Beyond Closed Doors—Oxford

Doors of Oxford

I spent three days ferreting the streets of Oxford over the holidays. Stayed in a nice hotel so I could walk into the City and see it emptied of students and cars, a million bikes with cyclists on and such. I’ve never seen the streets so emptied so I actually walked down the middle of the road on Christmas day for several minutes without a car coming by at all. Those on the streets were mostly from other climes taking selfies, some were dossing down and enjoying the freedom of the streets Christmas brought, but some had no choice. Me? The nooks and crannies have always lured me because of unusual hardware as much as wood things like doors are made from. I’m thinking book about doors now as I walk on my own. I stop to stare and people stare at me stooping looking up like an eagle crooks its neck down to look up. Though I am alone its obviously fascinating to others passing by.

Beyond that, the doors stand between me and those who once passed through these doors. Many if not most will be linked to some historic event of the past. I’m thinking of a book that meets the two dimensions that link equally to the past: a detailed study of the doors themselves, how they were made, who made them and who might well have manned them, whether ancient or new. But then there is the life beyond the doors of those who once live, survived, thrived in successes and lost themselves here. Remember people like Albert Einstein and David Cameron graced the doors, halls and walls of the University Colleges that are widespread in a very different way than modern University Campuses. There was Adam Smith, Aldous Huxley, Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher to name drop just a few others. What about Rupert Murdock and J.R.R Tolkein penning their futures in media and what about Bill Clinton (1969-1971) with Stephen Hawking at the same institution. Christopher Wren, T.S Elliot. The list never ends of course because not all made it onto the charts of fame.

The common threads woven throughout all of these thousands upon thousands of doors are wood and mortise and tenon joints. Who knows it? Well, people may pass a cursory glance at the antiquity of some, but for the most part really no one. This may be the hub of academia but when you distill all of that down, not many will be interested in what’s beneath each shade of paint. Historically though, you cannot deny some of the most famous people in the world either taught or studied here at some point.

There’s a gate stay/stop that always stops me. This one follows the door in its arcing and stops it shy of the wall inside. The stay slides with the door’s swing. Imagine thinking such a thing to be necessary and then the man who forged it in the forge. It must have been a wonderful era of untapped possibilities in the uninvented. I love the thought that something is indeed uninvented. When I came up with my mortising system and posted it on youTube it was my invention. When I proved its efficacy for the first time I beckoned Joseph over and said, Just watch this!” I showed him how I developed it and then we videoed it and posted it online. I wonder how this man expressed his excitement when he developed his idea for the door stay. Maybe his son was pumping the bellows to the coals while students passed along the rat runs to their different colleges. Einstein could have been there somewhere around, he was there in the 1930s. Perhaps it was before his time. 

Anyway, I liked seeing the closed doors but will seriously consider the doors of `oxford because they are so truly interesting to woodworkers. Course what you see on the outside is only the merest fraction of what’s inside. From modest batten doors bellow stairs to the grand entrances above, it still amazes me that the one joint all doors are hinged to is the humble mortise and tenon. I doubt we’ll ever look back and say the biscuit joint held these doors from 1700, or indeed the domino or the pocket-hole screw.


  1. The now forgotten craftsmen had pride in their work and possibly could not imagine someone taking notice of their art decades or even centuries later.

    Wood, metal & stone whilst functional was also put together with care and attention, made to last and has far beyond original expectations.

    Great thought-provoking post and many of the other old cites have similar sights to be seen – Bath, Cambridge & York to name but three.

    1. Sitting here in Denver, Colorado, the first thing that comes to mind is that there isn’t one thing, one piece of worked wood, one item of forged metal, that is as old as the average age of doors in Oxford. What is old in Colorado (1850s!), mostly didn’t receive the consideration, care, or craftsmanship of a basic door in Oxford. To be fair, the workers here had other things on their minds — mostly gold and silver.

      Still, I love seeing what can be done, particularly in the days prior to the Industrial Revolution, by those who really put their hearts into it.

      1. Great article.
        The Oxford Colleges were in many case historically wealthy so the quality of the buildings and their fittings is suitable for what are in building used by many people, so the quality needs to be high, and much higher than the average current English building, so oak doors rather than pine, complex ironmongery rather than simple…

    2. In my day, a pocket hole meant my mother had some sewing to do on my trousers. A domino was a rectangular game object of which I have never learned, but I saw many people set them up in long elaborate rows to watch them fall in an orderly fashion. As for a biscuit, I still eat them, though the ones I make do tend to taste like wood sometimes….

  2. Excellent idea! I have not heard of a similar study. My wife and I have had the good fortune to have several extended stays in Oxford–at Jesus College–and truly appreciate your comments about empty streets. The doors are indeed fascinating when one thinks of the history they’ve seen and the people who have pass through them. And they have much to offer a modern woodworker as well. Hope you have time to follow up with the idea.

