Woodworking and the Lost Art of Mentoring

woodworking and mentorship

Many people have asked me over the years how I first got started in woodworking. From a very young age, I was always fascinated by anything to do with construction. I used to go to building sites near my home and pick up scraps of lumber, from which I would make rudimentary projects. I took an old coal bin in the basement of my family’s three-decker in Dorchester, and made it into a little workshop, where I spent endless hours puttering. There was an old time hardware store not far away, and one of the clerks used to put up with my endless questions and small purchases. Of course, I was on a miniscule budget, but I spent whatever I had on tools and materials. I devoured every issue of “The Family Handyman” magazine, picking up all sorts of knowledge about a wide variety of home improvement projects. I also read books like The Boy Electrician by Alfred P. Morgan, which is a superb introduction to basic electricity, and has been reprinted numerous times. An uncle who lived with us was a former electrician who managed the counter of an electric supply in Cambridge. He was a true putterer, who taught me about electrical wiring. Even more significant, he began taking me to work with him on Saturdays. I was only about thirteen, but I began doing odd jobs for the owner, who would hand me a little cash now and then, for my efforts.

My uncle, and later Mr. Katz, the owner of the electric supply, and even the old clerk at Courtney Hardware were my early mentors. That was over 60 years ago, yet I still remember them fondly and with great appreciation to this day. I soaked up what they gave me like a sponge, oblivious to the fact that these men, and others to follow, were helping to mold my life to come. They saw a genuine interest from me, and took the time and effort to nurture it, despite me undoubtedly often being a real pest. As a student at Boston Latin School, I somehow became a physics lab assistant under the tutelage of the esteemed and powerful Mr. Frank Carroll, the head of the physics department.

As previously mentioned in this blog, I was also very fortunate to have had two great uncles from the “old country,” who were highly skilled woodworkers. They were from the days when men made their own tools, such as beech wood planes and moulding cutters. While I regret that I had only known them near the end of their lives, I was still able to learn some of their skills. I inherited some of their hand wrought tools, which I still have. My father used to bring me to the original Barney & Carey lumberyard in Milton, where I was treated kindly by the hard core union lumbermen. After high school, I worked for a meticulous “old school” contractor in Cambridge, who continued my education, followed by a stint with a real estate developer, who unwittingly turned me into a future competitor. After attaining some success in Back Bay and Beacon Hill redevelopment projects, I ran into my old developer boss at an industry dinner. He told the people at our table, “Would you believe this guy worked as a carpenter for me, yeas ago!”

The point of all this is MENTORING. Today, we live in a world where many people complain about “our youth.” Some of them—including too many pundits and politicians—pay lip service to the plight of “underprivileged young people,” etc., but don’t do a damned thing about it. Throwing tax dollars at such problems may make them feel better, but accomplishes little else. On the other hand, actually taking an interest in a young person, and spending the time to teach them some of your skills and life knowledge can change their lives and their futures. I can’t say enough about the profound effect the people I mentioned here had upon me. I have had a couple of satisfying experiences in mentoring young people, and I urge you to do the same. If you are a skilled woodworker, what could be more rewarding than passing along a bit of your skill to a younger version of you? I love it when a customer brings their child along to Barney & Carey, and we give them a tour of the shop, and watch their eyes widen with amazement. When they start asking questions, and you take the time to sincerely answer them, you are “setting the hook” for what could become a lifetime involvement.

Looking back, I have always felt that I was the big winner between me and my many mentors, but perhaps not.