How to Read a Board

I took my first shop class in the 7th Grade. The teacher was a short Austrian with a missing finger on his left hand and an accent that struck fear in the heart of a thirteen year old. On the first day of class he walked us around the meticulously kept room naming each machine and giving a brief description of its use while we followed dutifully in a tight knot of boys dressed in dungarees and T-shirts. When he came to the joiner he told us about the importance of being aware of our surroundings, of paying attention to what we were doing at all times and then he described how he had once stood fascinated by the shavings that came out of that machine one day a long time ago and how for just a second he forgot what he was doing until he saw the bright red spray of his own blood stain the pile of sawdust at his feet and looked at his missing digit in horror. He held his stump up in front of our faces and said the phrase I have never forgotten, “This is what you get for inky-dinkying around.”

Over the course of that year I found myself living in a perpetual state of fear of both the power tools and Mr. Franz. He demanded exactitude in everything we did, from the care for each chisel and screwdriver that hung in the well tended cabinet to the way we swept the floor at the end of every class. I learned a great deal as well, little details that have stuck with me for over forty years and what I made in that shop, a cutting board, a candlestick, a chessboard and a side table are still in use in the home of my Father, solid, well made and a reminder of what I learned. Back then I recall that my shop teacher was often demanding, occasionally cruel by the standards of today. If you chatted it up and lost your focus he would come up behind you and grab a handful of your hair and lift you up from your stool by the scalp. He taught us the difference between pine and poplar, showed us the best way to get an edge on a blade, how to bring out the grain of the wood when we finished a piece and how to care for the things you were responsible for no matter how insignificant they might seem. His scowl was a constant, but the beautifully crafted pieces of furniture built by the Seniors that decorated the hallways of our school were reminders of something better that he gave us. We talked among ourselves outside of class, rumors of his life in Austria during the war, the reasons behind his demanding manner and his constant press to do more no matter how much we did in the hour we spent in that room, unventilated and filled with floating motes of dust. I hated that year but I loved it too and it has taken me my entire adult lifetime to realize that aside from the men in my own family, no one has had a bigger impact on my life than Andrew Franz.

A couple of weeks ago the interns arrived on our farm. I give all credit to our son for setting it up — these were his friends he met while he was out in America doing his thing, nice young men that are often dismissed as an entire generation, but who are set quite apart from the depictions you often see. They don’t sip pumpkin lattes and snack on Banh Mi, don’t wear toreador pants and ballet slippers and never seem to be on a hand held device. Their taste in music is sketchy to my ears, but they have a manner and an ethic that sets them apart from most men I encounter in the broader world. There is an optimism that came with them when they arrived and a joy that seems to follow no matter how difficult the task at hand. I briefed them on what we expected, honesty foremost, but respect for what they were going to do. I didn’t care how long any task took as long as it was done to the best of their ability. In exchange for their work they would be fed well, allowed free use of the farm and anything on it, freedom to explore and recreate on their off hours and days and a respect for their privacy. They’d accumulate the credits they needed towards graduation as interns and we’d benefit from the pure physical labor that comes from four twenty-somethings interested in a future in agriculture. I promised to show them what I had learned and that we’d work together and though I am not a teacher by any means, I was determined to give them the benefit of my knowledge if they would give us their time. My only other demand was that they would submit a weekly submission in whatever format they chose that chronicled the work of the week before.

“During our first few days of our internship at Hopewell Farms we have accomplished multiple tasks that have taught me and my peers a plethora of skill sets. During our first day of work (5/30) we were eased into our job mostly setting up our home for the summer, a beautiful camper that my co-worker/roommate had encountered back home. Afterwards we were taken and instructed our daily tasks that needed to be accomplished before our actual work began. Daily chores include feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, leading the cows to a pasture to graze on the hay, and picking up free waste from the local supermarket (containing expired but fresh fruits and vegetables) that would be fed to the pigs. The cows are completely fed on hay that is primarily made up of big bluestem mixed with clover. This internship is a fantastic learning experience for us and I cannot wait to see what else it entails over the next few weeks.”


