Lifestyle From a Lifestyle Woodworker

Lifestyles Encompasses Work

I have always pursued work as a lifestyle, partly because I always needed to work to earn a living and partly because I always need to work – there’s a difference. I need work because I love it, I don’t love work because I need it, you see. Getting up in the morning and going to work stimulates much of my early morning before I leave for the shop. As a boy I rode my bike or walked a couple of miles to work through cobblestone streets, rain, snow, sleet and occasional sunshine. I left at 7am and looked forward to stoking the boiler, reading the newspaper as the heat built up and then the banter that went back and forth over the morning news between the men I worked under. When other boys clambered over the stacks of newly milled window and door parts I walked around them, stared at them, picked them up and smelled them one by one. Oak, Kerruing, Merranti, Hemlock, Spruce, Walnut and more wood types were new smells to me and imbibing multidimensionally seemed to satisfy the very soul of my newfound craft. I savoured each different smell and retained the new knowledge as I asked about the woods from foreign climes. Rot resistant kerruing for window sills and sills to doorways. Ugly, dark, wiry, stringy, coarse-grained wood, hard to work with planes, gummy substances exuding with every stroke of my plane and sticking the sole to the wood itself. I’m 15 years old, skinny, so skinny, and I am looking into every nook and cranny for new things to learn about wood from stashes covered in sawdust and cobwebs.

Man and Boy
Some of the men were full of themselves whilst others had humility and peace about them. Some were crude and vulgar, loud mouths even while others quiet and refined. All of them could work wood well. No, all of them could work wood very well. When a machine failed to make a cut for whatever reason they would do it with hand tools just as well and effectively but with more strain on their hard working bodies. The difference between woodworkers then and now is that they could do it by hand, knew exactly the right tool to use and nothing ever stopped the work being done. One time, when I was too cocky in myself, I said something out of order to an older man of around 40. He lunged at me over the bench, grabbed my lapels and lifted me off my feet as he pulled my skinny frame up until his nose touched mine. He remonstrated, “If you ever say anything like that again I will kill you.” I felt the truth in what he said as he dumped me on the benchtop. Respect became mine as I saw the boundary I had crossed. It took a few months before things were healed between us and the past forgotten. We did become friends as I matured and learned more of his harsh childhood and upbringing. I was lucky to be alive.

The Boy Finds His Place
Knowing my place became obvious in the first few weeks as everyone called me “boy” or “the boy”. I recall the first day in work as I was shown around and things were explained to me by the man who was to become my mentoring craftsman. Where to clock in and out at the start and end of the workday, where to brew up, where to stoke the boiler, how to bag the shavings from the power machines (never had dust extraction), I was the dust extractor. My boss, the owner of the company, was a man called Idris Owen. Mr Owen was the biggest conservative snob in the world, an MP and a local magistrate. He drove in on my fIrst day in his Rolls Royce Silver Cloud all gleamy and silvery and asked me who I was. I told him I was the new apprentice. “What’s your name, boy?” he asked. I said, Paul Sellers. In the five years of my apprenticeship including working on his home, his property in Wales and seeing him most weeks at the workshop, he never called my by my name. He always called me “boy”. One day I was in the workshop when he drove into the physical shop itself. He climbed out of the Rolls, stood facing me about 15 feet from me and asked one of the men to “tell the boy to wash the Rolls”, even though I was in plain sight and nearer to him than the man he was talking to was. Such was the conservatism of the time and day. Did it put me off wood and woodworking? I didn’t really realise that the man in the immaculate pin-striped suit and highly polished shoes was so sad a man. I never saw him smile or flip a board of pine to smell the pocket of sap. In all of his riches and throughout the five years of my apprenticeship he never altered, never associated with anyone beyond the most superficial level yet I was immersed in a richness of scents and sounds and shapes and textures I would enjoy for the next 50 years. Class is very much a British phenomenon. I know it exists elsewhere too, but I found my place as each day I learned my craft, absorbed those things that mattered and discovered my lifestyle future. I’m so glad my path was so decided.

Beginning Your Lifestyle as a Woodworker
My path has been different than yours. I learned to respect my fellow craftsmen because they earned it. I saw what I wanted to be as a lifestyle woodworker and made the most of every opportunity until I could come to rest in the knowledge and experience knowing what I could and could not do. If someone tells a child they can be anything they want to be they do that child a disservice because it’s really not true. It’s more important to help them discover their honest potential and what they are supposed to be no matter what that is. It should never be tied to economics or politics, social standing or the successes their parents measure success by unless they truly want the child to find their place. Life has limits and a craftsman finds his limits, the limits of his tools and the woods he works and finds rest within those limits. I found rest in my work. You can plan your lifestyle too. Getting of the conveyor belt and the production line of life doesn’t mean working it full time. You do what you can with the time you have and do it to the best of your ability.

