The Art of Woodworking

This chessboard, with its six coats of lacquer on top polished to a smooth-as-glass finish, is the most challenging woodworking piece Al Nothum Sr. has made. He's already at work on another chessboard, see inset below, this one with an inlaid pattern around the edge to challenge himself further.

The first thing Al Nothum Sr. did after building his house in rural New Haven about 15 years ago was turn his attention to the historic barn on the property.

“It was about to fall down,” he recalled, “but it would have been a major job to tear it down, so I started rehabbing it.”

Nothum isn’t sure of the age of the barn, but he can tell by the construction that it’s years older than the shed on his property, which is 98.

“It was put together with wood pegs,” he noted.

Nothum spent about three years, on and off, rehabbing the old barn.

“I jacked it up, relaid all the stone . . . the walls were all out of plumb . . . put in a concrete floor and electric.”

He had definite plans for how to use the space. Early on he saw it as an ideal woodworking shop.

Before he became the owner of St. Louis Gutter and Siding, Nothum worked as a carpenter, building houses for a number of years. He liked working with his hands that way.

Now about “80 percent” retired from his guttering and siding business, Nothum again has turned to carpentry, only on a smaller scale — table top-kind of pieces, like pepper grinders, decorative bowls and candleholders. Currently, he’s crafting a high-end chessboard with an inlaid pattern around the edge.

Some of Nothum’s pieces have been for sale at The Art Center in Downtown Washington.

From Clocks to Chessboards

The first woodworking project Nothum took on after the barn rehab was a wall clock. The finished piece now hangs on the wall in Nothum’s entryway. It’s detailed and impressive, but pales in comparison to the things Nothum has created since.

That’s because Nothum likes to challenge himself with each new project.

After the first clock, he made a few more before moving on to try his hand at making wood writing pens, then pepper mills made with two to three kinds of wood in an attractive pattern. He even made one for his wife, Carol, using olive wood from one of the trees in her backyard in California.

Some of the pens and other pieces Nothum has made use wood from special places or his travels.

The decorative bowls feature oak, black walnut and cherry woods. The hand-carved candleholders feature a twisted piece in the center made from a single block of wood.

Still, the most labor-intensive project Nothum has completed to date has been his first chessboard. In addition to the typical chessboard pattern on the top, this board features a drawer to store all of the 32 chess pieces, which take a lot of time on their own to complete.

Then there is the finish.

Nothum’s chessboard has six layers of lacquer, which he hand-rubbed to give it a smooth-as-glass finish.

Nothum estimates he put in two to three weeks’ worth of work into completing the board, which he was building more for the fun and the challenge than to do anything specific with.

It wasn’t long after he had finished the first board that Nothum moved on to his second — changing up the design enough with the inlaid pattern to continue his challenge.

He’s already looking ahead to what will come after that.

“I think next I may to a chess table — so just a regular table with a chessboard built in,” said Nothum.

Sentimental Pieces Too

Carol Nothum said while she loves and appreciates the design of the chessboard, one of her favorite pieces that Al has made is her olive wood pepper grinder because of its connection to her life.

When she was ready to give her daughters some of their grandmother’s jewelry, she asked Al to make shadow boxes to display the pieces and took them to The Art Center to have the items set in place.

Nothum did something similar for his six children so they could remember their late grandmother, who immigrated to America from Romania many years ago.

Using 200-plus-year-old barn wood that he found, Nothum made six frames and then placed in each one a photo of his mother and a chunk of wool that she brought with her to America, sheered from her mother’s sheep. In between those two pieces, Nothum placed copies of handwritten notes his mother had made about her life in Romania.

It wasn’t a project that took a lot of time, he admits, but it was meaningful, even more so because he handcrafted the frame.

Sentimental projects like that one are dear to Nothum’s heart. He can appreciate that there’s an emotional attachment to what other people might see as “just a piece of wood.”

He welcomes people bringing those kinds of requests to him.

“I’m always looking for something new to make,” Nothum remarked.

“To me, it’s relaxing,” he said.

Carol laughed in agreement.

“He gets out there (in the workshop) and spends hours,” she said. “He doesn’t think about eating or anything else.

“He loves it.”

To get in touch with Nothum, people can call his cellphone at 314-954-9014.