If I Were A Carpenter
August 19th, 2011

Would she marry me anyway? Are you kidding? My wife’s idea of sexy is Norm Abram wearing nothing other than a tool belt and safety glasses.

When it comes to woodworking, I’m an ongoing disappointment—which is puzzling considering the fact I come from a long line of carpenters. The family tradition goes back at least as far as my great grandfather Robert, who emigrated from Glasgow during the so-called “Coal Rush” of the late nineteenth century. In 1906, he was building houses in the booming camp of Winter Quarters, none of which would survive the inevitable bust. In fact, all that survives from the Robert Menzies Archives is a book on the flyleaf of which Great Granddad proudly inscribed his name and occupation.


For someone like me, who doesn’t know the difference between a spirit level and a plumb bob, PRACTICAL USES OF THE STEEL SQUARE is a painful read:

“It is the bright, well-informed young man that wins the race, and the fellow who drops his tools at the first clang of the bell at quitting time and gives no further thought either to his work or his tools until the commencement of work again the following day, always remains at the foot of the ladder, and wonders how it is he does not prosper and thrive at the same rate as his more energetic and studious fellow workman. A few hours’ quiet study each week during the winter nights makes the difference between poverty and sufficiency, for be it known the employer soon discovers the superior qualities of the man who employs his brains as well as his hands in the performance of his duties, and advancement and higher pay are sure to follow sooner or later.”

Fast forward two generations. My father Charles Menzies was one of those people willing to devote a few hours of quiet study each week. As a result, he became an excellent carpenter; in fact, for many years he taught woodworking at our local high school. But I never enrolled in his class. Why? Because I figured Dad would flunk me, and who could blame him? He knew all too well my limitations, based on the mess I’d made of his workbench and tools at home. He’d seen the fruits of my labor, which confirmed the observation of the writer Robert Paul Smith, that “objects made of wood by children, left to their own devices…will assay ten percent wood, ninety percent nails.”

In other words, my model boats didn’t float, my model airplanes wouldn’t fly—nor would my great grandfather’s steel square, which I thought might serve as a boomerang. It didn’t.

For a craftsman like my father, nothing is more exasperating than to witness tool abuse. In particular, I remember a steel tape measure he gave me after I had somehow managed to lose the first twelve inches of it. In theory it was still usable, but not in my hands. I remember once I was cutting a railroad tie for a retaining wall. First, I used the abbreviated tape to determine the width of the space to be filled; second, I measured the railroad tie using the same tape but taking care to subtract one foot from the second measurement. Then I cut the tie, and was surprised to discover it was exactly one foot too short!

As you can imagine, very little survives of my various projects, although the other day I came across two small items I’d made to decorate my model train set. My wife says they are charming—albeit not nearly as charming as Norm Abram, naked, wearing nothing but a tool belt and safety glasses. They are charming in the same way that a child’s artwork is charming. While lacking in refinement, they bespeak a sincere desire to create, however ineptly, SOMETHING.


I like to think my father would be impressed, though I’m confident he still wouldn’t give me a passing grade.

-Richard Menzies