12 comments on “Lifestyle From a Lifestyle Woodworker

  1. Paul,

    I truly enjoy reading your anecdotes about your time as an apprentice and how you came to love this craft so dearly.

    As a person who love learning about history, these stories proved a glimpse into a world so totally removed from today. Often I wonder “how did they do that” 50, 100, 200 years ago.

    Thanks for sharing these stories as well as your talents. I for one don’t tire of hearing about your training and upbringing.

  2. I’m not that old. 44 Sometimes at breakfast I will look at my hands and see the countless faded scars from my life of work. Oddly, they fill me with a quiet satisfaction. I have found my calling as an electrician. It’s not wood grain and veneer. Mostly people find what I do visually cluttering. I find it beautiful. There are aesthetics to it most people never see, kind of like hidden dovetails. Like you, Paul, I can see layout marks left by former craftsman and I understand them. This work also has its pleasant smells. When you find your calling almost everything about it, even the bad things, can become enchanting. There is a hand tool guru here in the States that has written about not much caring about the wood he works. Why bother? Thanks for the post Paul.

  3. Paul, what a great entry. I too have felt we do children a disservice by telling them they can be “anything” they want to be. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to figure out “what you want to do when you grow up.” Thanks.

  4. Paul,

    As above…. I too enjoy stories of the journey. We all have our paths. some straight and true like yours. Others meander like an old river. I liked what you said about being cocky or full of yourself. LOL! You appear to be a one trial learner. ( Behavioral definition of intelligence.) That’s good!

    I am a meandering type, although I am true to who I am. I Learned to use hand tools from my father, who found me the clever boy using his tools when he came home from work one day. That is a part of my learning that I am true too although “Norm Abrams” and working in construction made a power tool junkie out of me. LOL!

    In my more recent path James Krenov’s writings re inspired me. I’ve quite a few mentors. Non of whom took me by the hand. I did get a dual education in high school which was both technical and college preparitory. It fits me as I like to know “how things work.”

    In this later part of my life, I am more focused. I’m a woodworker and a psychologist. more story. LOL! I found you as I wanted to remake my workshop bench into a woodworkers bench. Your practical approach has helped me. I am re purposing my materials and using your bench dog approach. You’ve helped me be not so envious of hand tools I don’t have and appreciate the ones my father gave me more.

    I’m aware I cannot master two things at one time but I’m making every effort. I’m appreciating that you’re sharing your ride.

    Thanks,

    Thomas Tieffenbacher/aka DocSavage45

  5. Paul, I so enjoyed this post. It reminded me of ‘The Cabinetmaker and Joiner’ a book I love to read over again. You should write a book recounting your own apprenticeship. I would buy it.

    Mark

  6. Paul this is a very interesting post. I started out in the mid sixties as well but in the Heating and Air Conditioning field working with sheet metal. I enjoyed it but really wanted to go to college and did about 2 years after graduating from High School.

    I worked with ( 2 ) journey Men who quite frankly made my life miserable, they would go out of their way to try and make me mad, it didn’t work though. For the 1st few weeks all I did was unload the truck, stock the material in the basement run get this, run get that, sweep up after them which they purposely made big messes. I was the 1st person to climb down into the hole ( basement ) on a ladder and they would hand the duct work, screws, nails etc. down to me some times dropping the buckets before I could get them and have to pick them up. Then they would hold back a piece of duct work so it wouldn’t go into the connecting cleat on purpose, just to mess with me. Well the big Boss came on the job site once and witnessed what they were doing and really laid into them and was about to fire them which I told the Boss all was good and not to, after that I never had an issue.

    Of course I went on to College and would see them on occasion and actually work with them on my school breaks, but never had an issue with them after that.

    I did switch my Career and ended up in the Architectural Aluminum Business until I retired in 2009.

    Steve

  7. Paul.
    I have only just discovered you on you tube etc.
    Like you I served my time in a small shop in Macclesfield, 5 years before you.
    I was very fortunate to work with some superb craftsmen who had the time and patience to pass on their skills.
    Also like you I once overstepped the boundary and was very firmly put in my place, I only did it once.
    Back then day release and night school was compulsory and I took to it like a duck to water.
    When I was 23 and a journeyman I got my first white collar job as a junior in an Architects office, I went on to qualify as a Building Surveyor and became a corporate slave for the next 40 years.
    I never gave up my woodworking, and now spend time in the workshop most days.
    I often wonder if I would have been happier staying as a woodworker, but that is”The land of lost content”
    I too buy my timber at the same Welsh woodyard as you
    Fred Sutton

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