(About George) Then There Was Bill

Bill was a very old man. No one really knew how old and he gave us three ages that I knew of. Pensions were small and many woodworkers as furniture makers working for themselves had not additional pension to pad out the state version. Bill had to work to keep the comforts he was used to. He would die working. But it was more than that, Bill enjoyed the banter despite the jealousies of two or three who were prejudiced too.

When Bill came to work for the company he was in his late 70’s, possibly older. It was an unusual thing for an old man to change companies but he needed the money and the boss needed extra men. As far as qualifications went `bill had nothing. As far as experience went all others had nothing to compare to him. An hour after he arrived came the inspection time by the other men. The first day when someone began all the men looked into their tool boxes. They never touched anything, they just looked. Bill had a large tool chest that was finely made to cabinet maker’s standards and not just a pine box with dovetails as might be more common. A cabinet maker in the UK is a furniture maker not a man mass-making MDF boxes for kitchens as is common in the USA. George and I looked into the large chest and George nudged me and winked. As we walked back to our bench, well, George’s bench really, George said to me, “We can learn a lot from Bill, Paul. Let’s take care of him.”

Bill was always willing to teach and train. Ask any question about woodworking and he was there with the answer and the guiding help.It was he who taught me to sharpen a scraper. His hands were like claws beneath yellow parchment and the knuckles and bones were clearly visible through the thinly transparent skin. Make no bones about it though, these hands had worked for nearly 70 years and could still do as much and more than any of the other craftsmen in the shop. I respected George’s appreciation of the man, Bill. This was the character George possessed.

Over the weeks George and I sat with Bill for our lunch break in a threesome at the end of Bill’s workbench. We would listen to his yarns of work and his obvious camaraderie but then too his life through two world wars. George was the one that told me Bill was Jewish. I didn’t know what that meant. What I did know was that he was highly skilled and kind. One day Bill asked us both if we would like a closer look inside his tool chest. What kind of question was that? My first thoughts were just to see the tools I had never seen before would be a treat, but Bill had a story for each tool he owned. He knew where it came from, how much he’d paid, details of the makers and much more. What was more important to me was that these tools had served him for 65 years. I can relate that now to my life with tools I have used since 1965. The main difference between his and mine were that his were mostly made from wood; woods like ebony, rosewood and boxwood, and then plated and wrapped with brass or bronze. He would pass them carefully to me. He’d bought them from other tradesmen or been gifted them by men he worked with. As we looked his words would flow into my head with the Manchester verbiage only someone from the North of England could relate to. It was a Northern poet expressing ways of working with tools you see. The work, the tools, the ways of working were composure. Poetry! No other man ever expressed such feeling about work this way. It was to me a revealing of a man;’s heart about his work. He had come to a point in knowing us that he was real, raw, transparent and caring. Such things are scarce and rare. Both the tools and the using of them were treasures, but the man was a great treasure of openness. He also unpretentiously repaired his leather boot by hand stitching on a new sole.


25 thoughts on “(About George) Then There Was Bill”

  1. Wow. That was a great read. I can only imagine the knowledge that came from those lunches and chats. I am kinda feeling like we all are getting a little bit of that knowledge from listening to you. It must have been amazing learning from people like that. Thank you for sharing your memories.

    1. Your reminiscences of your days as an apprentice are fascinating, Paul — as well as your insights from the perspective of a practicing Master, half a century on.

      Hoping very much that you can find the time and energy to share more with us.

  2. Hi Paul
    I have an old copy of The Village Carpenter, an engrossing read and can’t help but notice the the common thread that you also recall those happy days. I’ve read this so many times that it is certainly dog eared. My apprenticeship days started in 78, and I too have long lasting memory’s of the old boys and there knowledge that to this day still impact my approach and love of hand tools. Come on Paul there has never been such a book written for close to 80 years….perhaps another classic awaits your own pen to become the future dog eared novel of CRAFTSMAN Yet to be born.

  3. I agree with the above comments. Paul I hope you have an autobiography in the works. It would be a shame not to have your life in print. I spent years on the road as a trucker, after retiring I wanted to work with wood again. Like many the first thing that I did was start buying more power tools. I was not enjoying using these but didn’t know why. In searching woodworking on the internet, I kept seeing people refering to a man named Paul Sellers. Whoever he was, he sure seemed to have impressed a lot of people. After an internet search for Paul Sellers, I learned why so many were speaking about your work. Your site got me working with hand tools and I found what was missing in my woodworking. Sure wish I had learned about you before I spent so much money on machines. The machines now gather dust from lack of use as I learn the real joy in woodworking with hand tools. Keep up the great work.

