Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983
THE CRAFTSMANSHIP OF JOHN B. LAWSON
by Tammie Griffin
Photos by Melinda Stewart and Allen Gage
"I started woodworking real early in life," said John Lawson as he shoved a piece of Osage orange wood through a planer. "I always did like to work with tools, making chairs, tables and things like that. I got a charge out of giving them away.
"I made toys for the kids back during the Depression. A lot of them would not have had any toys, and I enjoyed making some kids happy. At Christmas it was the same thing. I don't know, it takes something out of it when you just buy toys for kids. It makes you feel good to help a fellow man out."
John did much more than make toys. He not only built his own house, but also made practically every piece of furniture in it in his shop which he jokingly refers to as his "playhouse." Along with woodworking John also made many of his own tools.
"My father kept busy carpentering. When I was twelve years old, I was doing about as much work as the average man. That's the way people did in those days. If anything had to be done, why, do it."
When John was twelve~ he and his father built their own version of a prefabricated barn. The barn, which they built in the fall and winter of 1913-1914, is still standing south of New Bloomfield. During the winter when the weather was bad they cut most of the wood in their barn, particularly the framing. They cut every piece to fit, and bored the holes. In the spring when the weather cleared up, they pinned the barn together with one inch wooden pins. This means of fastening is called mortice and pin. They used very few nails in the barn except those used for the rafters. The Lawsons had salvaged the majority of the framing in the barn from dikes used to change the flow of the Missouri River in the 1800s.
John still uses wood that no one else wants. "I like to get pieces of wood that have some history. I have a piece of wood that came out of the building William Jennings Bryan was born in. They tore the old house down, and my brother-in-law was hauling dirt and pieces from the old house. I said, 'What would you do if you'd catch me carrying away some of this old lumber?' He said, 'Ever' piece you carry away I won't have to haul.'"
Most of the furniture in John's house is built from recycled wood. Three years after he built his house in 1928, he decided to fill an empty corner in his dining room with a corner cupboard. He used walnut wood from an old house dating back over a hundred years which was supposedly built by slave labor. When John was cleaning up the wood and making it into the cupboard, he found cut or square nails. The fact that the wood had ax marks in both sides, showing that it was split out with an ax instead of ripped out with a saw, also proved that the wood was quite old.
The lovely corner cupboard now stands in his dining room holding four shelves of antique dishes. This cupboard has two unusual glass doors which form a rounded arch.
John made a lamp which sits on an end table in his living room from seventeen different pieces of wood he recycled. After gluing all the pieces of wood together in a block, following a pattern he designed, he turned the block on the lathe to form the base of the lamp. When making the lamp, he numbered each piece of wood and wrote on a piece of paper the corresponding numbers telling where each piece of wood came from.
Some of the woods used in the lamp are white oak, cherry, persimmon, white ash, red cedar, sugar maple and native peach. Also there are several woods with a history. There is swamp cypress from Fort Gibson in Oklahoma where John's wife's grandfather was stationed in the civil War, wild cherry that was part of an old table taken in the War of 1812 and green poplar from one of the first pool tables in Missouri. In addition, there are different historic pieces of black walnut--one that was part of an old ox-cart that came with his grandfather from Virginia in 1843, some from William Jennings Bryan's birthplace, a piece from an old jail house in Fulton, Missouri, a piece of the old building where his grandfather homesteaded in 1843, and some that was once part of the J.W. Curry house built with slave labor.
Besides being a beautiful and useful piece of furniture, the lamp is practically a history lesson of central Missouri, as are other items he has made.
John made candle holders from historical woods. He made two from the old state capitol building in Jefferson City which burned in 1909. He also made walnut candlesticks from part of an old house his great-grandfather built in 1843.
He made a plant pedestal from the cloth beam--the part the woven material is rolled up on--from the loom on which his great-grandmother wove wearing material for the family during the civil War. Later his mother used the same loom to weave carpets.
John once salvaged enough wood from an old cherry tree that laid in a ditch for twelve years to make several pieces of furniture. One of these is a useful plant stand. By loosening a nut the arms, which hold the plants, can be turned to various positions to regulate the amount of sunlight the plants get. This device saves moving plants from one window to another and makes it one of the more popular pieces of John's furniture. He has made several of these plant stands for friends varying them in size and shape.
"I always wanted to make something somebody would want," said John. That is certainly true about the chair he made for his brother. John designed and made an auxiliary set of arms for a chair because his brother has two artificial hip joints and can use only the strength from his arms to get out of a normal chair. When his brother tried to raise himself to a standing position, the arms of the chair were behind and below him, making it hard to push himself up.
John designed the auxiliary arms seven inches higher and eleven inches longer than those of a standard chair. With the new arms, when standing up his brother can put the whole load on his arms and has full control of all his muscles. "When I first took it to my brother, he looked at the arms. Directly he reached back, got a hold of the arms, and set down and jumped up again like sitting on a pin. I believe we'd have to fight the old man to get that chair.
"I made a game table with over six-hundred pieces in it. It was for a benefit for the Shriner's Hospital in Kansas City. They were in need of an addition to the children's hospital and they needed something to sell. It was reported that it brought a little over four thousand dollars. I was kind of proud of that.
"I like to make things they say can't be done. It's more interesting to have a piece of something that is interesting and is kind of a challenge to do. I don't always succeed. Every day I find something I can't make once I've started. It doesn't help to get impatient when you're working on something to get it done." Anyone seeing the beautiful designs and workmanship of his furniture can tell John has well met his challenges plus some.
John made a grandfather clock using his own designs and patterns. "I just took a pencil and piece of paper and began marking. I've drawn a few house plans and that helped. It's made out of the same cherry tree that laid in the ditch."
John worked on the clock in his spare time for approximately three months. He made every piece on the clock except the clockworks which has a moon that moves and is accurate with the calendar. He made several other clocks like this one.
When someone brought an antique base rocker to him to repair, he liked the design so well he copied the pattern and made seven or eight of them. After he finished the frame, he wove a seat from venetian blind cord because it is stronger than regular webbing.
John has also designed and built the leaf table in his dining room using brackets instead of springs to hold the leaves of the table in place when they are raised.
To add more space at his table he built an extension table exactly the height and width of his dining room table. When he is entertaining a large group of people and needs extra room, he places the extension next to the table with a tablecloth over it, creating one long table. When not in use as the table extension, it is used as a buffet or side board.
Along with his furniture making, during World War II, John made metal parts for the united States government.
"I made over fifteen thousand parts of one kind and twenty-five thousand parts of another for Uncle Sam during World War II right out here in my workshop. I learned how just by trial and error. They were screw-like affairs with a shoulder on them, and they had to be a certain depth. I have no idea what they used them for. They just sent me a blueprint."
Not having the right tools didn't stop John. Whenever he didn't have a tool that he needed, he would make it. "I made one to measure the depth of a hole to one thousandth of an inch. What is it the Irishmen call it, a small smidgin of a little bit?"
Though now in poor health and in spite of the loss of two fingers in an accident in his shop so that he doesn't work much any more, he still enjoys the things he has made, remembering the care that he has put in each piece of furniture. He especially enjoys other's pleasure--the table he made for the shriner's Hospital benefit, the special chair for his brother, and the toys he made for the children during the Depression.
"I haven't done furniture making for the last year," he said. "My peepers don't work very good. I can't see. Even my fingers started disappearing, but I've always found there is something a fellow can giggle about if he just tries. Sometimes the game you're playing doesn't seem like much fun when you're playing it, but have a little fun anyway and laugh out loud.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.