, left there when a dead tree was cut down in a sidewalk box. It must have spalted in-place while standing. It remained by the sidewalk for several weeks, so I had a friend help me load up a section. The box with the rounded top is made from that--this wood has big, map-like figuring which in this context is called "pigmentation". The cup and coffe-cup base are also made from that.

After my father's death, I rented the house I grew up in, but reserved the garage workshop. I worked out there from time to time, and once made a box for the 6-year-old daughter of the tenants. She was thrilled. Some time later the renter said they had bought some maple firewood I might be interested in. It looked like surface-rotted wood, but when cut crossways revealed beautiful and intricate spalting--the type called "zone lines", which look like drawings. There is also pigmentation.

The pieces were small, though, and from split wood, so I asked where they had bought the firewood. I called the guy and he said he still had 4 unsplit sections, about 18 inches high and 14 in diameter. I bought all 4 and had a friend bring a chainsaw so I could look in the interior. The first two were not very far along, the 3rd was nice, and the 4th was perfect, with zone lines all over the place. It's pretty hard to mill out--you can't cut thin slices with a chain saw accurately, and my father's band saw would only cut 6 inch pieces. You have to determine which cuts will give you the best arrangements. Then you have a lot of sanding to do. But I probably got a life-time supply.

The tops of two of the boxes are made with this spalted maple. Each top is made from four slices crosscut in a row, edge-glued together so the figuring is symmetrical vertically and horizontally. I think they make amazing patterns. Two pieces of wood with a single sawcut between them, when joined at an edge, make a mirror-imaged pattern that is called "book matched". I don't know what it would be called with 4 pieces of wood (and you have to have joints which are not separated by just a sawcut, so you lose some symmetry, and get some misalignment of the zone lines at the joint).