Tales from the Workshop - Part 3 archive

Monday 3 December 2012

David Brown talks about his experiences during school woodwork lessons, pursuing carpentry and teaching the craft of woodturning to his eldest Grandson


My secondary school was quite modern with a good size metal work class and woodwork class, but right from the start I hated metal work. I reckon that once you've seen one bit of metal, you've seen them all and to be honest, unlike timber, metal is dead and cold to the touch. Metal work was compulsory in my school as was woodwork, but if either teacher thought you were a danger to yourself, you could be excused lessons and sent to the library to read. When it came to metal work lessons I did a hell of a lot reading in the library. Woodwork, on the other hand, was a completely different kettle of fish.

Mr King

Mr King, my woodwork teacher was quite young compared to the rest of the teaching staff and I liked him from the off. The woodwork classroom was very well equipped and all the tools a class of noisy boys would need. It was Mr King's responsibility to look after the tools and because he feared someone, at sometime, might injure themselves, he never kept the chisels and saws as sharp as they might otherwise be. One can imagine with so many boys using them in so many ways that they were not intended, they were pretty useless. Mr King, however, had his own tools locked safely away from his pupils and would use these when demonstrating. He was very skilled as a joiner and he fancied himself as a decent turner. He left quite a few pieces around the classroom and they really weren't bad, but from what I saw he couldn't hold a candle to my Dad.

Apart from making the usual items that would never see the light of day, Mr King would encourage his pupils to have a go on the lathes. Most boys would turn down the opportunity declaring it too dangerous, but of course having a Dad who used a lathe almost every day, I jumped at the chance.

Sharpening chisels

Despite Mr King's best efforts, the school chisels were always like someone had used them the night before as some sort of screwdriver; the turning chisels faired a little better as they had escaped regular use by the hordes, but they were still impossible to use. I took it upon myself to sharpen them myself. Dad had taught me how to sharpen chisels a good while back showing me the different methods used for chisels for turning and the chisels used in carpentry and joinery. The only problem sharpening them here at school was I had to go into the metal class as they had the only grindstone and I got some really strange looks from the metal work teacher, but he said nothing. There was very little choice of blanks in class; some short lengths of oak (Quercus robur) and a few dodgy lumps of elm (Ulmus procera). If I can remember rightly, I went for the oak and turned a reasonable miniature chair leg with decorative beads and a taper ending with a ball; I finished it the best I could with the limited sandpaper available and polished it using beeswax, just as Dad had shown me - all simple stuff I know, but I thought it was amazing. I was on such a high with my finished item I thought I was now a turner like Dad and I couldn't wait to show him, except that on the way home from school, I stopped to play along the banks of our local river with two friends, put it down and forgot all about it.

Dad & Charlie

When I was young I thought my Dad was one of the cleverest men in the world; as well as turning out some really beautiful objects he was always coming up new ways of fixing things to his old lathe. Looking back, I don't even think he had a chuck, if he did it certainly wasn't as versatile or as good as today's chucks. When I look at the tools and equipment available to today's turners my Dad would have been in heaven; I don't know that he could of bought all that he desired with Mum's tight reign on the family budget, but nevertheless, in heaven.

Some time later Dad made friends with another turner he'd met by chance at some local church bazaar whose name was Charlie, a retired policeman, who had been turning since his retirement and taken to selling some of his items at bazaars like this one. He donated most of the money he took to local good causes keeping back just enough cash to cover his costs. Dad liked the man and they became the best of friends. Dad visited Charlie's workshop a few times, but as these things have a habit of doing, Charlie became more of a regular visitor to Dad's shed and brought with him several pieces he was working on. They would discuss this and that, do a little turning and then have another little chat and all the time I would be earwigging and subconsciously picking up a wealth of information that I'd never learn at school.

Like most turners then Dad was self taught, where he first got the bug or got the ideas for his pieces, I'll never know. Not only could Dad turn but he could teach as well- teach in the most simplest of ways. All he asked was that you were willing to learn. Charlie was one such person. Dad was a few years younger than Charlie, but you'd never know it to hear them laughing away night after night in the shed. I remember on one occasion when Dad had shown him how to turn an open candy twist candlestick. Charlie put his hand on my shoulder and said to me in a broad Yorkshire dialect, "Ee by gum, laddie, that Dad of yours is a clever man." He didn't have to tell me though, I already knew that - mind you, Dad wasn't always so patient with me, especially if I lacked concentration and snagged a perfectly good piece of work sending it to the bin. Even some 50 years on, I still imagine him breathing over my shoulder when I'm at the lathe and go in too harshly or lack a little patience.

Pursuing carpentry

Mum and Dad weren't the least bit surprised when on leaving school, I said I was going to be a carpenter. Dad thought I might make a good joiner, but after visiting a few local joinery shops I didn't fancy being inside all day, every day.

My chance came through Charlie who had a nephew, Derek White, who was a carpentry contractor for a few of the local builders. I don't know what information Charlie had fed him, but luckily I was practically given the job as soon as I walked into Derek's office. I worked for Derek for the next six years before leaving to start my own carpentry business. Dad was a big help to me then and it felt really funny being his teacher rather than his pupil. I taught him to cut and pitch a roof, floor bash, fit kitchens, hang doors and everything else that a carpenter would do on site.

Dad's passing

Despite the arthritis in his hands, Dad managed to carry on turning well into his 70s. It came as a cruel blow to Mum and I when at the age of 76, he sadly died. Neither one of us could bring ourselves to enter Dad's shed for ages and left it locked with all its memories. I was now married myself with two sons, but would visit Mum most days after Dad's death and on a nice day I would sit with her quietly near the shed. Although it was now silent, the sweet smells of timber and wood stains would fill the air just as if Dad was still inside working away; it was the smells and the memories that they provoked that made me enter the shed again and spend a little time on Dad's lathe. It was lovely to hear the familiar whirling sound once more, but it was never to be the same; it was Dad's lathe, it should be him standing in front of it, not me. Some time after Dad's death, Mum moved to a nice little bungalow not far from my own house. I removed most of Dad's tools and still have a few today; Mum sold the rest including the lathe to a gentleman in the same street who used to pop in on Dad. We did keep a lot of what Dad turned and sent the remainder to one of the church bazaars - Dad would have liked that. As for myself, I never did much turning as my children grew up; neither one showed much interest in the craft as both were sports mad and one even went on to support the dreaded Arsenal. It was my eldest Grandson who really rekindled the flame for me. I could see the way he picked up and handled the odd pieces that were always lying around my home; his eyes lit up as he ran his tiny hands over the beads and gentle curvatures on the turnings. It wasn't long before he was asking me: "How did you make that, Granddad?" and "what wood is used to make that, Granddad?"

Who knows what the future holds, but seeing that old familiar look, I feel sure the legacy and the love of timber that Dad left behind in me will live on in my Grandson. Viva la turning!

Woodworkers Institute

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David Brown , Tales from the Workshop

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