    1. Your knowledge of those who studied and worked there is very impressive. I do not think the breath of your knowledge comes across in your videos. I know most of those you mentioned, but a “carpenter” in the USA would not know of them. Just shows how lacking our general education is and it is getting worse. Buy the way, Margret Thatcher is one of my favorites.

      The stone masons work is to be honored also. The skill they had to build such structures to have lasted centuries is impressive.

      Craftsmanship is almost a thing of the past i the USA. But our president is trying to reestablish trade schools so people can make a decent living, but a tradesman is not a craftsman. Today everyone wants to go to college. That is fine for those for those who will become engineers and scientists, but the “education’ is wasted on most who want safe spaces and such. Parents are wasting their money.

      I love the school you have established so your skills can be passed on to the next generation. Woodshop is gone in our primary and secondary schools. That is where I was first exposed in 1956 and I remember it to this day. I am trying to pass along my knowledge of photography also.

  3. What intrigues me the most is at that time of most of the buildings creation , everything was made by hand. There was oh well I do not have time to hand saw that (out with the bandsaw), or run down to the Lowes for some more lumber (if you call that what they sell there). Everything was done by hand and everything was done to last.

    Not to mention just to touch the doors and such and think of the hands that created them and the history they have seen.

  4. Paul, I very much enjoy your insights and observations-the ability to unlock the significance of what was once common place. And therein makes me wonder if it is not the uncommon nature of the one common practice that we lament is fading nature due to the perceived need for speed to replace the beloved warmth of craftsmanship. Those in the past couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t have envisioned the biscuit, domino or the pocket screw knowing that what they were then relying upon was, indeed, right.

  5. The biggest problem in the world is unfortunately not many people appreciate the skill that went into the joinery or even the building of the places. Many people just walk by and take them for granted. Paul you sometimes feel that you were born in the wrong century?

    1. I really don’t. I love the life I’ve been given and see it as a gift. I might have enjoyed the slower pace more but pace is often something we can control but choose not to without realising we’ve actually chosen not to. I have enjoyed being driven for many hours by horse driven vehicles, growing my vegetable gardens, being with my family with the children in my workshop with me as they grew, things I couldn’t have done had I not chosen a home-based workshop and business. But in the midst of all of that I have lived a life without going to war, I have not known prejudice although I am not ignorant of it taking place. I question the digital age and the invasiveness of the internet, people’s willingness to sacrifice relationships for playing games, facebook and all the social media that means really so little by comparison. I have so many things to compare life to but so many accept it as part of their life. I recently interacted with a baby in a high chair in a restaurant while both parents seemed totally detached from their child. A current problem in society of young families is that babies have less eye contact from their parents because of cell phones which os of course integral to the relationship as they grow.

  6. Having built a few hundred doors for the University of Notre Dame I can relate to these thoughts. I’ve often wondered what students think of such common things as doors; but have discovered they are awed upon discovering that a person actually hands on has made the entries and exits they walk through each day. Whenever I’m in a new place with some history, I’m always on the lookout for doors with stories and character. I’m often amazed at the unique details I see. And I think doors would be less interesting if people weren’t involved both in making and using them over the many years.

  7. Very interesting Paul. This reminds me of a street close to where I live in Allentown, PA in the U.S. It’s part of an area called the Theater District. My wife and I recently saw Darkest Hour at it’s 19th street theater. I can relate to your points about architecture. I find myself more and more interested in the architecture that surrounds me. It’s absolutely because of my journey in woodworking. I love old doors like the one in your short video. I enjoy observing them if I’m out at small restaurants/pubs.

    1. France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands have great doors and windows too. In eastern europe communism destroyed doors, but if you look at old buildings they had nice doors and windows too.

  8. Hello Paul. The sliding stop and door you show are amazing to me because I’m not sure if the door was built to fit the surrounding stone work or the other way around. You could also include Thomas Edward Lawrence in the famous names.

    1. I imagine the painstaking workmanship and attention to detail in the buildings and fixtures encourage the same qualities among the students. The liberal arts education depends on aesthetics, critical thinking, and experimentation. Yes, we need engineers and scientists but writers, artists, and historians add uncounted value to our civilization. I view the spirit of hand woodworking as more akin to these latter professions than to the hard sciences. Though we certainly incorporate some science and engineering in our work, in the end it is about creating beautiful objects.

  9. Visiting Oxford recently and as always spent a couple of hours at the Pitt Rivers museum.

    When engrossed in enjoying the many many exhibits I am always taken with the unbelievable level of creativity utilising all materials including wood.

    I leave feeling inspired and reminded that anything is possible regarding what can and could be invented and created by human hands

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