  4. Their are many myths about the good old days, and were they better than today. My opinion is that in a few areas, yes they were. Like Wood and metal work at school for instance. I am not sure that apprentices today could say they had the ‘Personal’ touch that you reminisce about in these wonderful anecdotes. To me it would be the inspiration and motivation to want to do better and have a successful happy working life. Ditto above comments, I would be on the list of people waiting to read your Biography

  5. I too have read The Village Carpenter. It is a fascinating insight that all who love woodworking will love, but most of all it is a tale of humanity told with sentiment but not sentimentality. Easily found on AbeBooks etc, even those uninterested in woodworking will likely enjoy the past speaking to us through the words of a very (extra)ordinary man.

    1. Steve get the ragged trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (Noonan)
      A really fascinating read into the struggles of the working tradesman……having been one….now retired, I can so easily relate to their stories, also search on Abe books “tools and their ways” all about wooden hand tools circa 1900 ….best John

  6. I also meant to mention that I enjoyed the atmospheric black and white images on this post. As a keen photographer as well as woodworker, I appreciate the ambiance that you’ve captured.

  7. Paul,

    I love to read about your years as an apprentice, the men who taught you, and your transformation into a craftsman. I love to read about how you learned to use tools by example. I don’t know why but I’m drawn to your story. It appears others are, too. Maybe it’s because to me you are George. Don’t you see? You’ve come full circle.

  8. Tassos Aristidou

    How lovely was that.
    Thanks Paul for sharing that beautiful story of the old days.
    What a lovely way to start my day

  9. We’re living in a time where we have to become very conscious about what it is that we need to leave behind, what it is that we need to take forward and and what it is that we need to create differently for the coming generations of humanity and life on our planet as such to not only barely survive but prosper. Your story certainly shows me what I feel should be taken along: RESPECT, ATTAINING WISDOM THROUGH EXPERIENCE, LOVE AND COMPASSION, DEDICATION, DISCERNMENT. Thanks for the post Paul, much appreciated.

  10. It’s nice to get a glimpse into those days long before I was born, but I’ll not make the mistake of romanticizing those times. Meagre pensions and arthritic hands that have little choice but to keep on working despite the pain. A few too many wars. Polio, TBC,… I’m glad I don’t live back then.

    But I very much admire the skills. And the unpretentiousness with which one moment one is making a cabinet and the next re-soling a shoe or sewing a button back on one’s shirt. I resoled one of my shoes recently (with soles I had bought second-hand; the days when one could buy soles in a general warehouse to DIY a new sole are long gone – *that* is one thing I miss of the past). Afraid I contact-glued the soles on though. Sewing them on is an entirely different level of skill. I recall going to the warehouse (where the old repair set came from) and asking for a similar new set. The lady goggled at me, saying, “Sir, very few people wear black dress shoes anymore, and even fewer repair them themselves. I’m afraid we can’t help you,’ as she gave me back the empty sole repair-set that had been sold in that very same store, probably ~25-30 years ago.

    Strange times we live in, that I can get a dozen different phone covers in all the colours of the rainbow, but a simple shoe-sole is unobtainium.

    Glad there’s at least still one store nearby that sells double-edge safety-razor blades for shaving. Mach 273452’s and similar in flashy blister-packs all around. But a simple DE-razor that lasts me a month per blade…. after a lot of searching I found a store that still sold them. ‘Hardly anyone uses them anymore, sir, but we still stock them’. People are strange… Sometimes I just don’t get this world. What’s not to like about a cheap blade that lasts over a month?

    I think I do get Bill though. Waste not want not. Make do and mend.

  11. My father was a cabinet maker and tole me he could tell what kind of a craftsman someone was just by looking at their tools. Dad’s tools were always sharp and well organized with never any rust on them. He also had quite a few special tools that other craftsmen didn’t have.

  12. I have been really delighted with all your memories of your apprentice workshop and the stories about George. But this one was especially rich. True gold.

  13. Do, please, keep telling us about your early times. We will never be able to meet or know anything about these craftspeople and others you’ve known except through you.

  14. nice , thanks for the sharing, we respect knowledge and skill and person, not a any color or race , in fact, I am the color one too, I know how ppl react once they see or hear if you are not native, see happen all in Canada which suppose mult-culture, very difference feeling compare to Singapore

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