Luigi's Woodworking Pages
Smells trigger memories and some profound emotions. For me, the most evocative smell is that of lacquer. I spent a large part of my first years in my father's millwork shop, where my mother did the office work. Whenever I smell lacquer, I am immediately transported to those early years. The other smell that does that to me is when I'm cutting maple on the tablesaw, but not as powerfully as lacquer. My father went bankrupt when I was four or five and went to work as a construction carpenter, eventually getting promoted to foreman and superintendent. He died in 1990.
My father, William Zanasi, was a cabinetmaker, as was his father Umberto and both his grandfathers Adolfo Zanasi and Gemello Brancolini. My maternal grandfather, Luigi Martino, originally trained as a cabinetmaker in Italy, and when he immigrated to Canada around 1910, he went to work as a carpenter for the Canadian Pacific Railway. So, in the words of David Ashley, a Whitehorse goldsmith and jeweller whose work I very much admire, I am a genetic woodworker. Not that it means that I'm any good, but I can recognize good work when I see it.
There are some memories of my father's shop. One poignant one was the absolute terror I felt when I locked myself in the old panel truck when I was two or three years old, and the relief I felt when Amedeo opened the door. For some reason, I also have a very clear memory of the large stroke sander at the back of the shop. It was a pretty cool machine. I grew up in Montréal surrounded by cabinetmakers and craftspeople: Amedeo Ferrara, Peppino Schembri, Jacques Robuchon, Jos. Montoya. It was only natural that I learned, more by osmosis than anything.
Not only was there my father's shop in the very early years, but there was also my grandfather Luigi's workbench and tools in the basement of the typical Montreal outside-staircase triplex we lived in. I always had complete and free access to the tools, all neander. My brother still has his moulding planes and my cousin has the rest of the tools.
In Italy, in and near Modena, my great-grandfather Adolfo and my grandfather Umberto specialised in making ladders. They were known as scaler, laddermaker, in the local dialect. My father described the process to me. They would get a whole limbed and debarked small fir tree from Yugoslavia. My father used the word abete, fir, to describe the tree. This makes sense to me as fir is the only conifer that does not have resin pockets in the wood, the resin is all under the bark. My grandfather would rip it in half freehand on the bandsaw, holding the butt end in his two cupped hands and pushing with his belly. Then they would drill conical holes for the rungs. Each rung was individually fitted with a pialetto (block plane, I think). Then they would press the whole ladder together without any fasteners. Presumably, the relatively green fir would shrink around the rungs, ensuring a tight fit.
When I spent a summer in Italy, in 1964 at the age of eight, I spent a lot of time in my grandfather's shop. I remember being surprised that he did not have any "regular" saws, only bow saws. I quickly mastered them in any case, or as much as an eight-year old can master a saw. I had a friend who needed a small ladder. So I made him one for 500 Lire, on my own, in my grandfather's shop. It wasn't fancy, just nailed together. After that, I could do absolutely no wrong in Nonno Umberto's eyes.
I also remember the first time I used a table saw. My mother had been adamant that my brother and I were not allowed to use power tools until we reached 16 years of age. When I was about 12 or 13 and my brother about 10 or 11, my father told us to go cut a piece of plywood he had marked. It was a rather long rip cut, so we asked how we should do it. He said: "Con la sega, stupido. (Use the saw, stupid. )" We asked, dreading a long session with a hand saw, but with perhaps a faint ray of hope: "Quale sega? (Which saw?)". "Le banc de scie! Che cavolo pensate?" was the reply, half in French, half in Italian. ("The table saw. What do you think?" Actually, he didn't use the word cavolo. Anyone with a knowlege of Italian potty-mouth words will know what he said.)
Elated, we proceeded to go to the tablesaw. But then, there was a problem. Who would go first? We had a serious discussion about that. Being the first-born son, I tried to insist on my prerogative. My brother did not take kindly to that; he never did show the respect due to his elder brother. When that first argument failed, I argued that I had waited more years than he had to use the table saw, and that he would actually end up using the tablesaw before I did if we considered our respective ages. He conceded, so I made the first cut.
© 2004 Luigi Zanasi, Whitehorse, Yukon.
The bird's eye maple background is from Romeyn Hough's The American Woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text.