My Jim Olson Moment

Just one of Jim Olson's incredible guitars. See
Just one of Jim Olson’s incredible guitars. See

As I get ready to appear at the Vermont Woodworking Festival among some of the state’s finest wood artisans, I’m clearly due for a lesson in humility, and like all good lessons in humility, it’s one I inflicted on myself.

But first, I want to explain the title of this short essay.

One of the country’s finest guitar-makers (or luthiers, as some of them like to be called), is a fellow called Jim Olson, who as his Scandinavian name implies, lives in Minnesota. Olson guitars are played by slackers such as James Taylor, and they fetch prices normally associated with small family sedans. The impression the ordinary guitar maker or guitarist gets is that Olson looks at a piece of wood, passes his hands over it a few times without actually touching it, and suddenly it is making noises usually heard from angels and harps.

Yet Olson himself tells a wonderfully reassuring tale against himself that reminds us of a universal truth, easily forgotten: everyone makes stupid mistakes.

Apparently he had just finished one of his guitars (and, presumably, was checking it off on his orders list: God–done. Buddha–done. Krishna–ready for shipping) when, horror of horrors, he dropped it.

Not only that, but his momentum carried him forward, and he kicked it down the stairs.

I have told this story in select circles and have seen grown luthiers blanch and shake at the thought of an Olson flying down a flight of stairs and cracking open like a rosewood pinata. Horror story. Pure horror.

My own Jim Olson moment was more British, and, without doubt, a great deal less about momentary clumsiness and more about stupidity.

I have become steadily more dissatisfied with the finish on my four-panel Endangered Alphabet Poem, and I decided to sand each face down and refinish it with rub-on polyurethane. So far, so good. I took the first panel (remember, these things are five feet tall) and sanded until I was satisfied with its smoothness. Then I went to work with the soft cloth and the poly, and again was finally satisfied with its satin sheerness.

At this point I should explain that, unlike Jim Olson, I don’t have what is called a spray booth. A spray booth is a sealed room for spraying lacquer, varnish, oil, polyurethane or other finishes, many of which are dismayingly toxic. No, what I have is a kitchen extractor fan. I lay my finished piece across the top of the stove and turn on the fan, and the fumes are thwarted in their ambition to poison me in my sleep.

So I carried this vast, ornate maple plank out to the kitchen, laid it across the stove, and turned on the fan.

Then, being English, I decided to express my job-well-done satisfaction in the time-honored fashion: by making a cup of tea. I filled the kettle, put it on the burner, turned on the burner, emptied the teapot, put in a teabag, and went back into the next room to check email until the kettle boiled.

The next room, my living room, was already full of strong, exotic smells. My amazing maple table with its carved Balinese poem inscription had arrived with its walnut legs newly oiled, and days later that smell had taken up permanent resident in the couch, the carpet, and other soft fabrics. I had just fixed a small table with epoxy, and that smell was fresh and strong–though not as fresh nor as strong as the polyurethane. Yet as I sat at my laptop, I felt I could detect another smell. (This in itself was an achievement, as I have a nose like an elbow.) I thought I smelled toast.

Odd, I thought. The British, of course, dream of toast, so perhaps the smell was an olfactory wish-fulfillment. Still, I got up and went into the kitchen, where my poem panel was on fire.

Seriously on fire. Flames licking up from beneath it, scorching the stovetop, leaping a foot or more into the air. Smoke in fat dark pillows, bustling up toward the ceiling.

I had turned on the wrong burner. The one beneath the wood.

It was an act of such epic idiocy I was almost proud of myself. Hard to beat that.

So of course I ran outside with the panel, which extinguished itself along the way and was content with a steady smoky mutter into the bushes and the cherry tree out front. I threw open all the windows and doors, turned the fan up high, ran upstairs to shut the bedroom doors, and retreated outside until the worst of the smoke had cleared. Then I spent half an hour scrubbing the stovetop, and two days sanding the burn off the back of the panel.

The house now smells faintly but pleasantly of campfire, but I am not deceived. This is my initiation into the brotherhood of  woodworkers, my hazing to keep me humble. No matter how well things go tomorrow, I’ll still be hearing the wry voice of Jim Olson wafting down from Minnesota: everyone makes stupid mistakes.

9 Responses

  1. Carolyn

    This is so familiar to me. I have never ruined any precious art but every one of my cutting boards has a burner-shaped scorch mark on one side. Also, the next time you are mailing a few things I will tell you my plastic rat story.

  2. Claudia

    Tim , we all need these reality checks to keep from becoming far too secure :)))

    • Tim

      Yes, I’m definitely in less danger of that now!

  3. Russell Aminzade

    I am shocked that you don’t own a Russell Hobs Kettle. I’ve always assumed that Brits are issued one at birth.

    • Tim

      Well, of course I had one when I lived in England…

  4. pam armbrister

    It’s never a matter of “if” something like this will happen to you, but a matter of “when!” Thank goodness your panel was o.k.

    • Tim

      The panel is okay, but I’m deliberately leaving a little of the scorch-mark unsanded to remind me…

  5. Rick Underhill

    Welcome to the brotherhood Tim….it seems to me that the path to “master craftsman” is paved with so many mistakes that the key must be in how we solve the “fix”. I’ve found that many of the “stupidest” mistakes actually turned out to be a good thing, i.e., forcing a change that improved my design or something about the final product. I always feel like an idiot, but therein lies the path to wisdom and the mastering of a trade….

    • Tim

      You know, you’re absolutely right. Actually, anything that jolts us out of our habits gives us the chance to change. Of course, that means we go through life with a bruise on our foreheads from smacking ourselves there so often…