Sawdust Memories: Louis M. Pelus, PhD

Professor of microbiology and immunology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, Indiana

In this edition, Louis M. Pelus, PhD, discusses woodworking and his recent labor of love: building a crib for his grandson.


When did your interest in woodworking start?

The toys I grew up with are much different than what kids have today. I loved Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs and building with wood – there were no electronics involved. I would look at a pile of wood scraps and say to myself, “What can I make with it?”

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I took apart my grandfather’s wooden crates to build something new. Give me a hammer, a saw, and some nails, and I could sit for hours building pyramids and forts – whatever I could think of.

Describe some of your woodworking projects, leading up to your special project.

I started out wanting to make picture frames. Doing something like that sounds simple, but you need a lot of tools. I needed a table saw to be able to trim the boards down, a router and routing table to make different moldings and designs, a miter saw to cut angles, and so forth. Needless to say, I’ve had to accumulate a lot of power tools.

I lucked out when I met my wife. She worked for a major national tool manufacturer at the time, so I was able to buy some high-end carpentry tools at a very significant employee discount. (That’s just one of the reasons I lucked out, of course.)

I was always interested in carpentry and fixing things around the house – refinishing doors, making new wall trims, building decks. … This really escalated when my wife and I purchased a house that was built almost 100 years ago. I’ve been rehabbing “this old house” ever since. We blew out walls and put in new doors and windows, so I had to figure out where to get moldings to match. I couldn’t find them in salvage yards, so I decided to make them, which amounted to 400 feet of complex moldings!

By then, it was getting to be really fun, so I made some small pieces of furniture, like end tables, a console table, a dresser, and bookshelves. My interests kept evolving until I eventually made this crib.

What was the most challenging aspect of building the crib?

The hardest part wasn’t building the crib – it was, designing it! The design was based off of a crib that my son and his wife saw in an online catalog, so I didn’t actually have the plans for it, just a basic size spec sheet. It took me about three months just to come up with a measured plan and a cutting diagram to be able to start working on it. I used PowerPoint – not necessarily the correct program to do this type of project, but I managed!

It took about as much time to finish it as it did to design it. The cutting and building were the easiest parts; I had all of the wood cut in one weekend and the crib built in another two weekends.

With a crib, there are so many other aspects to consider. Most importantly, it had to be safe and meet the federal guidelines for spacing, materials, and construction. Then, I had to create the moveable mattress platform in the crib so that it could grow with him, which proved to be quite tricky.

I also wanted to make a piece of furniture, not a giant box, so it took a lot of internet research and YouTube tutorials – watching to see how other woodworkers had solved some of the challenges I was coming across. Lastly, I’m working in Indiana and my son lives in Philadelphia, so I had to design the crib to be dismantled and shipped.

And woodworking is not just working with wood but also finishing it. A piece of wood can look great, but it doesn’t show its true potential until it’s stained or varnished the correct way. The piece isn’t finished until it’s finished! The wood has its unique characteristics and grain. I finished the crib entirely by hand, with seven coats of urethane, and sanding between the coats. There’s still an educational deficiency on my part, so I’m looking to learn more about how to finish wood.

The biggest problem with having a hobby is finding the time to practice it. I am not retired – I have grants to write, I have a lot of work to do – so it’s a struggle. But, when life gets too hectic in the lab, I can always go home and play in the garage.

What do you enjoy most about woodworking and working on this project?

I like the idea of seeing a pile of wood turn into an object that serves as both art and function, and I greatly enjoyed the challenge of building something entirely from my own plans. There was a lot of learning and trial and error involved, too, since I had never done some of the joinery techniques before. But as I practiced and made mistakes, I tried to learn from them – like realizing that I shouldn’t use my fingers to mount the chisel on a mortising machine, for one. (At least, as a hematologist, I am not frightened by the sight of blood.)

In science, it’s similar: we try not to make mistakes, but when we do, we try to learn from them.

What you learn quickly when you’re doing woodworking is that you will never be as good or accurate as a piece of computer-guided machinery. Sometimes, all you can say is, “Thank heavens for wood putty.”

The saying “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” holds true in both woodworking and science. Once I learn how to perform a task in the workshop, I don’t then try to come up with a new method.

To get to that point of finding something that works for you, you have to make a lot of mistakes. There is a bright side, though: I always have buckets of kindling to hand off to neighbors.

Do you think there’s any overlap between the skills you use in hematology and the skills you use in woodworking?

As a stem cell biologist, my field is regenerative medicine and restoring the blood system, and I guess you could say that that’s carried over to my life outside of medicine – I’ve been regenerating an old house for five years. And both my work and hobby involve precision and patience.

Woodworking lets me use a different kind of thinking than I use in my work life, though, and working with my hands also offers different rewards. I can see the results as I’m going along and as I’m feeling a project come together with my hands. The results are more tangible than in the field of experimental hematology.

What other projects do you have on the horizon?

Now that the crib is done, my next project is going to be a toddler rocking horse. The deadline is a little more lenient with that one – I just need to get it done before he’s too old to use it! My other son has decided to raise horses, so there’s other woodworking to be done for that, but on a much larger scale!

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