If you have ever worked with wood before you understand that no two boards are alike. Every tree produces a unique product that fits certain needs; softwoods for buildings, hardwoods for furniture, firewood and flooring. To understand how best to use each one requires a knowledge of its nature. No two pieces of wood are alike regardless of how uniform they may appear. Every piece of trim, dimensional lumber, rough sawn timber and finished floorboard comes from a source that cannot be ignored. The best boards come from the healthiest trees that grow slowly and straight. Boards are squared and made to construct projects based on straight lines and right angles but trees are cylindrical and on closer inspection feature arcs and concentric circles depending on how they were milled. On the second week we installed a fence line along the gardens, digging three foot post holes with a shovel and bar. The four inch by four inch posts were treated at the base and then placed in each hole, one every ten feet for several hundred feet of fence line. I demonstrated how to use a level to plumb each post, how to run a string line to keep the fence running straight and how to tamp gravel and sand around the base to firm the posts solidly. I showed them how to use a story pole to keep the spacing of each course of rail and then how to read each board for strength by placing one end on the ground and the other against your cheek and looking down the length of the board to discover its natural curve and how to place the crown up and the cup, or tree ring arc facing the posts to prevent it from pulling away from the posts over time. Then I let them go about the job on their own while I attended to other chores. In my mind I had done the best I could and the job, when they completed it was everything I would have done myself and I told them so. It would be hard to expect much more and it makes me smile every time I look out at it, fresh, clean wood running straight and true.

The beginning of the week began a bit chaotic and was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster ride. There were times where as a group we were upset or frustrated while doing projects around the farm. I think a lot of it just had to do with uncertainty and just not asking enough questions. One example I specifically remember was when Pat and I were putting up fencing rails. It just seemed like it was one problem after another. It was either fencing posts not being equal lengths apart or just not knowing how things needed to be done. Just about every time we ran into a problem, Marc was always driving by with the tractor. He would stop and ask, “Everything okay?”, and we would tell him our problem and instead of Marc just giving us the answer or solution he would say, “well what do you think?”, kind of just guiding us towards the solution. After several minutes of brainstorming and talking between the three of us, Pat and I would come with a solution to our problem. Then Marc would just get on the tractor and say, “There are no problems, only solutions”, and just continued working. I’m not sure if that just frustrated Pat and I more, but we always found a way to figure it out ourselves. I have never held a job where, I’m allowed so much freedom when performing tasks or even challenged on so many levels. It’s one of the first times in my life where I have been treated like an adult. I’m being asked to analyze critical situations on the fly while performing tasks and having to come up with solutions. I’m finally starting to see the bigger picture in what Marc is trying to teach us. As Marc would say, “Sometimes you just have to read the board”. I believe that the team is finally starting to get used to how things operate on the farm, and we’re finally gaining some momentum as a unit.


It’s been three weeks and in that time we’ve used miter saws, table saws and planers, installed fences, milled lumber, split firewood, fed livestock, slaughtered and butchered a hog, constructed a smokehouse, built a garden shed, created 100 feet of hugelkultur, planted squash, corn, pumpkins, beans, arugula, potatoes and onions. We’ve cleaned out manure from chicken coops and cow stalls, learned how to mow with a scythe and how to keep the blade in shape by peening and whetting. They know what a snath is now, and the difference between a grab hook and a snaffle. They can read a tape measure, a level and framing square, know how to cut a riser, install lap siding, cut pickets and space them evenly. They’ve broadcast oats and sown clover by hand, learned how to cure pork bellies and slow roast chickens, understand how to lay in a bunker, weed a garden, repair a hydrant, use a chain saw and sharpen the chain. They have organized the shop, slowly accustomed themselves to put tools back where they came from, pick up debris, tedder hay, and put in a full day and another half of one on top of that without complaint. They’ve seen calves born, and tasted some of the best grass fed beef they’ve ever eaten and understand the entire process between the two.

I wish that I could say I have been as patient a teacher as they have been as students but I am no Andrew Franz. But I am doing my best and they are learning and day after day it has become clear that we have all benefited from the arrangement. At the end of the workday they head down to the trout pond and you can hear their laughter faintly as they float around on inner tubes across the surface of the water and while my wife makes dinner for everyone it sounds like music to our ears. I have heard a great deal about my son’s generation and all of their failings, but I have worked shoulder to shoulder with them and I can tell you that they have more potential in them than any other I have encountered. There is a unity with them and a purpose and maybe we just got lucky with our own son and his friends but I think that isn’t true. Something is coming and these will be the young men to make the future whatever it becomes and if we do our best to hand over what we’ve got for them to use things will be just fine. They’ll do their best to keep things plumb and level, put things back where they got them and do a solid job where at the end of the day they can look back over it all and be satisfied with the effort.

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