Woodworking Projects

From the bench: My mentor, Mr. Scriven

A spark of creativity is an amazing thing, as is the circuitous route that sometimes unfolds when something new is ignited within us. My path into woodworking began in Fort Collins, Colo., when I was 25. With just a few tools I built some small objects and my first crude piece of furniture. Then, the unexpected gift of a new friend caused the spark to ignite into a flame, and a lifelong passion. My unlikely friend would inspire me toward unimagined creativity.

I found my way to his house after a man at the hardware store, who couldn’t answer one of my woodworking questions, suggested that I look up a longtime customer, Ed Scriven. I knocked on the door and met a man in his late 70s with a calm, gentle spirit, and a smile on his wrinkled face. He invited me in, and we became instant friends. I soon learned that he had built houses, boats, furniture, and cabinets. His own house was tiny, and lacked a working bathroom; his modest, disheveled shop was out back.

Despite having little, as defined by a society bent on success and material gain (things my young mind thought important), Mr. Scriven always struck me as fulfilled. He was never in a hurry and approached each task with persistence and a desire for perfection.

Not long after meeting him, I set up my first real workshop in a onecar garage with a few more tools and some small machines. And suddenly a woodworking project far beyond my skill level came into view. I was naively inspired by a picture of a 1700s Chippendale lowboy dressing table. This piece of furniture possessed me. When I enthusiastically showed Mr. Scriven the picture, he must have thought there was no chance this task could be accomplished considering my lack of experience.

finished Chippendale lowboy

I asked him how I should begin making this huge project that so captivated me. I asked if he thought I could accomplish it with my limited experience, tools, and knowledge. I asked how long it might take, because I was in a hurry to get it done. After the avalanche of questions, Mr. Scriven asked me to sit down. As he began to answer, his smile diminished. Had my enthusiastic questioning made him serious?

He became calm and stared into my eyes. In his slow-talking manner he said, “Begin by being excited that you don’t have the experience, knowing that you are about to embark on a beautiful journey of learning and discovery. You begin by beginning.” He then told me he had every confidence I could accomplish it if I adhered to one small bit of advice: “Take the time to do it right.” All these years later, whenever I’m hurried or anxious, I still hear him saying, “If you can’t take the time to do something right, you will never find the time to fix it.”

His smile slowly returned as he stood and answered the last of my questions: “Things that matter always take just as long as they take.” For him, there were no clocks or calendars when it came to doing something that mattered.

As I began the project, working evenings and weekends, I spent months at the library reading everything possible relating to Chippendale furniture. After I began building, I would often wake up in the night wondering how to do a certain aspect of the piece. The long journey of learning and discovery continued. It was time to return to the library to study styles of carving, and techniques used by the masters from previous centuries.

A sense of trepidation crept into my mind when I realized that the fundamentals necessary to complete the project could take years of full immersion in the world of making fine furniture. Mr. Scriven had not told me how long traveling this path would take; it would take as long as it would take. But at this point there could be no turning back. Mr. Scriven would have been too disappointed if I folded up.

It took me three years to build that Chippendale lowboy, which still sits proudly in the entryway of our home, tangible evidence of Mr. Scriven’s influence on me. Every time I walk past it, I think of him and his confidence that I could accomplish my dream if only I would stay the course and invest the time, energy, and passion necessary to do it right.

Ed Scriven passed away nearly 40 years ago. His now-faded picture has hung on the wall of every shop I’ve had in my 50-year woodworking journey. He never knew the impact he had on me. A true mentor, he taught me as much about life as about woodworking.

Richard McCormick works wood in Durango, Colo.

Photos: Richard McCormick

From Fine Woodworking #299

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