Imagine my surprise when a childhood friend called to tell me he wanted to give me a family heirloom. Bruce lived across the street from my father’s sister and we played together as kids when I visited my aunt. My cousin Laura and Bruce have remained close friends over the years. Laura had maintained a self-storage unit and finally decided, after her mother’s passing, it needed to be cleaned out. Bruce is an upstanding guy and helped my cousin with the effort. At the end of the day, there was one piece left and Laura had no idea what to do with it. It was big, heavy, old, dirty, and had nothing in common with today’s décor. She asked Bruce if he wanted it which in hindsight, makes me wonder why she didn’t canvas the family before giving it away. But then again, why would anyone want it? A big draftsman’s table with broken drawers is not something anyone would want to bother the family about. If Bruce took it, her day would be over, and she’d feel better about having his help. I’m sure she was relieved when he took ownership.
My grandfather’s Hamilton worktable started a new life. Certainly not as glamorous as being the centerpiece of a small-town tailor’s shop – an important worktop to a skilled tailor that spent the better part of WWI in a tent safely away from the front lines mending officer uniforms. My grandfather must have bought it used. After all, it was not intended to be something you cut fabric on.
Imagine parts of a custom suit laid out all over the table. Maybe there were pins and chalk in the drawers? Maybe an array of threads and patterns? Now it belonged to a skilled carpenter that I’m sure made good use of it in his garage workshop until he got older and stored it in his shed. It must have taken considerable room in his shed and I guess he got tired of moving around it. He decided the time had come to part ways with it. So why didn’t he just throw it away?
In my opinion, there’s an implied responsibility with something old. For many people, something inside gives them pause when deciding to throw old stuff away. “The table made it this far, am I going to be the one to trash it?” he might have said to himself. Bruce marveled at the bottom frame, under the open area where a chair may have been placed in the tailor shop. It was worn away, a slight slope. Bruce told me he imagined my grandfather sitting at the worktable and placing his feet up on the rail. Bruce knew my grandfather well from all of the family parties and dinners at my aunt’s house. “What to do with Grandpop Terzano’s table”, he probably thought. Or, maybe he knew all along that the rightful owner of the worktable was the tailor’s grandson. “I have something for you” he said. “Something that belongs with you and not me” he continued.
What was once a thank you from my cousin and I’m sure a very good carpenter’s worktable was headed my way. I didn’t even know it existed until Bruce called. Ironically, I am the family member that has my grandfather’s iconic tailor’s mirror made in the late 1800s. It has three large panels containing beveled mirrors that swivel on large metal brackets. It’s a beautiful piece. I can only imagine the family politics when my father asked his brothers and sisters for the mirror. “My son Paul wants it” he must have said. I asked for it on a whim when they were clearing out my grandparent’s house. The mirror had a place in their dining room where my grandfather must have used it to do side jobs after he retired. I remember as a child playing with my brother, sister, and cousins around the mirror. We’d close ourselves inside the panels to hide. Being the eldest of five children must have given my father some clout. The mirror has been in my possession for over thirty-five years.
Little did I know that my experience with the tailor’s mirror would guide my decisions with the draftsman’s table. The minute I took possession of the table, that never-ending sense of responsibility for something so old started nagging at me. The extra weight of it belonging to my grandfather, in the same shop as the mirror, kinda made me wish that it stayed unknown to me. But there it was, in my garage, looking like it had way better days. It was old, heavy, and in the way. What was I going to do now?
Thirty-five years ago, taking possession of the mirror had a similar feeling. The good news at the time was feeling that I was the one that gets to keep that cool mirror. The bad news; I get to keep that cool mirror. It was a bear to move and just didn’t fit anything in my newlywed house. My wife wondered what I was going to do with it. I just stored it in the back part of the basement and waited for it to be relevant again. Years later, I was fortunate enough to buy a much bigger house with a walk-in closet that was almost as large as a small bedroom. The mirror had purpose and life again I thought! There was a perfect spot for it at the end of the closet against the back wall. But there was a catch. The finish was old and beat. The wood frame looked dirty, no matter how hard you cleaned it. I only had two options; Restore it or put it back in basement storage. I really wanted to make use of it after so many years. So, I agreed to have the frame refinished even though I knew it was a no-no to an antique purist. Life or no life for the mirror is how I looked at it. The mirror is now the centerpiece of my bedroom. It’s too amazing to be in the closet anymore.
Therein lies the first decision for the draftsman’s table. What do I do with that old, dirty top? If I wanted anyone to feel good about using it, it had to look clean. Besides, I had no knowledge of how the stains, marks, and scratches made their way onto the tabletop. If damage to the top wasn’t made by my grandfather, why preserve it? I decided to refinish the top. I started with a 300 grit sandpaper and quickly had to move up and up to an 80. The top was just too trashed. I gave some thought to a surface planer but quickly dismissed the idea because I felt it would look like a modern production formed top. Besides, there was a mark on the top, like a purposeful stamp that read “RRG 6-1-37” that I needed to preserve.
Hand-sanding was the only option and as it turned out, gave the top some extra character – the process created some subtle waves in the wood. I was very lucky to find a stain that matched perfectly. The top had new life!
What do I do now? The drawers are terrible. Over the years, they put a strain on the rails and some downward warping developed. I looked at it many times and asked myself; “is it a table or a desk”? In today’s world, I think it’s definitely a table. As a desk, it’s too large and takes up too much floor space. The piece is a tad taller that a kitchen table and not as tall as a pub table. I pictured it as a “social” table that I could use in my music room as an eclectic centerpiece. It would see laughter, good music, snacks, and spirits. A new life! I had the motivation I needed to clean every bolt, deep clean the legs, and restore the lift mechanism. As for the drawer assembly, it’s available for the taking and hope it will find a good home. There are two interesting markings on the inside bottom of the main drawer; looks like “Last Raise 4-20-28” and “xxxxx Sept xx 1925”.
In both cases, the mirror and table, my sense of responsibly to history gave me enough time to develop a use for these important pieces of family history. My daughters are excited about them which means they have a great chance to carry on. I am far from a hoarder. I consider myself a minimalist. The fact that these pieces survived with me says a lot. But survive they did, and they are both thriving in their new lives. The table has not failed to get a “wow” from those that see it for the first time. I am better off with them in my life.
I am very glad to have saved them. My grandfather would love it, I’m sure.