The difference between your walnut and your fruitwood
February 4, 1989, back in Fort Wayne, I was at a furniture store buying a coat rack for our apartment. The store sold finished and unfinished furniture. Waiting in line at the register I eavesdropped on a lesson on the proper methods for staining a bookshelf. Should be noted that at the time our apartment, although short a coat rack, contained two bookcases, a coffee table, and a rocking chair that I had finished myself. I was that smug, self-congratulating, unbearable bird, the amateur who has begun to mistake himself for a talented pro. My bible was a very helpful book now out of print, The Furniture Doctor, by George Grotz, and what I overheard struck me as near-heresy.
At C-----. The owner of the place—short, bald, smoking a pipe. His name tag a finished knot of pine drooping from his maroon blazer—talking to a customer, refusing to accept the not unreasonable assertion that the customer’s can of stain had been mislabeled fruitwood and was actually walnut. They had been at it for a while before I stepped up to the counter to pick up a set of coat pegs. The offending can sat on the countertop, its lid clamped over its secret identity. The owner seemed to think the customer was a fool when it came to finishing wood and in a foghorn voice honking with professional contempt set out to prove it to the fellow, who seemed to have had such proofs tried on him before. He was a hangdog, bentbacked man of late middle age, wearing a coat that heavily padded him out, apparently to absorb such blows life swung at him as a respectable merchant calling him an inept boob.
Apparently the customer’s finishing job had come out too dark. The owner explained his mistake. “You won’t get a good finish if you don’t sand it down properly. Your steel wool’s not going to do it for you. You put a finish down on rough wood and it gets caught in the fibers and lifts up. It’s gonna be dark.”
The customer had a voice much softer than a foghorn’s. My ears having been slightly deafened by the owner’s blare, I couldn’t pick up the man’s mumble.
The owner picked up a piece of wood, a demonstration board, the woodworker’s equivalent of a tailor’s swatch.
“This is your fruitwood.”
The customer mumbled again, probably about how it hadn’t come out that way on his bookshelves.
“We do this ourself,” the owner said. “We don’t buy this from a factory.” He tapped the accused can of alleged fruitwood. “This is that.”
The customer shook his head, perhaps wondering why he had wanted fruitwood—it’s a murky color, like a musk melon aged in the sun. Burnt orange browning.
“Did you try it out on the bottom of the shelf. You said? It’s going to be darker underneath.”
The customer reacted audibly to this. “Why should the one side of the board be different from the other? It’s the same piece of wood.”
The owner ignored him. The answer, that the furniture maker will sand the sides that show more finely than he will the underparts might sound like an admission of lazy craftsmanship.
“You got to sand it right first. Steel wool won’t do it.”
(George Grotz, The Furniture Doctor, is adamant about steel wool. He seems determined to keep sandpaper out of the hands of amateurs who might cut the wood with it. If the wood has been sanded at the shop, it shouldn’t need another sanding.)
The customer thought of abandoning steel wool. “Should I use a vibrating sander?”
No! I wanted to shout. In your hands, you’ll dig bowls into the surfaces!
The owner said, “You could. You could do it by hand. Steel wool’s just not going to work for you.”
“And that’ll make it lighter?” the customer asked doubtfully.
“Well, you got to wipe it on smooth and wipe it off. Did you wipe it off?”
The customer did not take offense at the implication he was too stupid to follow simple instructions. He said quite calmly that he had wiped it off. “And it’s still too dark. It’s almost like a walnut.”
The owner tapped the swatch with his pipestem. “And you’re certain it’s pine. It makes a difference if it’s not pine. This is white pine.”
“Eastern white pine? We got to get it narrowed down, you see. That’s what we try to do when we sell it, get your wood narrowed down. It’s your eastern white pine?”
I thought he might identify genus and species: pinus strobus.
At this point I wanted to step in and say, “Why don’t you just open the can?” But they went around on the wood type and the wiping and the need for sanding once again. And then the customer admitted that he had also tried the stain out on the back of his bookshelves, where it had come out almost black. The owner was astounded by the customer’s ignorance.
“Well of course it’s going to come out different on the back! The back’s not Eastern white pine!”
“What is it?” The customer looked suspicious that he had been sold a bill of goods.
“Probably plywood. Plywood’s what you have to use or the piece’s going to weigh a ton. Now your plywood’s gonna drink the stain deep. You got to be real sparing when you wipe that on plywood.”
“You mean it’s not going to match the rest of the shelf?”
“It’ll match, but it’s tricky. Here, let’s look.”
So they went off to the back of the store to look at a similar set of bookshelves. I turned to watch them compare an unfinished set of shelves with a finished set. My eyes met the eyes of a middle-aged woman by whose height and padded shape I judged to be the customer’s wife. The woman smiled and raised her eyes to heaven in a conspiratorial way. I couldn’t tell if she was amused at the stentorian owner or at her husband or at men in general. I hope it wasn’t at her husband. He looked to me like a retired working man trying to develop a hobby to occupy his time and hands and I suspect the luck he was having with his bookshelves was indicative of his luck with life in general. Such a man—quiet desperation, indeed, Mr Thoreau.—does not need his wife laughing at his efforts. I decided it was the owner who amused her. The easiest thing to have done was to make an exchange of cans instead of taking the customer to school. The owner himself, though, is in his 60s, nearing retirement. His business is successful and successful businesses no longer need the men who built them. Perhaps he was telling the customer what he longed to be doing himself. Perhaps he’s just in the way in his own shop. The two men might have more in sympathy than they sounded and that explains the patient willingness of the customer to be treated like a fool. He recognized the owner’s need to feel he has some importance, that his word still counts.
I had trouble getting waited on. The other clerks were busy. So I was still there when the two men came back from examining the bookshelves. At last the owner consented to open up the can and take a look. He fumbled through the drawers under the counter looking for a screwdriver and the unsteadiness of hand and unfamiliarity with the business his hands had built showed. He pried up the lid. It was fruitwood stain, no doubt. A muddy brown like turkey gravy.
“That’s your fruitwood. See, it’s got your brown in it. Walnut would have your black.”
He rapped the lid back down tight with the screwdriver butt. The customer took the can and left. The woman I think was his wife went out the door ahead of him. The owner looked disappointed that the conversation was over. A clerk had at last moseyed over to help me. My coat rack came already finished in clear polyurethene and I couldn't think of anything tricky about which to ask the old man's advice. I paid and walked home.