A Long Post On My Feelings—Part I

The round tower to the right is the end where I had my first UK workshop in 2010. Still hard to imagine.

At first I felt daunted. The thought of moving so soon after returning to England from Wales (two years ago) reminded me of former struggles of tearing and down and rebuilding up. Here we’d been welcomed and we like our newfound friends. Even so, we soon found we needed a place to call our own, a home studio workshop. Most likely this will be our last workshop move. It will be nice for everyone to have a little more space to be creative in.

Yup! Cramped space for everyone but everyone gets along fine.
My workshop classes in Penrhyn Castle.

At first, I did wonder if it was indeed the great north-south divide you may know nothing of. People with different accents, class, different cities and towns unfamiliar and such like that. A sort of dividedness where Rudyard Kipling coined the phrased “ne’er the twain shall meet”. But that wasn’t it all. We made good friends with people fast and we will always be friends with those we’ve come to know now.

Views towards the Snowden range of hills from my Penrhyn Castle

My return to England proper follows my great 28-year escape—something of a wilderness journey, a detour into unpredictability. My coming back to England has altogether felt right for me even though I do feel something of a sojourner in my own country, a sojourner in more a strange land Because the cultural shifts are indeed so great, England sometimes seems more to me, my second home. It’s not really the same one that I left exactly 30 years ago, to the month. Roots can be hard to put down, especially tap roots. That said, I think I would rather be here for the next leg of my journey and the vision I feel for the future work we are about to embark on than anywhere else in the world. Living in the USA did a great thing for me. It took away social class and gave me acceptance. I became myself

With my personal feeling of settledness came a sense of security for my work and with that a sense of passing what I own to the coming generations. With the development of the internet and its digital world I see my work ever-expanding in special ways I never could have envisaged. It has become more all-inclusive because of what I learned in the USA. That seemed to me never possible before.

These see-through boxes are strong and easily accessed.

Dismantling my workshop this last time is actually the first time that I’ve actively categorised all of my possessions by way of tools so thoroughly. Today I know where every tool is because they are in numbered boxes and also they are protected at that. Previously they’d been boxed up for travelling and transportation only. This time they’ve been archived for different reasons and can be readily retrieved without relying on my personal knowledge of where they are alone. This then has helped me to feel so much better and though perhaps far from aesthetically attractive I do feel a peace about it. My tools and equipment ranging from artwork, projects, prototypes and so on are safely stowed and yet accessible by box number, pallet, make and maker, nickname, preferred name or whatever. In many ways, it’s been quite cathartic in that I felt energised to rethink my whole dependency thing. For three decades I have owned thousands of hand tools. I was never really a collector only but more a hunter-gatherer-user from the start. Collecting seemed empty to me even though I do understand why individuals collect beautiful tools.

I’m decluttering my workspace to free me from over possessing and it’ s freeing me.

I had always gathered tools to better understand them. I wanted to understand the owners of them, the ones that used them and earned their livings using them where possible because there are so few like myself that actually used hand tools and made their living from working with them. I actually don’t know someone who makes their living from primarily working with hand tools. I also wanted to discover why it was that the users preferred their particular version of a tool over say more ‘developed‘ models. Through this type of inquiry, I started to unravel the past, open up new trains of thinking. Just why was it that the Preston spokeshave with its centralised adjuster became a deviation from the more common path following say the Stanley #71? Other makers copied the #71 pattern and Preston strove for something out of a new mould. Other makers of tools developed their own versions of planes from cast iron because the metal casting was newer, it was accessible and it was inexpensive too. It also required much lower levels of skilled work when compared to the making of wooden planes. A thousand planes could be cast in sand in a day when a hand made plane took up to half a day of highly skilled workmanship to make. Here they were engineering something different. They were engineering patents, patentable versions to own the patent itself. It didn’t necessarily mean they had made the better mousetrap, just that they could self-protect through owning the patent of their own version of a tool for a few decades.

My research is dismantling and reassembling tools to discover the men who once held them dear to them because using these was how they fed and clothed their families.
These are my two personal infill planes and I love them.

Throughout my own life, my workshop walls have mostly been clad with tools and books about wood and woodworking, trees and resources. I’m not at all an academic in any way (as if that needs saying). I like working with my hands and building things, sharpening things, creating ideas and developing things three-dimensionally every day. Without this, I think I would simply dry up and die. But I have always found craft working of every type so totally fascinating, especially so in the development of my own craft. So whereas I am constrained by time to focus more on my own craft because it is indeed so vast, I’m still intrigued and fascinated by the craft changes in different crafts through the centuries and decades. I see more clearly now why the meaning of crafts and then the lack or loss of meaning of crafts in our modern world has been in decline. The graph I might draw would show a peak from 1500 to 1800 and then a levelling off to the 1890s followed by a steady decline after World War I.This might more be seen as the era of dumbing down the need for skilled labour generally and its cultural impact where people lost the value for it. In industrial realms, it was steadily disappearing and now, in private realms, there is a quest to rediscover it. My belief is that this stems from the changes that always come with cultural shifts. People are learning that craft and craft working can mean so much more to us than we at one time realised. Whereas at one time it was just the industrious way of earning income and providing support for family life, agrarianism itself and so on, in amateur realms it was the pursuit of something that would cost them. they wanted the challenge of hard work and something difficult to accomplish. That alone is why so many amateurs pursue it with such passion. That is why I so love my craft and I so love working with amateurs.

