A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

How to Make Sawdust
by Robert Parks (Sep 2013)


A couple of years ago in a meeting of Oklahoma writers, one of the ladies wanted to challenge the group to write a “How To” article. She said everyone knows how to do something so why not put it down into words and share it with the group.

During the evening I thought about what she had said and wondered what it might be that I know how to do. The first thing I thought of was the large woodshop I had in my backyard and how much I enjoyed working there. The largest by-product by far of my workshop is sawdust. Since I was so good at making sawdust, I could tell how I got to be good at it, and that would be the subject of my “How To” article.

Webster’s Dictionary defines sawdust (s dust’) as “minute particles (as of wood) resulting as a by-product of sawing.”

My grandfather was a welder by trade however, his hobby was making sawdust. He was a master at his hobby and as an easily influenced six-year old, I picked up his desire to bequeath unto the world my own contribution of “minute particles resulting as a by-product of sawing.”

Granddad constructed a two-story woodworking shop next to his house and it was full of the most unique and interesting play-pretties I had ever seen. Although I didn’t know the names of all the tools, I watched how Granddad used each of them to create his collection of sawdust. Sometimes he would call them by a name that I was certain was not the correct name for that particular tool. I was also certain if I were to call them by the same name, there would be a swift and severe price to pay.

Granddad would spend a long day at his welding job and come home tired and hot. He would sit in the kitchen with my grandmother and me, have a large glass of iced tea and retreat into the depths of his woodshop to make sawdust.

I was permitted to use almost every tool in the shop except the power tools. Granddad would give me a piece of pine board, a hammer, a few nails and turn me loose, allowing my creative juices to flow freely. I later learned he did this to keep me busy and out of his way while he made his sawdust piles grow. With saw in hand, I would cut, slice and dice until the board was properly shaped. A few nails were driven into strategic locations, and my sailboat, racecar or whatever was complete. It’s funny how my sailboat and racecar looked so much alike.

Each summer when school was out I would travel from Florida to Alabama and spend my summer vacation at Granddad’s, learning how to make sawdust.

Eventually I grew older and reached the eighth grade at Parkway Jr. High in Florida. The first class I signed up for was woodshop. Mister Woodall, the shop teacher, seemed to know a lot about making sawdust and expressed a desire to pass his knowledge on to a group of rambunctious boys.

I always considered Mister Woodall a kind, soft-spoken and easy-going man, but he must have had nerves of steel to teach a class of young boys who were armed with hammers, chisels and saws. He stood about six feet tall and had the respect and admiration of most of the boys in the class. With his dark-rimmed glasses and thick greasy hair he would be out of place in today’s school lineup; however, back in the early sixties, he fit right in with the rest of us.

At the beginning of the school year most of the boys in the class had two projects in mind. One project was to refinish the stock of a rifle or shotgun, and the second was to build a gun rack to display the newly refinished gun.

The gunstock I refinished was my dad’s 20-gauge shotgun he had received as a young boy and the gun rack I made from black walnut. Cutting out the gun rack marked the first time I had ever used a band saw.

My sawdust pile grew tall.

This period of my life also marked the first time I had ever seen a thickness planer. Granddad did not have one in his shop. This remarkable machine will shave a piece of stock making it thinner and leaving a very nice surface on the lumber. It will also build a pile of sawdust at an alarming rate. Mister Woodall was the only one allowed to use this dangerous piece of equipment.

Another first for me came in Mister Woodall’s class in November of that year. It was the first time I recall seeing a grown man cry. Our class had done as much damage as we could do for one day and had cleaned the shop. As we sat quietly waiting for the bell to ring sending us to our next class, the principal’s voice came over the classroom intercom to announce that the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.

Mister Woodall removed his dark-rimmed glasses, sat on one of the workbenches and wept.

My sawdust-making career was put on hold after Mister Woodall’s class until I had completed high school, one year of college and a stretch with Uncle Sam in the United States Air Force. In 1974, I landed a job with Paul Daniel’s Cabinet Shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Paul took up the torch from Mister Woodall.

Paul was an interesting person. He could change attitudes faster than a bug can hit a windshield. One minute he would be laughing and cutting up, and the next minute he would be throwing a pair of cabinet doors which he had cut too narrow across the shop. Making a mistake not only cost in wasted wood, but it could also bring on the wrath of the old pro.

One of the first tasks I was given to perform was to take a four-by-eight sheet of plywood and rip it into three equal strips.

