Twice Warmed

DSC_0023A Warming Memory

A thick mist greets the early mornings now that autumn’s arrived and I think over my life and times when my workshops were by my different homes. In the evenings the boys and I stoked up the fire after supper and they played in the glow as I worked at my bench. It seems now that my children were always in the shop with me over a 30 year span and people are surprised that Texas winters were mostly much colder than in Britain as a whole. I don’t remember better memories than stoking and poking the fire and watching scenes like these and then my making when a Texas blue norther came in and the temperature dropped below freezing in an hour or less. In the north a dark blue skyline slowly emerged from the horizon and expanded to where we stood. Three woods kept me warm mostly, cedar, mesquite and live oak. All were gave good heat output. The cedar wasn’t the soft cedar we might commonly know but ashe juniper early Texans used to block up their home on as stumps or make cedar fence posts from. Impervious to every kind of rot, many early homesteads still stand testimony to its durability and resistance to termites, wet and excessive weight. A cedar fence post lasts 50 years and outlasts both concrete and steel out there in the wilderness of mesquite country. Cedar cutters would drop off a chord or two of mixed cedar, live oak and mesquite for very little money and you had heating through the winter. Most of my firewood I cut myself, slabbed into boards and then used the offcuts for heating home and shop. In my case the cycling of wood was many years old by the time it came to the fire. Slabbing and air drying your own was by far enriching and for two decades I did enjoy providing for my family this way.DSC_0179

The boys seemed always to be carving and shaping something and then feeding chips to dancing flames; I mean from as early as five and six years old they were with me until around nine and bedtime. Liz came in with home-baked oatmeal cookies or brownies at seven and we’d enjoy a hot drink by the wood stove. The smell of newly cut mesquite seemed always on the air most days but then a backdraft from the stove and the cold air outside changed it to smokey juniper and that was special too.

Liz was amongst many other things a soap maker. She made the most wonderful glycerin soap in batches of 25 bars using a sprinkling of the sawdust from the bandsaw to create a more abrasive soap. The mesquite sawdust also coloured the soap to a lovely purple colour through the reaction of tannic acid in the wood that reacted with the caustic soda used to make the soap. She sold the soap to my customers for $3.75 a bar and cycled a batch or two through every week to keep supplies always on the go. DSC_0170We still use handmade soap she’s made though I suspect we might be down to the last few bars. Remember that glycerin soap is exceptionally good for the skin. Not just good but nourishing. The big makers started removing the glycerin out of the soap and then sold it back separately as a skin moisturiser without telling people that because they took the glycerin out the soap caused your skin to dry out and crack. Good ol’ Proctor and Gamble!

DSC_0006The wooden shop floor was quite highly polished in the end, mostly as a result of dragging wood across it and me working on it with shavings underfoot most of the time. My winters were warmed by family ties and the working of my wood. We always had an open-door policy and people often dropped by for a chat because I used mainly hand tools that allowed such a thing without me having to stop working. Woodworkers rarely buy from one another and that’s a sad thing because you can get to the day when you might treasure the work of another; especially something truly made by hand I mean. I have some pieces I made from old barn wood where the man who owned the Monroe ranch behind my place gave me a few boards from the barn his father had built in the late 1800s there in Reagan Wells where I first encountered Texas life.

There’s a saying that firewood warms you twice, once in the splitting and then in the stove. Owning such things as these still warm me with the memories even now.

18 thoughts on “Twice Warmed”

  1. Nice post. My daughter is five and likes to keep me company in my workshop (once she gets over the fact she doesn’t get to watch TV that afternoon). I suspect those might some of her fondest memories. They will certainly be mine. Out of curiosity, do you have any photos of your former workshops? Would be nice to see them.

  2. That sounds great! I’ve got three boys: 7,5 and 3. They’re always interested in what I’m doing in the shop, and it always makes my smile when they start wittling on some old pine or something (unless it’s something I use regularly… Ha! )

    I was thinking the other morning that a wood stove would be a really nice thing to have… It’s starting to get cold enough for one. 🙂

  3. What a wonderful scene you paint here. I swear I can smell the smoke from the back draft. Thank you for sharing such a personal and touching memoir. Scenes like this don’t just happen though, they are created by caring, thinking people. I think that your family is blessed to have you and you to have them. All the best to you and yours.

  4. My wife makes our soap, too. Glycerin soap is so much better than the harsh bars you buy at the store. She used to make soap with lye, oil and various other ingredients until we couldn’t get pure lye in small supply anymore, because of the illicit use of over-the-counter lye for making meth. Nothing like some simmering oil and lye on the kitchen stove to clean the air in the house. Lovely.

  5. That was a great read. Thanks, Paul.

    It makes me wonder; are we going to get a Christmas themed video this year? I really enjoyed the previous Christmas videos you did (even the singing!).

  6. Christopher Mitchell

    That was an awesome post. It was so well written that you had me captivated to the point that I felt as if I were sitting right there next to the fire eating oatmeal cookies and feeling the warmth of the fire in person. I always enjoy hearing about families doing things like this together it’s a shame that all kids didn’t have the same opportunity to have such loving parents that they so well deserved to enjoys days like that. Your family is very blessed and a good role model for all. Thank you

  7. A very warming post, Paul, and we all get to share in the warmth of your memories. Many thanks.

  8. My wife also makes soap. She really loves making it and sometimes makes it just to make it. If you would like some Paul, send me the address you would like it sent to.

    You are right, homemade soap is the best. I will have her try to make some with saw dust in it. Thanks for that tip.

    1. Liz used to sell it as ‘Gardener’s soap.’ It really worked for grimy hands like that.

  9. Living in Austin, Texas, I can definitely attest to the durability of the cedar and live oak. Live Oak is quite a challenge for hand tool work as it dull an edge quickly; for me anyway, but I suspect that Paul has mastered the Texas hardiness. I hope one day to make use of the live oak tree I harvested and planked two years ago for some hand tool projects.

  10. Makes me homesick for my past wood stoves and fires, especially my grandmother’s wood burning kitchen stove where the pies came from.
    I consider Reagan Wells to be pretty near tropical weather, don’t move to the Oklahoma panhandle. They say there are maybe 4 or 5 barbed wire fences between Oklahoma and the North Pole to slow the wind down some. I couldn’t take it and moved to east Oklahoma among the Indian Nations,
    If you like true stories about old rural Appalachia, try reading the stories by Sharon Brown about her grandmother, Aunt Bett. I think I have them all memorized.
    regards, Thomas
    Wonderful story, keep it up.

  11. Nothing but homemade soap here thanks to my wife’s passion for making it. It’s the best! The old ‘Saying’ about wood warming needs modification:

    ‘Warms you when you fell it, warms you when you buck it to length, warms you when you split it, warms you when you haul and stack it,….and then warms you again when it goes into the stove.’ There’s a lot of warmth in a stick of firewood.

  12. Loved reading this post. I grew up with wood heat. Now I find myself living in town with a sterile gas furnace. Regardless I enjoy it when my son comes down to my workshop and works on something with me. I can’t wait to see what he will do someday. I liked your comment about being able to visit while using hand tools. That is so true. Writings like this are refreshing.

  13. Johnathon Smith

    Hi Paul, you have spoken regularly about your time in Texas, but I was curious why you specifically chose Reagan Wells as the place to move your family?

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