Rick the Cabinetmaker

Episode #793

April 13, 2024

My fiancé’s father needed help in his cabinet shop, Precision Cabinets.



So, I quit Huntington Beach Trailer Supply and move to Tustin to begin work for him building custom kitchen cabinets.

Fred is old school and runs a tight shop. If I ask him where the countertop draw bolts are his answer is, “In the draw bolt department.” The thing is always in the place it belongs. Fred teaches me woodworking from scratch. His patience is only exceeded by his kindness. This new career suits me well.

Soon, I will be married.

Paula’s parents’ backyard is crowded with guests. A guitar plays “Our House.” It is our song. My three best friends are in tuxedos. I am pretty sure that one of them has never before worn one. I’m torturing my friends by making them wear tuxes.

As the wedding march begins my soon-to-be niece walks down the aisle throwing flower petals. Her cousin follows with the ring. Fred glides Paula down the aisle and gives her hand to mine. She is the most beautiful person I have ever met.

We take a break from the cabinet shop to honeymoon at the Hotel del Coronado and Lake Havasu. While exploring Coronado Island we happen on a museum dedicated to L. Frank Baum. The author of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz lived at the Hotel del Coronado for months at a time, wrote Oz books and designed the crown chandeliers in the hotel’s famous Crown Room. Baum wrote a poem in 1905 about the hotel:

“And every day her loveliness
Shines pure, without a flaw;
New charms entrance our every glance
And fill our souls with awe!”
— from CORONADO: “The Queen of Fairyland,” L. Frank Baum

I think he must have been writing about Paula.

Paula and I are on our honeymoon in a rowboat on Lake Havasu. There are clear blue skies and calm waters.

I am idly swirling the water over the side of the boat when my new wedding ring slips off my finger. I watch in horror as the ring sinks quickly down into the black depths. There is nothing I can do, so we resume our boat ride.

Paula looks across the lake and makes a small, startled sound. “What is that, Rick?” she says pointing. I see a sky to water wall of black clouds and it is moving toward us. “Turn the boat around.” I dig hard into the water with a paddle. Paula wastes no time joining in. Small waves from the storm surge slow our progress to the shore, even though a sudden tail wind gives us a little push.

On the shore I see two buff teenage boys in swimsuits running with a rubber raft up a wooded wash. They disappear into the trees. Our boat touches sand just as a sheet of driving rain overcomes us. We jump out of the boat and secure it. “That was close,” I say. Paula throws her arms around me in a huge hug.

Others are scattering toward shelter, but Paula and I stand in the rain. It is just the solution for today’s desert hot summer day. The storm passes after 5 minutes. The sun follows the fast-moving storm, drying us gently on the beach.

A sound like thunder comes from inland. At first I think that it is exactly that, thunder. The harder I listen the more it sounds like rocks crashing together. The roar crescendos, mixing with the sound of rushing water. From the mouth of the wash, where the teenagers had disappeared, comes a foaming brown cacophony of roiling water. It surges to 4’ high and slams into the now calm waters of the lake. All eyes turn to the flash flood.

Suddenly, a rubber raft with two human shapes appears. It comes tossing down the wash. Raft and riders are coated with thick brown mud. The teenagers are not yelling with glee. They are screaming. When the flood hits the beach the raft and boys become airborne. The surging current throws them into the water. A few seconds later a clean raft jumps out of the water and the clean heads of the boys pop out too. The kids stand in the shallow water uninjured, but they are scratching furiously at their bodies.

“OW Billy,” screams one.
“Cactus needles Joey,” yells the other.

Everybody on the beach laughs at the luck, misfortune and penance of the two boys.

Back at the shop Fred and I divide the projects. I can now take measurements, design the cabinetry, do the drawings, assemble, finish and install a project from scratch. Cabinet making is great fun.

Fred teaches me a valuable lesson. “Never get full payment up front. The remaining balance is incentive to finish the job. Also, always install the cabinets with screws, not nails. Nailed-in cabinets are fixtures. Screwed-in cabinets are appliances and can be removed and confiscated for non-payment.”

Tragically, Fred dies in an accident. In his memory Paula’s mother offers Fred’s ring to be melted into my new wedding ring. This replacement for the ring I lost in Lake Havasu is both a dear memory of my life with Paula and of the man who taught me woodworking.

I continue with the shop after Fred’s death on my mother-in-law’s behalf, but she decides to sell Precision Cabinets. Time to find another job.

I leverage my skills as a cabinet maker to land a job at Walter and Cline, a high end architectural mill. We build premium quality cabinets, wooden trim and stairs. The 100-year-old building was used as a stage coach barn. Later, the barn became a mill with early machinery that was powered by mules, harnessed and walking in circles. Through pulleys, bands and gears the circular motion was revved up to speed for use by the planers, sanders, shapers and saws. The equipment is all electrified now. Raw, rough lumber enters the shop and is dimensioned with a four head planer. In the shop we call the planer a sticker because it makes sticks out of the lumber. Then the sticks are smoothed with a wide mouthed sander. The roar of hammers, saws, drills, routers, shapers, sanders, grinders and jointers is deafening.

All the employees are being herded into the offices for hearing tests. Shop noise levels have been tested at an average of 100 decibels (dB). Levels over 85 dB over 8 hours are considered dangerous. No one in the shop uses ear protection.

The audiogram results are in. We young guys all have mild hearing loss with a 30 dB minimum. Conversations in loud environments are hard for us to follow. The older and more experienced the woodworker, the higher his minimum hearing threshold. Sixty-year-old Joseph’s hearing loss is severe at 75 dB. I must speak directly into his ear, especially in the noisy shop. The audiologist distributes earplugs. Most everyone throws them in their toolbox where they stay in their little plastic envelopes, unused.

