Just What Do You Call This?

In silence they smiled. Uncommon, occasional and always silently. It was the silence somehow that spoke the most-the inaudible loudness of it that loudly spoke of an inordinate joy and the funny thing about it was this, in the silence of that occasional, uncommon smile, others around knew about it, shared in it and it was passed from one to the other because each knew and understood that which somehow needed to remain unsaid.  Old men, craftsmen, seemed to me humbled by work then. There was no competition between them, they knew the sanctity of working together, of sharing space, workbenches, atmosphere, places, work. They were, well, grateful. It seemed to me a hidden merit that the men had bonded through trial. There was no wingeing, no complaining. A Second World War had left them sobered and for two at least a First World War too. At least that’s how it seemed to me. I never heard them speak of the atrocities. I just knew it through my dad and then through them.

Standing on the other side of inhumanity, with the remnants of open wasteland where houses once stood and no one played, I recall the recovery needed by those who obeyed the demands of others who still, even in a postwar era, saw them still the more as chattels. Men in smarts who set themselves above these men with whom I somehow now belonged, men who knew little of muscle and sinew coordinated to lift, strain and twist wood against and with their bodies and then tools with which they changed shape and shaped change. I would watch as the fresh edge sliced beneath extended arms and a series of what seemed like musical notes rose from the  successive strokes as rhythmic beats. Those planes that caused the silent smiles would lift broad bands as swathes of fine wood  that fell as if wheat stalks beneath a swishing, swooshing scythe. The pitch changed, a slighter sound came with more strokes, a lift of the plane heel and this smile in silence revealed yet more unwritten, unmentioned inner joys. It’s the sounds that shape textures here then there, then colour changings, such like these that mattered to my understanding. Things like these mattered because I would unknowingly be approaching and then live in the age when such things would no longer be heard, not seen and thereby not understood.

Of course the manly thing as a boy was to see but not say. Now people say it more than anything, as if the shaving has become the end in itself and no longer the surface. The men I knew as  boy and man in working never said look at those shavings, don’t you just love them? And the sound the plane made as a metre in his poetry of work lay untapped; an unwritten poem and a work of art in sound and sight. “Look at that, that shaving just stood right up from the plane!” the unspoken words proclaimed in awe. All present marvelled that inward admiring you can’t at all explain. No such thing would be said in that era now gone by a generation of crafting men we no longer know of. But indeed these men, often with hid feelings feel much and shared such in their inner workings as treasures they found as they worked. Such things, though guardedly kept, were harnessed so as not to falter at their bench. Even then, in my early day, there was a fear at the risk of somehow losing pay for idleness despite two world wars. There was a sense of all keeping their heads down when the bosses came in in smarts, immaculately dressed and always arrogant, aloof. The good thing though was that they could never remove those hidden gems as treasure found when a single split severed perfectly to reveal a hidden tenon and a plane two eyes, a nose and a mouth. The bosses never knew the singing and the harmonies between men stood at benches and cigarettes smouldering in the shavings as they spilled to the feet of the same men. “Eh up, lad, get some sand!” the cry went up and then the voices sang once more and the smiles between the benches united the men again.

Whereas it is all too easy to criticise, we can create an imbalance if on the one hand it’s somehow unmanly to speak in poetic phrases of what we feel as we work. On the other hand not all any more can feel gleeful when the scent of pine wafts pervasively from the sole of a plane as your fingertips trace the surface left so smooth and levelled you can scarce but feel it. You see we live in an age when such common things have become so rare they will never be sensed again by ninety nine point nine percent of our world. Can it be wrong to fear losing such sensing? These things I think are well worth my dwelling on you see. I hope to preserve such things in the lives of those who follow me and I hope I am here just long enough to make sure the videos made alongside my posts and writings and ramblings go out to this and the next generations. Administrators and facilitators, politicians and leaders  in educators (not teachers), people many trust and depend on to make good choices, are often not making the good choices at all. Such like these may do their best, many do, but most often they will know very little of appropriate things. They will know nothing of what I sopeak of. Often they survive and prosper more as gifted orators and because they speak with such great confidence they often go unchallenged. If you read the piffle in the Times last week you’d know what I mean. So a president here, a prime minister there, each and all the world leaders deciding the futures of so many, manipulators of statistics and people mostly supposed to need them. But I am sure you know of these things. They don’t, mostly cannot, truly grasp the meaning of what I speak. They must speak as though they do though, and therein lies the danger. That’s why I must work to make my deposit good; felt amongst others who do genuinely care. We must understand that it is not so much what we make that matters but how we make. If I have learned anything through my many years of woodworking it has been more from the silences and the quiet times working alone and gently with others who also feel the same privileged life of working with our hands.

