The Final Gift

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This article is from Issue 85 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Dave and I had just sat down for our usual bagels, coffee, and conversation at the local diner. He was looking pretty good, considering his recent treatment for a tenacious form of brain cancer detected a few months earlier. This tough old ex-Navy pilot didn’t talk about it much though, and I sometimes wondered if his illness shook me more than him.

He reached for his coffee and said, “I need a favor. You’re a woodworker; I want you to make me a pine box.” Then he handed me a one-page plan for the kind of “toe-pincher” style casket you see in the Westerns. 


My jaw probably dropped when I realized what he was asking, but I wasn’t going to turn down this friend of 25 years. I assured him I’d take care of it, but told him I didn’t think he’d really need it for another 10 years. We finished our breakfast chat, shook hands, and—wanting to honor him with more than a toe-pincher—I was off to investigate the craft of casket-making.

Turns out it’s not easy to find good information on the subject. I bought a book on the topic, but found it less than helpful. An internet search led me to a site where I purchased a plan that was clearly intended for someone with better woodworking chops than mine. The sparse instructions were not for the faint of heart, leaving a lot to the imagination, particularly when it came to things like cutting the 35.25° and 30.33° compound angles on the lid. But I pressed on in Dave’s honor and managed to complete the construction while he was away at treatment. 

When he returned, he agreed to help me with the finishing work. You might think that staining and varnishing a friend’s coffin with him would feel awkward, but it didn’t. In fact, I suspect that we both welcomed it as a way to help reconcile his impending departure without wrangling words. And it did provide fodder for plenty of future “pine box” jokes to fend off the shadows. 

Dave is still with us for the moment, and bravely facing down a 3% survival rate. As one ex-Navy man to another, I salute him. And I’m proud that my work will carry him toward his next port of call.


D.I.Y. coffin. Even with sketchy plans, a determined woodworker with basic equipment and a lot of heart can craft a “pine box” worthy of a loved one. (If possible, make them help you with the finish work!) 

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