Finding Satisfaction In A Life 'Well-Crafted'

Tom Harden and Kenny Bly work at a West Virginia furniture factory. Over the years, the two men have crafted tens of thousands of dining room tables.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Sometimes you don't have to decide what you're going to do with the rest of your life. You just wake up one morning and realize you've almost done it. In this Reporter's Notebook, NPR's Noah Adams tells us about two men whose lives could be counted as "well-crafted."

NOAH ADAMS: I've always thought if you could work with wood, work with your hands, that would be something to look back on.

I have a collection here of small hardwood blocks. Each one of them has six sides. They are assembled on two spindles. It's kind of like an abacus. This belonged to my mother and stepfather. A friend of theirs made it as a gift, and on each wooden block he wrote the species name: apricot wood, mahogany, cherry, even coffee wood. It's actually a catalogue. Here's persimmon. It looks like the apple, but it's darker.

And I thought of this when I drove northwest from Washington, D.C. up to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I was putting together a story about the falling market prices for red oak lumber and I stopped in a factory that has a long tradition making furniture from the trees that grow nearby. They even label their shades of cherry with the names of the Civil War battles: Antietam, the bloodiest battle, Antietam, the darkest shade of cherry.

And here's something else that didn't fit into my red oak story, but it's what I told my wife about when I got back home.

(Soundbite of horn)

ADAMS: I walked through the factory and I came upon a man at a workbench. He seemed pretty pleased to be making tables.

Mr. TOM HARDEN (Craftsman, Furniture Factory, West Virginia): Mostly cherry now, and now we're getting into walnut and maple and - it's great.

ADAMS: It takes Tom Harden about two hours to make a table, and I tried to add that up.

Mr. HARDEN: Eight to 900 a year.

ADAMS: So in your career, how many have you made?

Mr. HARDEN: About 13,000.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: I just had to laugh. Here's a man who has made 13,000 hardwood dining tables. And then - then, I moved over to the next workstation and met Kenny Bly.

Mr. KENNY BLY (Craftsman, Furniture Factory, West Virginia): 26,000 - about 25,716. I'm working on 26.

ADAMS: 26,000 tables. And Mr. Bly has kept notebooks; he can look up when he made each table and in many cases, for whom.

Mr. BLY: Oh, yeah, I got a whole pile of them over there. Goes back to '86, when I first started here.

ADAMS: I left Berkeley Springs that day, drove home, kept the radio off, and I thought about table making and the way the years go by. And these guys probably didn't mean to make all that many tables, but each day's work must have brought satisfaction and so did, and so do, the tables.

SIMON: NPR's Noah Adams.

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