This thread has steadily woven itself amongst woodworkers of every kind in the silences of thoughts and smiles. It has no class, no exclusivity, but embraces all as it reaches beyond all professions and trades, guilds and such and all the more where I see amateur woodworking thriving in the hearts of men and women, children too, who may not know altogether of what I speak but inside themselves there is something that drives them to work with their hands whenever they can.

17 comments on “Just What Do You Call This?

  1. As simple as it is, I often pause for a moment when planing pine and feel the surface and smell the scent and just feel a surge of peace. And then I carry on with the task at hand.

  2. I had a really bad day at work yesterday. I spent half an hour at my bench in the evening planning and fitting some pine off-cuts for my new clamps.

    Not fine cabinet work but it doesn’t have to be ground me, and I am sure many others, in what is truly important in our life’s.

    Thank you.

  3. I can remember working as a limb maker over 50 years ago old school wooden limbs. At JE. Hangers and co. Working with ex soldiers limbless from both wars.
    If had some stress on at home or girl friend problems some how the guys knew when to leave you alone and work it through. Invariably it all seemed better at the end of the shift.

  4. Just finished building my first wooden box from reclaimed oak. The sawing, planing, dovetailing, laminating and fitting of the lid; together with the finishing and beeswax polishing; all of this has taken me to a place of great peace and contentment. To know that I have created something from bare tree, is such an honour and so very satisfying. Thank you Paul for all you have helped me to achieve in my new found love of woodworking, using only hand tools.

  5. I love the crisp hiss that a sharp plane makes with each pass; I don’t think there is another sound like it in the world.
    I enjoy too the changing cycle of sweeping up: first the thick crumbly sawdust from breaking down to size with the big rip saw, then the deep drifts of shavings, then the fine sawdust from the tenon saw and chips from the chisel from shaping the joints, and finally the whispy cirrus like shavings from the final clean up.
    And then around again for the next project……………all very rhythmical and grounding.
    NOW! What I really love is the smiley face in the tenon cheek hidden in the joint for perpetuity:- what a lovely, silent, thumbing of the nose at blind authority.
    Keep it up laddie!!

  6. You know, Mr. Sellers, it’s not truly gone, yes? The craftsmen may be fewer, the craft more sparse, the craft-knowledge more thin, but the Light, dimly, still smoulders like those cigarette embers sparking in the shavings.

    Handwork is being reclaimed as essential. Craftsmen are listening to wood and grain before striking iron again. Yes, there is fad and fashion… but there is also foundation. You are a big part of that.

    Where knowledge was lost, it will be found. Where the essence of craft was supressed, it will break free again. Whereever there are people who value how something is made, craft will endure.

    Cheer up! Apprenticeships are making a comeback. The numbers of men and women who know the dignity of hardwork are vast, are on every continent, and are, largely, head-down in their work.

    Craft is Dead, Long live the Craft!

    P.S. start teaching again! 🙂

    • Spencer, Thanks for this. I like the positivity of it and I think many people like to feel the same way. Unfortunately part of educational processes has in my view been to change definitions and hope that ‘the people’ don’t see the slightness-of-hand moves. I in no way expressed distress, dismay or depression but more a wake-up call to the reality of what is become. The definition of apprentice is to introduce an alternative version of the meaning. Apprenticeship now means more to be programming than skills training. If you are receiving training as a furniture maker you will be trained in the use of machining procedures and safety to establish legal compliance at various levels and mostly surrounding safety rather than skill. I realise that that might seem very general but the outcome is evident in the graduates I have met who will not know many of even the most basic skills of woodworking even after paying thousands of pounds for their training to gain their degrees. So forgive me if I don’t altogether share your optimism in the current trend of media and politics shouting ‘Apprenticeships, apprenticeships! We’re bringing apprenticeships back, look, success, success!’, when these are mainly the ones that sold the jobs to other continents in the interest of globalisation, cheaper advanced levels consumerism and of course that ambiguous thing called economics. Remember too the brilliance of what turned out to be somewhat short-sighted science that gave us insights into many new substances and then decades later told us we were polluting the world. Each group had merit of course but then some did not. The one export of jobs and productivity over three decades created an irreversible reality of deindustrialising our own backyard to dirty that of another’s. Those sold jobs never returned to our shores and it is unlikely they ever will. Sheffield, rightly and wrongly, will never be the development centre it once was although I am sure entrepreneurialism has taken a different more technological track from that originating root. What has happened through the past half century is that the crafting artisans making their livings from the type of work I speak of gave up and gave in one by one as would be customers pursued the cheaper options. At one time people would know people on their street that made things depending on the region; a potter, a blacksmith welder, a tool maker, a furniture maker or a boat builder. None of my neighbours in the last ten years that I know of made anything I could ever see built. Mostly they sold things and bought things. Dare I venture that most people may only know one or two people who make their living from making something in a whole lifetime.
      I do feel generally happy and hopeful and have been a most fortunate man throughout my working life. I may see other crafting artisans that make furniture, other crafts too, but I don’t actually know a single one’s accounts well enough to say that they are capably making a living sufficient to support themselves a growing family independantly. This is a shift in culture, I understand that.