The last two weeks we have been building a 16’ x 8’ “L” shaped kitchen countertop for the Marie Calendar family home in Newport Beach. The top is assembled from 3” end grain ash sticks. 1500 sticks have been glued together. The counter was planed and joined seamlessly. Our sanding operation went down to 320 grit. The surface is as smooth as a baby’s ass. The finishing department applied an organic, food safe oil. The entire 72 square feet is a giant cutting board. The countertop was installed along a wall of windows which face out onto the harbor entrance overlooking the famous Newport Wedge. It is a shining counterpoint to a beautiful custom kitchen. Roger and I cannot believe our eyes. The interior designer has brought in a helper this morning to distress the countertop. We watch in horror as the gorilla slams lengths of chain onto the pristine end grain. Then he smashes a 2×4 with nails sticking out, hammering it into the surface. Finally, a thick coat of Watco dark walnut oil stain is smeared onto the white Ash masterpiece. The counter is now dark, damaged and unusable as a cutting board. I lose my respect for designers.

One of the apprentices is working with me. We are building a 20’ long cash counter for a Carl’s Junior restaurant. Joey is laying out the cabinet openings from each of the framing stiles. Because the length of the cabinet is greater than his 12’ tape measure he measures the openings from pencil mark to pencil mark. He comes up a quarter of an inch shy for the last opening.
“What is going on here Mr. Rick?” he asks.
“Two things. The tick marks on your tape measure are exact, not approximations. Look at your pencil. It is dull. With every mark you made you lost a fraction of an inch. Sharpen your pencil and try again.”

I am a journeyman millwright. Having served as an apprentice, journeyman cabinetmaker and millwright I am allowed to work with the master stair builders. The craft requires math, planning, knowledge of building code and skillful millwork. I look forward to earning my stair builder status.

I never make stair builder. The owners of Walter and Cline have bought a racehorse. They have gambled away their profits and put the mill into a deep mortgage. My fellow workers and I are looking down at the pink slips that everyone has received. The mill is closing tomorrow.

I am a member of Local 714 United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (UBC). Four of my friends and I go down to the union local. Job interviews are dispatched first come, first served regardless of experience, so we all take a number.

At Disneyland the 1983 Fantasyland remodel is underway. Most of the demolition crew and framers are already hired. There are a hundred or so applicants in line ahead of my mill-man coworkers at the union hall. The Fantasyland project is in the cabinetmaking and trim phase, so applicants report to the foreman of the mill. The Mill is where skilled carpenters maintain and build everything, including 269 boats, all the wooden sculptures and the cabinetry in the park.

Framing carpenters, dispatched from the UBC union, show up at the foreman’s office with their tools in a drywall bucket. The foreman is an old time German woodworker. He takes one look at their tools and says to them, “I donn zink zo,” and sends them back to the union hall.

It comes time for the five of us to interview. Terry is a draftsman and is hired on the spot. Bob is a master carver and is working the same day. Roger is an excellent installer and cabinetmaker. He will be needed for field measurements and installations. Phil is a fast and efficient cabinetmaker. He is hired too. I am an all-around woodworker in whom the foreman finds promise. Five in a row, we fill out the requirements of the mill shop.

While waiting for our part of the Fantasyland project to be started I am given maintenance work. Backstage is very different from “On Stage.” Backstage there is the hum of machinery, the squawk of walkie talkies, and the electric sound of golf carts. To go “On Stage,” where the guests are, I commandeer a free golf cart and drive to one of the hidden gates or tunnels in the park. I will be revealing myself to the guests. This is OK because I wear a carpenter’s uniform (white pants and shirt) complete with a pork pie hat. Guests see me as just another cast member.

I am executing one of my favorite work orders. It reads. “Repair hinge on fourth coffin from left, third floor of Haunted Mansion. To get there I walk through the tunnel connecting Bear Country Jamboree with the Blue Bayou restaurant. I divert to the basement of the Haunted Mansion and climb the hidden stairs. Guests ride by seeing a graveyard maintenance man working on one of the coffins.

Soon, I am busy making half round oak face frames for display cases in the new Tinkerbell toy shop. I use invisible joinery on the mitered corners. It is a skill I learned at the architectural mill. Phil, Roger and I work together on the toy shop project.

The highlight of my six months at Disneyland is to build the Dumbo organ calliope barley twists. They look like twisted barber poles and hold up the roof of the calliope. I am paired up with an old timer. My mentor is Jason. He has worked in the mill since Walt Disney ran the place. Since Walt had a mustache, Jason was literally grandfathered into having facial hair. All of us new hires were required to be clean shaven.

Jason designs a modification to the 8’ lathe which enables a router on tracks, pulleys and cables to carve out the twists. I do most of the work under his guidance. We secretly carve our initials in the ends of all four twists.

The Fantasy Land project is done. With our last paycheck we receive a “Key to the Kingdom” and a free admission to the cast party celebrating the opening of the New Fantasy Land. Tomorrow I will be unemployed, but tonight we party.


“Skydivers Know Why Birds Sing” by Ricki T Thues is now available on Amazon.
It is a Love story of Rick and Paula Thues and their 35 years of Skydiving.

Click HERE to buy the paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon.

Follow Ricki T Thues on Amazon HERE.

“Technically Human” by Ricki T Thues, the iMentor, is available on Amazon.
It is a compilation of selected episodes from this bLog which tell the story of Humanity through the eyes of the iMentor.

Click HERE to buy the paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon.
The ebook version of “Technically Human” is also available on Kobo. Click HERE.
For you Barnes and Noble Nook readers it is available for Nook. Click HERE.
The “Technically Human” ebook is also available on Apple Books . Click HERE.



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