Thoughts from Clint on hard work, life, and learning from his Granddad from his book Handcrafted, A Woodworkers Story.

 

“My mother’s father, Verner Martin, was a self-made man and entrepreneur. Back in the late 1950s, after returning from his post as a navy signalman in the Second World War, he started a shipping supply company called Martin Packaging in Atlanta, Georgia. With some inherited money of my grandmother’s, he not only started the business but he also had the foresight to invest in property: he bought up acres of land around Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, which would become some of the most sought-after areas on the outskirts of Atlanta as the years went by. On one large plot of that land, right on the edge of the (Chattahoochee) riverbank, he built the Roost (what would become the family home for over 30 years). From the foundation up, he constructed the entire thing by hand, with a small crew that even included my uncles.

Granddad Martin was a builder.

Whether that meant launching his own business, erecting the walls of the Roost, or constructing a table, he knew how to create something from nothing. After he purchased all that land, he began constructing custom homes on it. He had no formal training, but he knew how to figure things out. Once, when he decided his style would be colonial, he visited Virginia and studied the houses there, taking detailed notes and pictures and measurements. He then returned home to replicate the design. That was his training.

In addition to his natural handyman skills, he also possessed a strong work ethic, a fierce independent streak, and an insatiable desire for exploration. If my granddad wasn’t building a house, he was flying down to Mexico to mine for gold and do God knows what else. I got those genes, the ones that led him to build things, strike out on his own, and chase near impossible dreams. While most everybody else around him had jobs they reported to daily, my granddad could wake up, get on his bulldozer, and work his own land. I loved that. And even as a boy, I knew I wanted that kind of freedom. I also knew I wanted to one day work with my hands.

Verner taught me the value of hard work. He took me to his work sites and gave me jobs—small, often menial tasks, but they were my first real taste of responsibility. He bought me my first work boots and taught me how to swing a hammer, work heavy machinery, and properly mow the grass. Sometimes I’d drill holes through studs in the wall so he could run electrical and plumbing; other times, I’d hang insulation or drag 2x4s to wherever he needed them. I was basically his assistant whenever I was on the site. “Hey, cowboy,” he’d say when I was mowing the lawn, using the nickname he always called me, “you have to pick up all the sticks in the yard first.” I’d walk in parallel lines, end to end, to retrieve the branches before dragging the mower across the lawn. “Good job, cowboy,” he’d tell me, patting me on the shoulder with his heavy hands after inspecting my work. It wasn’t enough to do the job. It had to be done right.

I learned from my granddad by trailing him.

There I’d be, wide-eyed and eagerly at his side, whenever he stepped onto a jobsite or into his tool shop. Anything he told me in passing, I took to heart. “If you’re not careful when using an auger bit with a corded drill,” he once said, “you’ll break your wrist.” To this day, I don’t grab a corded drill without hearing him saying that. One afternoon when my stepdad was laying wood floors for my grandfather and I was giving a hand, Granddad came in and poured sand all over the floor. “Once everyone steps on the sand,” he explained, “that’ll naturally take away the softer wood, raise the grain a bit, and give the wood a beautiful look.” He was always teaching me and always encouraging me to get the job done right.”

……I wrote these words in my book, Handcrafted, A Woodworkers Story, about some of the lessons I learned from my grandfather. As the story continues, I open up about the fact that like every other human, my grandfather wasn’t perfect. Even though he was a pillar in my life he had major flaws, and yet I learned from him. Looking back on it, I had to learn from him. I had to truly see how he did things right, and how he did things wrong. Knowing these things would help me in avoiding some of the mistakes he made while hopefully finding similar success…..

“One of my first master teachers was my granddad Martin. I used to sit at the edge of his jobsites, gazing on as he tore down, built up, and constructed new houses to carve out a livelihood for his family. As the years went on, it became clear to me that there were great chunks of my granddad’s life that he’d like to take another crack at, events and relationships he wished he could do over. He never said those words, but his actions and demeanor during his later years showed me that. In his own ways he was teaching me not to make the same mistakes he had. 

“I really know how to just walk away from something, don’t I?” Granddad Martin once reflected “as we strolled through his cluttered hand-built barn, which housed an endless collection of tools and unfinished projects. There were times like that one in the spring of 2005 when he let me in. In that old wooden barn, he cracked open the door a bit, and I could see what haunted him. I could see that he was disappointed and sad, not so much about the state of that barn, but about the possibilities and people he’d let slip away. I could see he felt the pain over some of the choices he made, and I could feel him hoping I’d choose a different path.A few weeks later he gave me a challenge. “Clint,” he asked me, “have you ever taken a hand planer and done the work with your own muscles to make a rough piece of lumber just right?” “No, Granddad, I haven’t.” “Well, you need to,” he told me. “You need to make a table using all the old tools. The way the old-timers used to do it. Take your time. And do it right the first time so you don’t have to go back and do it again. Make it last forever.

For the longest time, I thought he was talking about furniture.

And of course, in some ways, he was. But whether he or I knew it in that moment, building instructions weren’t what he was passing down to me. He wasn’t handing down the timeless craft of classic joinery, or reminding me that wood could be bent, twisted, and shaped by hand tools just as well as it could be cut and sanded by machines. He was telling me to do my life right. He was telling me to see him, his life, and what he had left unfinished, and do better.

My grandfather was a builder. He was also a man on whom I’d trained my eyes from an early age, and I kept him in my sight until the day he died at age ninety-three. He knew I was watching. And for all that he decided not to care about along his own journey, he decided to care about me. He made sure I knew how important it was not simply to get a job done, but to excel at it, to be thorough and meticulous and passionate about whatever I was creating. A man I loved who had gotten life wrong on many counts was passing along the art of getting it right.”

Comments (1)

  • Kristi

    What an incredible story, Clint. He definitely taught you some great life lessons. I can’t wait to read your entire book. Thanks for sharing. It is so inspiring.

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