Giving gifts

Confession: I once wrote a blog post called The Great Bird-Dog Mystery, about some puzzling wooden objects that kept popping up around my town, nailed to fences and signs. The post was a little bit sassy and a little bit tongue-in-cheek, and I had it all typed up and ready to publish (Where do they come from? Who makes these things? What are they exactly?) when my husband glanced over my shoulder (a thing he is strictly forbidden to do, but – you know how that goes) and said, “Oh, don’t you know?” and pulled up a news article in the Meadville Tribune explaining the phenomenon.

Which is, simply, that an elderly Italian man who lives very near to me likes to make dogs out of wood. He hand-cuts them and hand-paints them (each is unique) and leaves his gifts in prominent places around the neighborhood, for people to enjoy.

In disgust with myself (and the non-mystery of my mystery, and the sacrilege of having almost made fun of the work of a respectable man old enough to be my grandfather), I deleted the blog post at once, unpublished.

But I still think of that man from time to time – especially when I see his creations, but other times too – and somehow it gets me, the way he labors quietly in his shop over a bit of fallen tree, and sands it smooth and paints it, and leaves it around town so that the people will have joy. Probably sometimes he goes back to check on one and finds that somebody has removed it, and he doesn’t know where it went. Maybe into the TriCounty waste bin.

I imagine that in between his unpretentious dog-planting he is quite a regular old Joe, and pays his taxes and stops at stop signs and helps his daughter around the house.

He is a wise old man.

As I grow old, I too learn that when you must give something surprising and non-status-quo, because it felt good to paint it and there it is in your hand, it is best you should do it anonymously and without asking. Because sometimes people don’t know what to do with it or can’t be troubled to get back with you or have no room, or it’s against the institute’s policy or it’s at a bad time of year, and then you are standing there with a wooden dog in your hand, his painted spots a little lopsided, and no one wants him.

That must hurt. If you are a quiet old man.

Sometimes we give gifts to convince ourselves we have something to give.

How to paint a checkerboard

Today I’m going to show you how to make a simple checkerboard and set of checkers with a little wood and paint.

1. checkerboard

You will need:

  • One 12″ x 12″ piece of wood or plywood
  • A 12″ section of dowel, 1-1/8″ or 1-1/4″ in diameter
  • Access to a power saw of some kind
  • Four colors of paint: black, red, ivory, and a fourth color of your choice
  • A paintbrush
  • Sandpaper
  • About 9 feet of 1-1/2″ wide painters tape
  • A razor blade or X-Acto knife


1. Start with your 12×12 board. Give it a solid coat of ivory all over the top.

2. board

3. painted board

2. While that’s drying, start on the checkers. Paint half of your dowel red and half of it black. Let dry.

3. Using a power saw, slice the dowel into circles, about 3 pieces to an inch. (My husband did this part, so I won’t deceive you. But I’ll do your math for you to make it easy: You’ll need 12 red and 12 black checkers, which requires about 4 inches of red dowel and 4 inches of black.)

24 checkers x 18 boys = a lot of checkers

5. checkers

4. The power saw may leave shredded edges…

6. rough edge

…so sand them gently with sandpaper. They do not need to be perfect; you just don’t want rough edges catching the fingers of small players.

7. smooth edge

5. Paint the checkers, 12 red and 12 black, allowing one side to dry before flipping over to paint the other. (Latex gloves are a lifesaver at this point. We also provided homemade smocks for the boys, using kitchen trash bags modified with a few quick cuts–here’s how.)

8. painted checker

9. painted checkers

6. Now, back to the checkerboard! Find and mark the center of your board. Working out from the center, place 8 strips of tape entirely across the board, each one precisely against the next.

10. taped board

(You may note the edge of ivory left exposed on either side. We planned a 12″ board to perfectly fit eight squares, each 1-1/2″ wide. Then we found out that all painters tape has recently switched to the metric system and comes 1.44″ wide instead. We decided not to sweat it, and ignored the extra edge.)

7. Use an X-Acto knife and a ruler to cut a straight line across the center of your board, perpendicular to the lines of tape and cutting through them. You may cut just slightly into the wood; it will not matter. Then move your ruler over the same width as the tape and cut again across the board, parallel to the first cut. You are cutting your strips of tape into squares of tape. (If you have a ruler or makeshift ruler that’s 1-1/2″ wide–or 1.44″ wide, to be exact–this step is very simple. A strip of cardboard will suffice.) Continue this process, working out from the center on each side, until your board has eight squares by eight squares.

11. cutting

8. Peel up alternating squares of tape to expose the ivory surface. Press the remaining squares firmly into place.

12. peeled squares

9. Choose yourself a nice color of paint. (One of my favorite crafting supplies is a paint sample like those shown here–the perfect size for a small project, and only $3 at Home Depot.)

4. paints

10. Paint all exposed ivory on the checkerboard with the color of your choice. Let dry.

13. painting board

11. Peel up the remaining squares of tape…

14. painted board

… arrange your checkers… and start playing!

16. finished product

Here’s Ryan’s class, scowling against the bright sun but triumphant nonetheless:

16. class


Special thanks…

  • To GomiStyle, for a tutorial on the tape squares trick,
  • And to Ryan, who did the grunt work.