Teaching others elsewhere in the world unites me to woodworkers everywhere. Here I am in Israel sharing my skills.

I’m always active in my craft and talking to others about theirs as long as it is not just a pastime but a serious interest of work. I suppose I have never had the luxury of time to pass, not even at airports! In my working area, I seem always to accumulate in an ebb and flow of having and not having. I pick up a saw secondhand from the gravel and grass somewhere and strip off the rust, recut its teeth, fix its brokenness and restore it. I then add it to my gathering of tools or I give it to someone I care about that works with their hands, works alongside me or will work with their hands by my encouraging them with a tool. Whichever, it’s gone beyond compulsive and obsessive and stems from my feeling that if I don’t lift it from the grime it will somehow be absorbed into a sort of excess of cultural dissipation and meaninglessness. You know, trampled under foot into the ground to rot. This happens when a world stops caring, loses its identity as an industrious producer, loses its dependency on making and growing and cooking—such things like these. Things like useless tools (that’s tools used less than they should or could be) and equipment soon become lost in an excess of mass non-concern. So I start to restore a tool and learn more from my find about a predecessor I never met but came to know through his tools. By these things, I connect to my past, to the men that passed a hundred years ago or even two and three. So the saw joins others on my walls and the walls seem to wrap around me with a warmth I can’t always describe in a world and a culture that’s ever-changing and often, in places, losing its identity; it’s a warmth I can’t always find words to describe in a world that’s losing such warmth and depth and enclosure. So I think of places like Sheffield differently today than when I was young and discovered an Industrial Revolution when I say this, but others places, too. So you see that I find my tools, my workshop, give me security even in a world where I know a single catastrophe can wipe them all away.

Lifelong friendships often follow a single workshop encounter.

It’s funny writing down my feelings this way. I have likely said all I need to say but want to write all the more. When some people, woodworkers who love woodworking, hang posters of tool chests on their walls it makes me feel a little sad. It’s not at all that they are doing anything particularly wrong though.  My hope is that as they grow they will go ever deeper through their discovering for themselves what craft work means for their life. Posters often depict the life of another and another’s personal world. It’s a world that’s not so much theirs but one belonging to another. It’s something they might yearn for in the same way we might yearn for a steam-train era or horse ploughing where shiny ribbons of twisted earth colour an unfolding landscape row by row. Of course, it is decorative and enjoyable to gaze on, and it can well be aspirational. I too, keep such things to look on, but creating your own workspace leads to an enrichment I want everyone to own for themselves.

My friends go into storage until I need them for something in my research.

Gathering tools one by one adds depth and dimension to our working world through a surrounding of our senses. We pull a tool from a shelf and turn a square edge to a mould, a rough, unlevel board into a glass-smooth loveliness. We put the tool back and move on to another. The saws too hang in wait. The teeth catch the light and glint like bejewelled pinnacles in beaded rows ready to cut tenons and dovetails and rip away waste wood stroke by stroke. The handles are mine; perhaps I should say they’ve ‘become‘ mine. Shaped and smoothed by the roughness of my hands and the dust of the wood between my hand and the handle I grip every day. It’s smooth, yes, but it’s more than that. No other material feels like it. This is loveliness. Pure loveliness. in a way, it reflects kindliness and warmth, depth, wholeness, the result of a sort of marriage if you will. So I hang my saws close to my right hand and always look at them with fascination as I do. My eyes seem to draw their beauty into my insides. It’s not in the least sentimental. Such things are the extension of all my intent in the making of things. Who can understand such things?

15 comments on “A Long Post On My Feelings—Part I

  1. I went to a swap meet this morning and picked up a Millers Falls #4 off a tarp, How much? $5 was the reply. I couldn’t pass it by, I am also not a collector, but someone might need it and I like Millers Falls tools.

  2. I feel something similar from some time ago until now, Paul. Due to several reasons, I’ve had to wait until only a pair of years to now to do with tools and wood the things that all my life had wanted to do, since when I was a boy and went to the woodworking shop that was near my school to see how old men worked there. More or less a year and a half ago I discovered your videos, your work, and found a man doing woodworking as I should have liked to do: with the hands, with skill, with love for the wood and tools. And I decided to begin, at last, the journey that waited to begin since I was 12 years. There it was: the woodworker that I sould have liked to be.

