Sawdust Meditations
creative nonfiction by Lacy Snapp

My father and I don our ear protection in his workshop as we prepare to plane a knee-high stack of barnwood for my latest project.
Sound restricted, he and I must communicate using signals. A slight nod of his head means, pick up this top board at that end. A stretch from his pointer finger tells me a rusty nail is still lodged in the wood like a tick and needs to be removed before we can plane. Five years working in the shop together has solidified this degree of me understanding his meaning without words. I take a black, magnetic wand and glide it up and down the board’s length to look for stragglers. I’m notorious for missing the ones buried deep which will chip the planer’s internal blade. Every time I make this mistake, future boards will bear a thin raised streak, the only part spared from the sharpness and pressure of the machine.
(I wonder, in this thought-provoking world of ambient humming, would reclaimed barnwood be considered dead? It doesn’t grow anymore; instead, it shrinks into itself as more segments are cut off, sectioned, slivered, sanded.) Silverfish dwell in the knotted bones of the stack, gray creatures slinking away for survival as we remove more boards. For them, we remain patient—they do no harm to the wood. We unconsciously slow our ritual for a few extra moments to allow for them to seek out a new hiding place.           
Layers of sawdust settle in the metal trash can by the planer and curve like sediment strata. A dense, thin brown strip left by some walnut boards from last week is topped by thick and fluffy sections of white pine dust, three times the size of any other layer in the tin. Emptying the buckets was always my favorite task as a child. That, and vacuuming out the bandsaw. I remember Saturday mornings when Dad would be working on projects, he'd give my sister and me little tasks, but they never felt like chores. I’d carefully open the lower blade’s plastic guard cover and practice precision to extract each morsel with the hose, mindful to keep my fingers clear of the metal teeth.
Now, Dad and I plane away, removing layer after layer of the barnwood’s outer skin. Most of it makes its way into the bin, but some escapes into the air, particles hovering like an ethereal mist. The gray boards are ground down until patches of red oak peek through. If I'm careful, and only take off so much, I can have both: subtle hints of gray gristle charm which seems to have seen so much, but still withholds its secrets, and that pinkish-brown grain that hasn’t seen daylight since the log was first cut and the barn was originally built.
(This ritual creates an enormous amount of noise, and so much silence.)

We can’t verbally communicate during the process, but even when the machine isn’t running, we don’t talk as much as I'd like. I attempt conversation—ask how mom is doing, the state of his garden, which projects he has planned for the week. I share tidbits of my own life so that he might offer some of his in return: the parts I don’t yet know about, his time before mine intersected it. (I want to know what he was like at my age: the adventures, the mistakes, tiny details of his humanity to make me feel better about my own.) My grandfather would come to the workshop to tinker with his own projects, especially in his later years. In the finishing room, I’d compare his slow, careful method of brushing on polyurethane to my faster style. He’d never stop talking as he wanted to discuss politics, unpack the adventures of Huck Finn, or debate if a knot of wood on a mahogany board should be considered a blemish or beauty mark. (Looking back, I wish I would have slowed down a bit, disregarded the deadlines, and better listened instead of being distracted by my own preoccupations, ones that I now can’t seem to even recall.) Moments of my father voluntarily doffing his guard are infrequent. He has to be in the right mood, with little worries on his mind, or have the right question asked to him. Even then, he might need a few days to reflect on my latest prompt, perhaps to recall the precise details himself after further contemplation.
Dad never scolds me when I ruin a blade by forgetting to remove a nail. Instead, he will bring me a freshly planed board and point to the streak that remains unlevel and unchanged, tapping the raised part with his pointer finger and making eye contact to watch as I decipher his meaning. His displeasure is wordless, but tender. Often, behind his cigar, there is a knowing half-smile waiting for child-like frustration to flush my face when I realize I’ve done it again. (He knows: sometimes, my hands might be moving, but my mind is somewhere else because he’s the one who taught this ritual to me.)

He’d hold the offering out to me, say, what kind of wood is this?
I’d search for clues, little tellings like a color or grain pattern.


Different species of lumber tower in stacks around the shop—our tin-roofed time capsule—and those one-inch strata sections are still hardened by their former life of being trees. In my first few months being an apprentice in the shop, Dad would use his pocket knife, the one he always has on his side, (the same one I always ask for when I don’t have my own), to remove a large splinter of the aged gray top board. He’d hold the offering out to me, say, what kind of wood is this? I’d search for clues, little tellings like a color or grain pattern. If those weren’t enough, I’d pick up the board to feel its weight or test its hardness. As time went on, even smelling the sawdust could reveal the species. (Not just smelling, but tasting. When I cut enough wood, the sawdust particles interact with the air I breathe. I cut cedar, and taste cedar. It’s bright, sharp. It embodies that bright red-orange color.) These palpable markers make the qualities of wood something to count on, to trust. Red oak is red oak. Red oak barnwood, encrusted in gray, is still red oak if you plane it down far enough. It’s a hard wood, dependable, with unique grain character streaking across each board, sure to not disappoint. Some people see knots as blemishes. But to us, knots are one-of-a-kind. Knots mean a tree was happy enough to sprout a branch. When one of us uncovers a knot of note, we will slow down enough to point it out, lock eyes, and shake our heads in wonderment.

(I wonder, if some consider wood to be dead after it is cut off from its roots, why do our interactions with it bring so much life—busyness, through craft, and our own understood layer of intimacy?)
Since my grandfather’s passing, I’ve faced the unavoidable guilt attached to realizing I should have asked more questions. As children, we can’t comprehend yet what a gift it is to have elders, how those creased bodies are the keepers of stories. We don’t consider where that knowledge goes when a person is no longer living, or realize that it might be buried as layers of memory within the people nearest to them. My dad is now the closest embodiment of his father. He’s the one who could best recall the details, translate the grain patterns, make sense of the knots. Maybe my familial excavation is now twofold. As I ask for splinters about my grandfather, secondhand scraps to treasure, layers of my dad will inevitably be attached. To better know one is to better know both. 

In the workshop, metal trash cans hold what cannot be stacked—sawdust fluffy or dense and everything in between. When I empty the bin into the gravel parking lot outside, I can remember the finished (or half-finished) projects each layer represents. This exists, too, in the mound of powder behind the chop saw, which a few pulls from the vacuum will reveal. My time in the shop consists of frequent, small revelations: silverfish making an appearance to glisten in the light before hiding again, splinters carved off so a board may be named, grain faces peering out for the first time in decades if I plane down hard enough. But there will always be those strips missed by the blade, secrets that take a little more time to wear down, a bit more careful sanding.

Lacy Snapp
is a teacher and woodworker in East Tennessee where she serves on the board of the Johnson City Poets Collective. Her chapbook is Shadows on Wood (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She is an MFA in Writing graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and holds an MA in English from East Tennessee State University. Her work including poetry, interviews, reviews, and nonfiction appears in About Place Journal, The Ekphrastic Review, Still: The Journal, Snapdragon, Tupelo Quarterly, Appalachian Places, and multiple Women of Appalachia Project anthologies, among others, and is forthcoming in Cutthroat and Appalachian Journal