      I do think though that what has developed, not intentionally (unfortunately) by any government, educational facility or economist, is a subculture of private makers who very focussedly added creativity into their lives to increase the potency of their life interest as an antidote to what for the vast many has become at best mundane.

      • I unfortunately agree with you saying there are less and less crafts around. I have to admit.. . In the town I’m in i don’t know any other than a couple of great weekend woodworkers.
        Now I am hopeful that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That light will be in the eyes of my kids. I have started teaching them what I have been learning from wwmc and have some projects in mind. Hopefully the love and passion of the craft will spread to them and then to future generations.

      • Thanks, Mr. Sellers for taking the time to correct my impression.

        Of course, I agree with you regarding education – I could speak of C.S. Lewis and his attack on the very same thing, in England, when he wrote “The Abolition of Man” some almost-60 odd years ago. In the chapter on the sad, sorry state of what passes as education, he wrote “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise…” As you eloquently pointed out, buying and selling is all that they are ‘good for’ – certainly not for making something. For you need more than the cerebral and the visceral to actually Make.

        And thus, my optimism fades as well….

        So, what are we mere mortals to do? Lose hope? Accept the state we are in? Bury craft as we bury those wonderful crafting artisans that we will never get back…?

        This is what got me optimistic when I think of it – out of all those other apprentices in those shops you grew up in; out of all those other shops with their apprentices as well, you carry the craft. Not only that, you give back. You are trying to build men with chests again. And that is no small feat.

        So, thanks for what you do! And thanks for the response – it was good to hear that you remain hopeful and happy.

        • Spencer, Thank you for your graciousness. It’s far from easy to sometimes express a depressed condition surrounding you locally and then universally without indeed perhaps sounding depressed yourself. The work I have been engaged with and supported in fills me with courage. In the beginning, when I saw that absolutely no one was using anything but so-called power tools, I did indeed feel depressed. I decided then to start teaching and started with children. That moved steadily toward adults and a full time woodworking school. Now, seeing the outcome lived out in people returning through almost self-training in every spare minute they have has something like in the 30’s when the working classes attended socialist union classes in the evenings and on weekends to add to themselves subjects they would never have had access to before that time: almost a reversal where the educated now go to online trade school to embrace working with their hands in union with the cerebral and the visceral.
          Once again, Thank you!

          • My dad is a carpenter, semi retired, he’ll keep going until the arthritis in his hands and knees stops him for good.
            I remember being on a job with him when I was six or seven working in a big house for some guy that worked in the stock exchange, and the plumber’s apprentice, working with us asked the guy how to make money. The guy told him to take his tools and chuck them in the river as he’d never be rich working as a tradesman, the only way to be rich was to buy and sell things.
            Not sure what happened to the apprentice, but I do know the guy advising him ended up committing suicide when all his investments went bust in one of the crashes.
            It appears that governments are following the same path since the Thatcher/Regan era, selling their people short in the name of economics or some other tripe, it’s just a pity most of us don’t care/recognise that their leading us on a path that may not be recoverable from.

      • Like you Paul, i was an apprentice in the sixties (with DEEDS of apprenticeship) 5 years of training to attain my City & guilds and went on to become a builder and finally a lecturer in my trade. As a lecturer I was very dismayed at the deskilling of all the trades in the new form of apprenticeships? NVQs1, 2 &3. The depth of knowledge that I had to learn to attain my qualifications far surmounts the knowledge that modern students now have to attain. Keep up the great work that you are passionate about

  7. At age 70, still older than you, sir, I may have missed the boat. With retirement, my health changed faster than my activities. But I have hope in you and people like you who continue to teach those who are able.

    Not giving up, I’m trying to work small. Working small but thinking big might be a way to go, both for those entering the craft, and for those who are slowly seeing the craft personally slip away.

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