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A Table for a Lifetime

A Table for a Lifetime
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When I was growing up, my parents had a large dining-room table that had been in my mother’s family for several generations. It was big and heavy, made of dark cherry, and it seemingly groaned along with my brother and me every time we had to slide out its stiff rails and add the extra leaves for a holiday meal. On a piece of rural New Hampshire land that my mom and dad had cleared themselves, in a home my father had built using old beams and salvaged doors, I dreamed of a more easily assembled life. An old table with scuffs and scratches from thousands of family meals? No thanks.

But not long after I graduated from college, my parents divorced, our home was sold, and the table, which an aunt had loaned us, was returned to her. Family meals morphed into hurried exercises around the kitchen island or in the living room. And while the various apartments I moved through were filled with shiny store-bought things, something was missing. My things lacked connections, were devoid of any kind of story. I had no account for how they were made, much less who’d made them.

As I zipped through my twenties, I looked at my childhood differently. I longed for the piles of sawdust in my dad’s workshop. I began eyeing tools and thinking about things I’d like to make. The more I thought about the home I wanted, the more I envied the one my parents had built.

Last year, when my wife, Grace, became pregnant with our first child, I even started thinking about that old dining-room table. I wondered about those wear marks, how they’d gotten there. And I thought back to the conversations, arguments, and laughter that had taken place during all those meals. I wasn’t going to get the table back, but what if I could build something new for my young family? What if I made something I could pass down to my son?

But how? Or, given my limited experience in a workshop, who could help me? I found answers to both questions in a renovated former textile mill on the Ottauquechee River in Bridgewater, Vermont. For the last 15 years it’s been the working home of furniture maker Charles Shackleton and his wife, Miranda Thomas, a potter. The couple operates around the idea that the best crafts are those made by hand, start to finish, by a single person. On the furniture end of it, machines aren’t completely out of the picture–saws and planers still shape the initial parts that go into a bed or a table–but the finish work, the final crafting of a piece that gives what Shackleton describes as its “personality,” comes from an artisan.

But even art can become a job. By early 2009, Shackleton, who’s tall with a thicket of gray hair and packs his passion behind an easy, infectious smile, was burned out. Relegating himself almost exclusively to design work, it had been some years since he’d built even a bench. And there were questions, too, about the worth of what he was doing. “What’s the point of making more material crap to put into people’s homes?” he asked himself.

Shackleton, it seems, was looking for stories, as well. For all the focus he’d paid to his furniture’s handwork, he was largely a stranger to the people and the skills it took to get him the Pennsylvania cherry he regularly uses. His interest in sustainability soon introduced him to the sturdy, beautiful benefits of Vermont-grown sugar maples for furniture making. His appreciation of the importance of the dining table–Shackleton’s own family table had been destroyed years before in a fire at his childhood home–led him even further. What if, he wondered, he offered the opportunity for people to come to his shop to make their own tables, becoming familiar not only with how Shackleton furniture is made but meeting the cast of local people–the forester, the logger, the mill owner–who had had a hand in bringing them their wood? Would there be a market for it?

In August 2009 Charles Shackleton gambled there would. Thirty people turned out for the inaugural weekend-long event, which married furniture making with field trips to the forest where their lumber had come from. They learned about the trees whose lumber they were using to build their tables; they met the people who’d worked on their wood. The event finished with a celebratory lunch of local foods served on the group’s 15 newly made tables in the shelter of a covered bridge in Woodstock. Shackleton called it “The Naked Table Project,” and almost immediately it was a success. Events bearing its name soon sprouted up in surrounding Vermont communities and across the river in Hanover, New Hampshire, and he even introduced a class to his hometown in Ireland. It also resonated with its founder: Within a year of that first class, Shackleton was excited about making furniture again. “It creates connections between people and their families, the forest, and the environment,” he says. “What was interesting to me–I’d never thought of using local wood before–was meeting all the other people involved. They’re real Vermonters, people who’ve dedicated their lives to doing this one thing. And they all had a story.”

So it was that early on one mid-August morning, some 25 of us filed onto the second floor of Shackleton’s four-story shop. Among the organized racks of clamps, short stacks of newly cut furniture parts, and a whiff of maple shavings from the nearby turning room, we clutched cups of coffee as the furniture maker waved us together for his introduction.

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