Making All Things New: The Cutting Board from Africa
How a cutting board from Africa, a family’s story, and an unknown craftsman 50 years ago reminded me what true worth and value really means…
Furniture restoration and repair is not something I typically sign onto. It’s a tricky business – you never really know what you’re getting into until you start taking things apart. There are woodworkers out there much better equipped and more willing to repair furniture than I am. Honestly, my personal preference is to build my pieces from scratch so I can stand behind every aspect of the materials, construction, and labor I put into it.
So, when I received a call a few weeks ago from a very nice lady asking if I could restore her family’s antique cutting board, my initial reaction was to politely decline. Shortly into the conversation, however, I found myself caught up in the story that accompanied this family relic. So, I heard her out.
The board was over 50 years old (not uncommon for a well-made cutting board), built from an exotic African wood (again, not that uncommon), and made by a local craftsman who gifted it to their family while they were on a mission trip to East Africa (okay, now I’m interested). Obviously, this was a cherished item the family had held onto for many years. Sure, it might have been covered in dust from years of idle use, but it still held a special place in their hearts – enough that they reached out to Via Artisans in hopes we could restore it for them.
It was delivered to the shop later that day while I was out. I walked back in to find it leaning against the wall. Two things struck me – it looked like no other cutting board I had ever seen. It was very large and very thin for its size. It didn’t look overly machined, as if it had been made mostly with hand tools in a rudimentary shop setting. And, it had obviously seen many days of use. There were knife marks and gouges throughout. Some of the boards were coming apart at the joints. It was a tired, lonely looking board.
After a bit of research and a call back to the customer, I decided the board was most likely made from a wood called Muninga, which is native to Africa and not a very common export. The wood is decently hard with a deep reddish hue, which after years of use had turned to almost a maroon color on its exterior.
I started the task at hand by first splitting the board into the original pieces of wood that were joined together. I had originally planned on sawing the boards apart, as I would for any cutting board I wanted to repair and then re-glue. However, I noticed something unusual as I pried the boards apart – they were held together by nails, not by glue. The original maker (I assume) had taken regular 12-14 penny nails, cut them in half, and used them as pins to hold the boards together. Maybe that was all he had available. There was absolutely no glue residue to be found. It was really quite impressive – the boards were perfectly jointed, nailed together, and flattened over 50 years ago. Even for today’s craftsmen using modern machinery that would be a skilled feat without glue or precision fasteners. Aside from some of the joints loosening slightly from their iron makeshift pins, the wood had not warped or moved a millimeter from the day it was made.
From that point forward, the restoration was pretty easy. I pried out all the nails and separated the panel into the original 6 boards. Then, I sent them through the planer to remove the nicks and scratches from the surface, glued the boards back together, flattened again with my No. 5 Jointer, and sanded to a satin smooth finish. After a little oil, the board looked magnificent. Red sawdust and shavings the color of African sand covered my workbench, my hands, and the floor. A spattering of African dust, centuries in the making had made the journey from the African Savannah to my workbench in Central Texas via the hands of a dedicated and faithful servant of God. I was eager to return the board and show off my woodworking prowess, but I felt humbled that I had a chance to add to it’s storied history.
What Really Matters-
Even though I didn’t know much about the board, I was caught up in the story. Over 50 years ago, someone made a cutting board with their bare hands in an environment with limited resources. They made it lovingly and gave it to someone that was special to them. The board might have looked slightly neglected and a little beyond its prime, but it represented more than its outward appearance suggested. All it took was a little bit of work dusting off the veneer that had accumulated over the years to reveal the original beauty that was there when it was first imagined in the mind of the craftsman.
We are conditioned by our culture to value new over old; to insist that it is more efficient and easier to re-purpose, re-purchase, or re-cycle than it is to spend time restoring something to what it was originally intended to be. While that may be true for something manufactured by the thousands, that is not the approach we should take for something that has a set apart intrinsic value of it’s own. This cutting board may have been made from wood, but it was created using the gift of love. I could not, in good conscience, let those pieces of wood become anything other than what the maker intended it to be. There was value beyond the material – it told a story now woven into the fabric of a family. Thus, it needed to be around another 50 years, until it can be restored again.
Cutting boards aside, the same approach could and should affect the things that we value most in life. We too accumulate grime, wounds, and a little bit of dirt along life’s journey. We may even feel, from time to time that we are coming apart at the seams. The good news is that there is always hope for our own restoration; an assurance that we will be made new again. Not re-purposed, or re-cycled into something different, but restored to what we were originally created to be. Most importantly, we don’t have to wait for someone who cares enough to blindly stumble on us and discover our value. Rather, we’ve already been found, and deemed worthy to restore! Live joyfully and know that your restoration is more than promised; it is already bought and paid for.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”