Monday, December 29, 2014

Thor with surprise Christmas table.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Tomorrow, December 30, will mark one month since my bilateral (double) knee replacement surgery.

I have to be honest in saying it hasn't been easy.  On the other hand, as time advances, and my mobility improves, and the discomfort lessens, I've come to think it was the right decision to do both knees at once, if for no other reason than I might never have the courage to do the second one a year or two down the road.   At this point, my daily stamina, mobility, and my ability to concentrate has increased to the point where I can at least think about doing a blog.

This Christmas we had the ultimate of surprises.   Our youngest son, Thor, brought with him sections of a table he created in his spare time, fulfilling Mary Jo's wish to have a table large enough to seat all of our family at one time (11).   Thor has been working on this on and off for at least several years, and we were led to believe it still wasn't quite ready.  However, a few minutes past midnight of Christmas day, when I couldn't sleep, I wandered in to the living room to find Thor assembling the various pieces of his table.   I was too excited, and impressed by his workmanship, to go back to bed without waking Mary Jo first.   We have no lack of pride in saying Thor has designed (all in his head) and executed a woodworking masterpiece, and already it's seen service for meals, card games and other family activities.

Grandsons Magnus and Aidan play cards.

The quality of construction is of the same high standard Van Dam Woodcraft is known for in its boats.  If you go to their website you will also find a large corporate table custom built by Van Dam (and on which Thor also had a major part).    But our table we think is quite unique, and therefore it deserves mention and description here.

Ends slide back simultaneously, smoothly,
revealing the center section beneath.

The basic dimensions were to be approximately 4 feet x 10 feet.   Thor created a mid-section using German hardware and a butterfly-like section that opens from underneath the table as the top halves are pulled aside.  The mechanism works like butter, smooth and with just the right clearances.   Aside from the key mid-section hardware and slide, however, the rest of the metal pieces were fabricated by Thor or friend Jess Brown, Van Dam's metal craftsman.

The four-foot mid-section features two inlays of reconstituted, colored  stone set in circles of curly maple, the image of a green tree frog.  (Based on a second place photo that I entered in the Peninsula Pulse photo contest several years ago.)   The main wood used on the table top is a veneer of island butternut, timber that was cut, sawn and stored over 30 years ago in our barn on Main Road.    The original plank was slightly over 10-ft, with several splits and a tremendous amount of worm holes.  The splits and worm holes were filled first with epoxy before Thor sliced it into 3/8 veneer, then fastened it to a stable backing of 1" foam insulation sandwiched between 1/4" marine plywood, a light but firm backing.   The edging is sipa, a wood closely related to mahogany.   The table top was finished with at least four clear coats of an automotive finish, impervious to moisture and nearly all liquids (although subject to hot temperatures) for a very smooth, shiny and durable top.   The skill of Van Dam's Trevor, who traded his time with Thor and who does nearly all finishing of Van Dam's watercraft products, is greatly appreciated.  It is an outstanding, smooth gloss finish.  The legs and underside has a satin finish.  The end product does resemble, in both size and quality, a corporate boardroom table.

The table underside also reveals a high
degree of finish craftsmanship.

With my recovery still ongoing, and my inability to get out to visit, we've enjoyed more than ever the visits to our home of grandsons, our children and their families, and occasional guests.  This table will enable many enjoyable hours with friends and family in the future.

Two other notes:   Have you seen the Van Dam name on the recent Craftsman tool ads on television?   The shop was closed for one day (rented out) when Craftsman's marketing people created the ad.  Ben Van Dam, company vice president, is featured in the ad, along with a very quick shot of Jess Brown, metal craftsman.   (Practically all of the Van Dam product line is of finely crafted wood, with only an occasional carbon fiber or other material called out by the owner.)

One of two mid-section tree frog
inlay designs, cut from colored sheets of
reconstituted minerals.  The frog's eyes
glow in the dark.

Second, a new project is now underway, an unusual Chesapeake Sandbagger sailboat to be built along traditional sandbagger lines using the Van Dam cold molded method for light, strong construction.

Sandbagers were working sail craft used to dredge oysters originally in the 1800s, that evolved into gentlemen's racers.  They are beamy but of shallow draft, with a huge, unreal amount of canvass.  To counter act the forces of wind on heeling, 50 lb. sand bags were slung out on hiking boards by the fishermen as they raced one another back to port, hence the name.  

Eventually, as racing became a popular pastime, human ballast replaced, or was added to, the sand bags.   In one photo I've seen, five crew each on two planks can be seen hiking out, well overboard, to keep the vessel at proper heel.

An incredible and highly unusual craft, this latest Van Dam project will be built for an east coast owner with delivery by early summer.  Thor has been given the opportunity to head up this project.   You may find progress photos soon posted along with many other Van Dam projects, past and present, at

A short history of the sandbagger can be found on the Mystic Seaport website:

-  Dick Purinton