Piece of cake. I was a master at math. I could do this. Three goes into forty-eight inches sixteen times. Setting the fence to sixteen inches, the saw came to life and the sawdust was flying. The first two rips were great. The third piece came up short.

“You didn’t allow for the width of the saw blade,” Paul said, shaking his head at me. “Do it over.”

Oh, yeah. The saw blade takes out one-eighth of an inch. You have to allow for the width of the saw blade. Mister Woodall’s class was coming back to me, if only a little at a time.

The sawdust pile grew.

One afternoon as we were working on a cabinet, Paul handed me a stile. “Take two inches off this,” he requested. I cranked up the saw, made the cut and handed the piece back across the saw to him. “Too short!” he growled.

Too short? As an educated country boy, I came to the only possible conclusion. Paul’s tape measure was longer than mine.

“You cut on the wrong side of the line,” he said, tossing the board in the trash barrel. “Cut it over.”

When you cut a board to width, you set the table saw fence to the right side of the blade. However, when you ‘take off’ an amount, the fence has to be measured to the left side of the blade.

My sawdust pile grew.

One of my favorite sawdust-making instruments is the hammer.

Hammer? Webster said sawdust was “minute particles of wood made by—sawing!” Webster was an amateur. I learned many ways to make sawdust. I also learned hammers play a large part in adding to my collection of sawdust.

Hammers come in many shapes and sizes. Some are very large. John Henry’s steel driving hammer, for instance, weighed nine pounds. But most of the hammers used to add to the sawdust population are much smaller.

The twelve-ounce finish hammer is a small, lightweight hammer and is used in a lot of homes. Moms use them to hang pictures on the wall. Toddlers use them to remodel the television screen and the ugly vase Aunt Martha gave you last Christmas.

The sixteen-ounce hammer is the most commonly used in the carpentry shop. This is the hammer made famous when it was discovered the United States government was paying four hundred twenty dollars for them. Normal people will just pick one up at Home Depot for nineteen ninety five, plus tax.

Next comes the twenty-eight ounce framing hammer with a twenty-inch hickory handle. Now that’s a hammer! As I see it, this monster serves two purposes. One, you can use them to drive sixteen-penny nails in three swings—one to start the nail, the second to drive it in, and the third to set the nail, leaving a slight indentation. The second possibility is to drill a hole in the handle, place a rope through the hole and use it to anchor the boat at your favorite fishing hole.

Today I would learn about the “slight indentation” just mentioned. These indentations are called “Gypsy Rosettes”, and are made when the hammer misses the nail and neatly plants itself into the wood. The result is a round impression of the hammer face in the high-dollar board you are working on.

Paul assigned me the task of nailing the face frame onto a new cabinet we were building. Placing the pieces on the frame, or carcass as it is called, I began nailing them down—with a sixteen-ounce hammer instead of the twelve-ounce finish hammer. I discovered that twelve-ounce hammers make “indentations” sixteen-ounce hammers make “I N D E N T A T I O N S.”

“&*$#*^”,” I said. Standing back from the cabinet, I was trying to recall the phrase Paul had used earlier.

“What is it?”

Waving my hammer at the smooth, round mark on the face frame I said, “Gypsy Rose Lee.”

Paul looked at the dent, which appeared to be roughly the size of the entrance to the Bat Cave. “Gypsy Rosette,” he corrected. “Do it over.”

The sawdust pile grew.

My career with Paul lasted four years. I learned many lessons about making sawdust from this man, and I am forever grateful He left the shop after work one Friday afternoon and said, “I’ll see you Monday.” I didn’t see him again for two months. Over the weekend he had decided to retire and leave the shop in my capable hands. He had just failed to discuss it with me.

It is said that Satan will counterfeit whatever God does. This principle is evident when it comes to the sawdust pile. God made the giant oak tree and gave man the ability to harvest it and mill beautiful planks of lumber for woodworking.

Satan gathers the sawdust piles and uses them to make particleboard—the curse of the carpentry trade. Particleboard, made mostly of glue and sawdust, does not hold nails or screws very well, is easily broken and will absorb more water than all the sponges of the Great Barrier Reef combined. Thankfully, when my sawdust making days are over in this world, there will be no particleboard in Heaven. I believe when God builds my ‘mansion just over the hilltop’, He will cut down one of His Cedars of Lebanon and mill it into large, perfect planks. He will use these perfect planks to build a house that will stand forever.

I’m sure He will need my help.

And my sawdust pile will begin anew.

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