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The Awesome Responsibility of Being a Woodworking Grandpa

A conversation between Bob Rummer, Ken Rummer and Don Burnham


Grandpa's Workshop

BOB: I just became a Grandpa. As I am working in my shop to complete a rocking chair, hopefully before my grandson enters pre-school, it strikes me that I have some critical Grandpa responsibilities. I am using a plane that belonged to my Grandfather, chisels that were used by my great-grandfather, and skills and methods I learned from my father. Now it is up to me to influence the next generation. What are the rules? What important lessons do I need to share? Should I get the Playskool workbench for his first birthday? Where could I go wrong? At times like this I turn to my big brother for advice--

KEN: Well, I'm still a newbie grandpa myself, with just a shim and a shaving's head start. We may have to put our heads together on this.

BOB: Then maybe the best place to start is to reflect on how our Grandpas impacted us. Some quick background for the rest of you--our Grandpa R was an auto mechanic and tinkerer cum laude. His wood shop was in a low-ceilinged basement below the kitchen of a big 1900's four-square in Wichita, Kansas. There was a huge octopus of a furnace lurking in a dark corner and lots of scraps and jigs hanging from the floor joists above. The basement had bare light bulbs with the pull strings run through screw eyes across the ceiling where Grandpa could reach up with his cane and click on the lights. He had a 6" benchtop tablesaw, a benchtop drillpress, and a shop-built lathe.

KEN: Don't forget the pickle crocks and a few of our dad's old metal toys, plus lots of odd glass jars with screws and other useful items in them.

BOB: Grandpa could always pull out "just what we need for this" from some corner or cranny. I have a small picture frame clamp he made from brass fittings and all thread. He refinished furniture, made clocks and dollhouse furniture, and liked making wooden puzzles and toys.

KEN: He wasn't one to tell you how to solve the puzzles right away. And begging and pleading didn't seem to speed up the process.

BOB: Our Grandpa B was an aeronautical engineer that grew up in the Golden Age of aviation. His shop was a concrete block building in the side lot. He did metal work, furniture building, and stringed instrument repair. His shop had the swarf from the metal lathe and the milling machine on the floor ("you really shouldn't play with that") and it smelled like instrument varnish.

KEN: And cutting oil.

BOB: And maybe turpentine--odd how those smells today bring it all back.

KEN: Remember the nut roaster he picked up at a department store surplus sale? The one he turned into a varnish drying chamber for violins? You might walk into his shop and see a beautiful instrument slowly turning under the lamps inside "Tom's Peanuts, Hot and Roasted." Ah, memories. But you were heading toward impact and big lessons learned.

BOB: Right, so my first observation is that our Grandpas Loved Being in Their Shops . When we visited it was, "He's out (or down) in the shop" and we would head out to find out what Grandpa was working on. Their passion and dedication were clear. I sat up on a tall shop stool and watched or held something important while they focused on the caning or carving or finishing. If I got too bored I would just head out to the yard and play on the swing.

KEN: Attention span was definitely an issue. Ours were lots shorter than the Grandpas'. After hearing what he was working on and watching for a while and then asking a few hundred questions about various objects lying about the shop (Why does this violin have a hole through the top? "It was on the bed when the guy was cleaning his pistol and it went off."  Oh.), it was off to play and check back later.

COUSIN DON: I don't remember one time, as a child, that I didn't feel welcome in the basement, garage, or shop of either Grandpa. It wasn't until I had my own curious little boy try to "help" me with a project that I understood how amazing that was.

BOB: Another key observation was that Shop Work was a Model for Life . Basic character was imparted in the shop. "Do it right", "Practice", "Be careful with sharp objects", "Do it over", and "Don't tell your Grandma" were all demonstrated and invoked in our Grandpas' shops. Fundamental values were imparted through hands-on and sometimes dangerously exciting experience. Remember Uncle Bob's story about how he wanted to buy kite sticks at the hardware store and Grandpa had him saw a yardstick lengthwise instead—twice. "You don't need to buy something you can make."

KEN: I remember Grandpa R taking me down to his shop when my teenage hormones and I had reached an impasse with my parents. He had me do some sawing with his big carpenter's saw, and of course I was going as fast as possible with short strokes. He coached me, after the fire had burned down some and my arms were getting tired, to go for longer strokes and let the saw do the work. Then he had some useful words about the process of growing up. I think I have that saw in my shop today.

BOB: My final observation is You Can Build It . The products of their shop work were all over the place. Yard furniture, bird houses, my first violin...

KEN: And my first violin...

BOB: ...the clock on the mantel, the wide pine kitchen counter, a door bell button mounted on the back gate that rang a bell in the kitchen (before Bluetooth that was a big deal). They showed us the possibilities of creativity, planning, skill, and perseverance. The things they made were shared where they were needed--a refinished desk chair when I got my first study desk, cradles when grandkids starting coming along. They had professional skills (engineering, mechanics, electronics, metalworking, and woodworking). But when they needed to, special skills were acquired through reading and practice (caning chairs, for example). Where did Grandpa B learn to make violins anyway? I remember asking Grandpa B about some piece of hardware in his shop, "Oh that's a car that your Uncle was going to build"--hard to miss the lesson that you can make anything you can imagine, you can learn any skill through practice. All of these memories make it clear that Grandpas can have a big impact on us.

DON: "Loved, cherished, valued...what was better than a day spent working on something with either of them?"

BOB: Maybe that is the key. In the big scheme of things our Grandpa duties simply come down to sharing who we are--sharing our special places, sharing our skills, sharing our time and the things we create with the ones we love and care for. Shopwork is a powerful medium to build connections between generations, grandpas and grandkids finding each other in the sawdust and splinters.


We would love feedback from you, our readers, on this topic. How were you impacted by your grandparents? What do you see as your responsibility to pass on the love of craft? CLICK HERE to go to our blog and contribute your own thoughts.


Bob Rummer works in Research at the University of Kansas and looks forward to getting into his woodshop full-time. His brother, Ken Rummer, is a pastor in Corning, Iowa, who likes to make sawdust on his day off.

They share their shopcraft heritage with their Burnham cousins. Don Burnham, a commercial pilot who lives in Wenatchee, Washington, weighed in on this topic.

Bob and Ken can be reached directly via email at RummerSohne@gmail.com .

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