    I’m 49 now, and I’ve almost finished my workbench. Yes, it is not the best workbench in the world, but it is my workbench. I’ve learned how to plane by hand; I’ve a lot to learn about it yet, but I’ve learned it. I know how to sharpen a saw, how to sharpen a chisel, how to make a mortise and tenon joint. I use the hand brace more than I ever used a electric drill, with bits restored and sharpened by hand, They are only a handful of little things, but they make me feel happy when I do them. I learn something new in woodworking almost every day since then, to the point that I want to change little by little those awful particle fiber furnitures at home for furniture made with my hands, with all those new skills and those old tools. I will take me a long time, I’m afraid, but I’m decided to do it.

    All these things have come since the first day I watched a video of you, the one in wich you bring back to life a wooden plane. So I want to thing that you can imagine how happy I felt when the old Record plane I bought came back to life when I restored and sharpened it doing exactly the things you do in your video and in your book. I’ve learned to plane with that old Record plane.

    So I believe I can “understand such things”, Paul. And I suppose I’m not the only one here who can.

    Thank you very much.

  3. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself. It is truly a wonder to experience such as this through the eyes of another. And you write so we can picture the vision in or minds eye. Remarkable Mr. Sellers!!!!

  4. By the way, I’m sorry for the mistakes and kicks to english languagge in my reply. I’m spanish and my english is like my woodworking: not so good as it should be. I would like to correct them in the text above, but I don’t know if it is possible.

    • The purpose of language is to communicate, while your English is not perfect (neither is mine) it is quite easy to understand your intent. Don’t worry about the corrections.

    • Julio, I could go in and edit your letter but I don’t like to edit the comments of others as long as there are no serious issues and I like it just the way it is and I understood every word in its present place. Keep it up!

  5. Many can understand the passion for making that you write of here—and you make the possibility of more finding that creative drive greater by doing what you do. It’s a good time of the year to hope that all all can find a creative way of life and thereby keep it alive when it may have seemed headed to extinction.

    Carry on!

  6. Yesterday I went to my 2nd craft fair. It was local but I can relate to your feelings of leaving places that were very dear to you. I’m leaving a place that I’ve known my entire life: myself. I’ve lived an on-edge-life my entire existence but have been slowly shedding it the past couple of years. I’ve have felt every type of emotion possible: anger, lonliness, joy, fright, satisfaction, indecisiveness, confidence, shame, peace… It’s because I’ve decided to pursue woodworking and I write this with happiness. The path is not really sociably accepted among people close to me, at least I thought they were. My shop, the wood I work, and my tools have never jumped ship on me. This new family of mine makes me stronger. And some of the scary feelings I encounter throughout my experience as a artisan pushes me to strive for better woodworking.

  7. Thank you Paul for sharing. As you are moving into your new creative space and are decluttering to free your creativeness, what are you deciding to keep out and open vs boxed up? I’ve read your posts on essential tools and such so I’m not asking it from that perspective.

    On a slightly different note, I’ve see stories on musicians and martial artists. The beginning is often simple. As they become good things become more complex. Then, they often go back to a more streamlined almost back to basics approach. Not sure what it’s called but I do find it interesting to see it happen over various arts, crafts.

  8. Paul, first I would like to say that I have been following you for several years now and I like what you are doing. I have a full time factory job now for 44 years I am 63 now! and am making plans to retire from that job within the next year I hope! So many of my peers are gone now and I feel sad to see what’s happening to our world now! In the USA and probably UK also are and have become so dependent on outside sources for a whole lot of things we use everyday! where as you know 30-40 years ago it just wasn’t that way at all! So I want to say Thanks for what you are trying to do I hope and pray it will make a ton of difference in a MEGA ton of people who are lost and don’t know who they are or where they are going!

  9. This post really hit home for me Paul. I’ve acquired, and use regularly, previously owned hand tools on a daily basis. I don’t collect them, but I have bought a few duplicates just because their previous owner seems to call out to me. I feel that If I don’t save them for use, they’ll end up on somebodies coffee table or a wall in the family room as a decoration with genuine patina. Worse still maybe they just end up in a landfill with hundreds or thousands of usable hours left in them.
    I’m fascinated by the names or initials stamped or carved on them by their previous owners. I marvel at the amount of use it must have took to wear away all of the finish and some of the wood where their hands interacted with the tool. I wonder how skilled they were, how dedicated to craft and quality, how the tool ended up in a flea market or second hand store.
    I use these tools every day, every chance I get. I rotate them on and off the bench, (my Dad’s old tools stay close to hand always), and try to keep all of them in good working order. If I find someone who I think will use the tool and respect it, I give it to them. You never know when I might need room for another orphan.

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