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This month, with all the activity in Washington, DC, my attention was drawn to one of the most
recognizable pieces of furniture in the world — the Resolute Desk in the White House. We have all seen it
on the news at momentous moments in history conveying a sense of the power of the Presidency and
the solidity of our government. It has been featured in movies and we all probably suspect there are
hidden compartments behind those fancy carvings. William Evenden, the English carver that built the
desk, knew he was working on a royal contract, but I wonder if he consciously thought about creating an
object destined for history? Let's look at how our woodworking projects acquire their story.
In 1850 the British Navy commissioned HMS Resolute as part of a squadron to search for the lost
Franklin Arctic expedition. After sailing around for several years, the Resolute became trapped in Arctic
ice and her crew was forced to abandon ship. Over a year later (September 1855) an American whaler
came across the ghost ship drifting more than 1000 miles from where Resolute had been left to her own
fate. The American crew towed Resolute back to Connecticut and claimed salvage rights.
Around this time U.S. - British foreign relations were very frayed. In the 1840's we had nearly gone to war
over the boundary between the Pacific Northwest and Canada ("54-40 or Fight!"). In the 1850's we
argued over Central America and Britain's claims to Honduras (the mahogany trade). Britain was also
drawn into the middle of Congressional debates over slavery and was perceived as meddling in our
internal affairs. This is the period of our history when fiery speeches in the Capitol ("The Crime Against
Kansas") resulted in physical assault when Rep. Brooks of South Carolina barged into the Senate and
caned Senator Sumner of Massachusetts over the head, nearly killing him in May 1856.
The next month, Senator James Mason of Virginia, seeking an opportunity to improve our relations with
Britain amid all the tensions, introduced a bill to purchase the salvaged Resolute and return it to England
as a gesture of "national courtesy." The bill passed, the Resolute was restored to working order, sailed
back to England, and presented personally to Queen Victoria on behalf of the American people. But that
wasn't the end of the story.
After serving in the Royal Navy another 25 years, Resolute was decommissioned and broken up for
scrap. Queen Victoria, remembering the gift of the ship from the U.S., asked for several furniture pieces
to be made from the salvaged oak timbers. In December 1880, a desk was delivered to the White House
and presented to President Hayes. It carries a brass plaque that says "...presented by the Queen of Great
Britain & Ireland, to the President of the United States, as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness
which dictated the offer of the gift of the 'Resolute'."
When Resolute was originally built in the 1840's the oak was nothing special, purchased at commodity
prices for the shipyard. Through the course of history, that wood became infused with the dramatic
story of Arctic exploration, recovery and salvage, and international diplomacy. It carries a heavy load of
symbolism as a reminder of the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. Today you can buy a
replica of the Resolute Desk for less than $10,000 but those few board feet of 200-year-old English oak
that travelled to the Arctic are priceless.
How did #2 shipbuilding oak transform into such precious stuff? Researchers that study material culture
talk about the "biography of objects." The basic idea is that physical things in our world are not just
passive decorations of life. Through time, people and objects gather history, transform, and interact in
ways that imbue meaning to the objects. Someone turns a tree into lumber and then into a table or a
desk. That object is shared, bought, or gifted in some form of social relationship. The object itself affects
people — "My grandmother gave me that", and people affect the object — "Let's cut the legs off the old
kitchen table and make it a coffee table." The patina of history gives objects meaning that imparts value
for people that know the story. So how can you rub some historical biography finish onto your project
and make it priceless? Let me offer a couple of specific examples.
When we lived in Alabama, we had a special neighbor, Mr. Francis, who was like a grandpa to our family.
He had a gristmill and a fishpond and a garden and acres of woods that our kids explored. Along the
bank of the pond were a couple of catalpa trees that Hugh called "fish bait" trees because each year
they produced a bumper crop of catalpa worms. Years later after Hugh passed and we bought his
Garden of Eden, one of the catalpas was cut down and turned into lumber. I made a beautiful shop stool
from a crotch section. The power of the biography of this object is that whenever I sit on that stool I
think of Mr. Francis and the influence he had on our family. To help future generations remember its
story I labeled the bottom of the stool, "The Fish Bait Tree." This has a lot of value and meaning to our
family (but is probably worth about $10 to anybody else at the thrift store).
Figure 1 . A shop stool made from Alabama catalpa
A couple of years ago, the Kansas Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution wanted new
furniture for their Chapel in the DAR Headquarters. They sought Kansas craftspeople and put a premium
on connecting their project to the state. I made them a set of three tables and sourced the walnut from
a tree on a pioneer homestead in Douglas County. Their tables have a direct connection to one of the
first settlers in the Territory who just happened to be a skilled woodworker. To help ensure the
biography of the object is maintained, the story is kept in a compartment under one of the tables. For
the DAR, when they see their chapel furniture, they feel the pull of history and pioneer spirit. The special
ingredient that makes that happen is carefully sourced wood.
Figure 2. The Memorial Table for the Kansas DAR Chapel
The story of the object may not be the wood as much as the making. I have fretwork pieces made by a
great-great uncle carefully labeled by my Grandma - "Made by Uncle Newt." For me they are a priceless
connection to a woodworking tradition and a story that matters to me. Again, you might think $1 would
be too much at a garage sale for the same object. However, following Grandma's lead, I brand the things I make for kids and grandkids so they can remember the maker and the gift.
Figure 3. Custom branding irons and numbered pieces
for the history books.
Before you think historical wood and biographical objects are out of reach, let me quickly note that
anyone can buy reclaimed wood, pre-loaded with biography from its former life. You might buy lumber
from sunken logs in the Great Lakes or resawn heart pine from old industrial buildings. You can even
source 50,000-year-old kauri lumber from New Zealand for that special project. You can source rough
wood from a tree in your backyard — maybe the one where the kids had a tire swing or tree house. I
turned the fish bait tree into lumber with a $150 chainsaw milling attachment. I have turned
candlesticks and bowls from red cedar growing in the fence rows at the family farm and I have sliced
micro-lumber from firewood on my bandsaw.
Once you get that special wood, keep track of it. When a piece of walnut goes on my lumber rack it
starts to look like all the other walnut up there. Particularly after you start to break it down into smaller
pieces and you have a bin of odd bits. Many times, I will cut out wild grain and knots from larger pieces
but save the shorts for a special box lid or turning project. To keep track of the source of special wood I
mark the ends of the boards with a unique number.
Figure 4. A piece of salvaged walnut lumber from a 19th-century
house in Lawrence, KS.
Finally, when you make an object, really any object, give it a chance to acquire its biography. Mark it
with a maker's mark, maybe even date it. Share the story of the wood or the process of making the
object or the purpose of the gift so others can add their piece to the biography. The timbers of the
Resolute could have ended up rotting in an East End dock but Queen Victoria chose to give them a
different life by creating an object with a biography. The things we make as woodworkers could end up
in the garage sale bargain pile or they could be treasured for generations — the difference is the story we
can give them.
*Dunning, A. 1959. The Return of the Resolute..American Heritage, 10(5) accessed online
Bob Rummer lives in Colorado and is a part-time woodworker. He can be reached directly via email at email@example.com. You can see his shop and some of his work at www.JRummerSons.com.
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