It must be coded in the genes.
My grandfather once built cribs for his babies out of hickory, felling the trees with a double-edged ax on his South Carolina farm. He liked to tell how he stripped the bark to get to the white, sweet-smelling wood underneath. He cut out the pieces for the cribs and seasoned them in the sun.
Years later, his son--my father--built a weekend home. A sawyer in the North Carolina mountains delivered massive oak timbers and stacks of planks. My father hired some local carpenters to help him. They asked him where the blueprints were and he pointed to his head. He worked alone after that.
I did not help my father build his house. I was living in New York City by then, enamored of a life style in which there is someone, somewhere, to do anything you need done. I once paid a man to put a three-shelf bookcase in the bathroom. It took him an hour. I smelled the freshly cut pine and hoped that my father would never visit and ask if I had enjoyed making the bookcase.
If only my father would visit me now in Los Angeles, city of 100 lumberyards. At last I have learned to build things.
This talent was awakened when I became a father three years ago. My baby son's room needed some simple shelves. Those shelves would rise from my own hands, not from the hands of some out-of-work actor.
When my son reached the age of 2, my wife reported one evening that many of the children in his toddler group liked to pretend they were cooking at toy stoves. My son wanted a stove.
Now, you can buy toy stoves. Some are made of plastic or tin. The best are crafted from New Hampshire maple--and they cost a lot of money. I saw one and decided that I could build a stove and save money.
I took my son with me to the lumberyard. I told the yard man what I was building and he asked to see a sketch. I pointed to my head. He smiled and began to take down the measurements as I called them out.
He suggested that I use something called white-faced particle board. You don't have to paint the Formica-like face, and kids can't make a dent in it.
Each night, after my son went to bed, I got out the boards and began to build the stove on the kitchen table. I worked slowly. I guessed a lot.
First I painted on four black rings--the "burners." Then I nailed together a small cupboard, painted it fire-engine red and attached it behind the burners. I mounted a plastic clock that I cut from one of those signs that storekeepers hang on their doors when they go to lunch. I glued and nailed the top of the stove to the sides and the back, leaving the front open like a deep bookcase. Then I trimmed the stove all around with red molding.
My son ignores many of the toys we buy for him, but he "cooks" at his stove every day.
When he isn't cooking, he likes to draw and paint on his huge, two-sided easel. Yes, I made that, too. A lumberyard cut some beautiful white maple for the four legs. I hinged the legs at the top and attached a square piece of Masonite on each side. When the easel is opened, it is stabilized with stepladder hinges. You can't buy an easel that looks as good.
I made a changing table for our baby daughter, who was born five months ago. I just finished building a sandbox. It is made of huge fir timbers, protected with boat varnish. In each corner is a triangular seat. The seats are painted red, blue, green and yellow. It took half a ton of sand to fill the box.
Recently, I needed someone to hold my steel ruler in place while I made a crucial measurement. I looked around. There was my son.