University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Andrew Currie


Photo of reading at celebrationMy Grandfather’s Chisels

I was sitting on the floor in the corner of my bedroom facing the wall. It was during a July heat wave in Minnesota. The air was thick in the morning, but not exactly hot. On days like this, as the morning wanes into afternoon and the sun rises up into the sky—the temperatures do the same. It was impossible to do anything without sweating. A simple physical task such as walking up a flight of stairs resulted in sweaty clothes.

The furniture was pushed to the center of the room. But because the room was small, I was crammed into a narrow space between my bed and the wall, awkwardly reaching into the corner. I wasn’t alone in the room, but being pinned in such a small space made it feel like I was alone.

It was hot, and sweat dripped off of my body and mixed with the dust. I was concentrating on what I was doing, but I was also letting my mind wander a little. Who painted this trim? Why did they paint it? How many times had it been painted? Did the former owner look at this board and wonder the same things?
I looked at the tool in my hands. A chisel. I was using it to scrape the chipped paint off the wood molding around the floor of my bedroom. Behind me, I could hear the continuous scraping noise made by the tool in my father’s hands. This chisel wasn’t like the ones sold at big box home improvement stores. Much like the baseboard, the tool had its own story. The handle was unfinished wood. I suppose at one point it was varnished or polished, but this had long since worn off. The handle had dents and chips, likely from when it was tossed in a bucket and landed against other sharp tools. The metal band around the wooden handle was tarnished and cloudy. The chisel obviously had a few miles on it.

Scraping the wood raw seemed to unleash part of the house’s story. It smelled differently in the room. Older. Or was it newer? I was scraping away the history of the last 60 years, or was it 90? In any case, removing the yellowing, chipping paint was changing more than just how the room looked. It was changing the feeling of the whole house. It changed how I felt about the house.

I set the chisel down on the floor and looked at my hands. They were dirty, bruised, and had blisters just below where the finger attaches to the palm. Band-Aids covered the raw blisters from yesterday. The two remaining walls of painted trim promised more blisters, and more Band-Aids.

Instead of a remodeling company, I chose to remodel through blood, sweat, and tears. I had shed all three at some point or another. A few projects like the bathroom remodel had already been completed, but there were plenty more to consider. However slowly, the house was becoming mine.

The scraping from behind me hadn’t stopped. Dad was still at it. Somehow he had a much higher stamina than I did. Slow and steady. I doubt he noticed, or even cared what his hands looked like.

Growing up, I watched my dad work on his house. He made additions, refinished the woodwork room by room, built furniture for the house and fixed things that broke. There was never a squeaky door, or a leaky faucet, or peeling paint. Though I knew it would never compare to the integrity of my parent’s house, I had been eager to try home ownership for myself. I knew that I couldn’t take on a project like this alone, but I also knew that my dad was willing to help me fix up my house. So with a little down payment I found a house that needed more than a lot of work.

I picked up the scraper this time, which also had a wooden handle. It was painted orange, but when I looked closely, I saw splashes of blue and cream paint. These were hints of earlier projects from my parents’ house.

I looked back at the molding, and thought about the collision of the stories in that moment. There was the story of the wood trim in my house, and the family who had lived here before me. There was the story of the scraper my dad bought when he and my mom purchased their house 43 years earlier, the same scraper that I used now to work on my first house. And the story of my grandfather’s chisels, the grandfather I never met. The chisels were just a few of the hand tools we were still using from the Chrysler/de Soto dealership he’d owned 60 years earlier.

All of these stories were coming together to help me write my story.  

The fact that I get to use my father’s and grandfather’s hand tools to complete some of my remodeling projects has helped me fall in love with my house. I’ve learned that the simplicity of hand tools helps to maintain the delicate and intricate detail of the woodwork. This slow restoration has connected me to the house in a way that is difficult to explain. Many people improve and invest in their homes, but somehow because of the old hand tools and my father’s wisdom, the process of my house restoration feels different. Rehabbing my house has felt like some sort of a family-assisted investment. I’ve only lived here for a few years, and I might be ignorant, but I can’t imagine ever selling this house.

Like most people, I keep my Band-Aids in the bathroom. I guess it’s a logical place for them. But the real reason I keep them there is because it’s a reminder to me. The bathroom was the first room to be refinished in my new, old house. It’s got my stamp on it now. So when I need a Band-Aid to cover up a raw blister, or when I need a shower to wash away the sweat or grime, I go to the room that we worked on. A room that my dad helped me refinish with my grandfather’s tools.

Who knows?  Maybe I’ll move the Band-Aids to my bedroom.