Window of Opportunity

I was trying. All the time it was a challenge and woodworking did not come naturally to me, especially with the standards at the bench. We were in the middle of making a mix of a hundred window frames, many with four opening sashes. Jack, the foreman, did all of the layout for every component and most of the mortises were cut with a chain mortiser which is like an extra wide chain saw blade without the slop and stretched taught between a bottom bearing and and an upper drive cog below a second bearing that added the tension. Chain mortises are the fastest method for cutting mortises. Plunge the chain in on the line, rotate the carriage over to the next line and lift the arm to withdraw the chain. I through mortise 3″ deep and 5″ long takes literally a few seconds. My task was the mortising. To prevent tear-out on the up-cut side of the chain required a single chisel cut with a suitably sized chisel. With so many mortises and then the sashes too I would be stood at a machine for a week loading heads and sills, sash bars, stiles and rails. In one such frame there would be 28 mortise and tenon joints. Times a hundred that would mean 2,800. Thankfully the tenons came from a tenoner, a machine that held several stiles or rails of the same size and cut half a dozen tenons and moulded shoulders in a single pass. I was not allowed to use the tenoner until I was 18.

Ian and Phil were 2 years older than me and they were stacking the parts on a pallet after Jack did the layout. Jack was known for his ability and accuracy in layout better than anyone. Ian and Phil were known for being pranksters. Late in the afternoon George stood watching the furtive pair from behind the wood racks working in a zone that had nothing to do with them. On two previous occasions they had moved the pencil marks Jack made so that my cuts would be out by a few mil. When the two left George examined the two pallets and worked out that they had done some ‘adjusting’ again. I and George would make a hundred frames with two mortises staggered by  1/2″ rather than directly aligned opposites. The differences would throw us behind because all the changes would not be readily detected until assembly was in full progress. George quickly switched their pallet for ours. These two had to be taught a lesson. Especially when it would affect our bonuses. A week later we were all caught up in the task of making and our frames went together fine. On the other side of the shop there were periodic cursings that drew Jacks attention. The savvy foreman called me over and asked for an explanation as to the discrepancies. I couldn’t understand it. I’d been diligent to keep to the lines he’d placed for me to cut to. I looked over at George who smiled and winked at me and Jack caught the glint in George’s eye. Ian and Phil worked late that night to catch up on the work lost without anyone saying anything further. George had confided the details to Jack over night and told him of the switch. George greeted the two recalcitrants  in the morning by questioning the accuracy of their mortise cutting. I just carried on with my work.


  1. John2v on 18 September 2018 at 10:22 am

    Brilliant story….I was expecting to hear you say they were sacked but a far better result was had and would stop their stupidity in future

    Please tell me Paul, knowing that a mortice size would differ from a sash to a cill, was the chain size changed or by using jigs, the stock was moved across the machine bed.
    I worked in a fence making company for a while and watched as a mortice was cut through a 5″ post in a matter of seconds ( no guards, no eye/ear protection?) amazing machine

    Thanks john

    • Paul Sellers on 18 September 2018 at 4:04 pm

      Chains and holders came in fixed sizes fro 1/4″ up to 3/4″. Larger mortises could be cut side by side if you needed say a 1″ or larger hole.

  2. Anthony on 18 September 2018 at 12:36 pm

    In my Dad’s shop there was a “morticer”, like a pillar drill with the bit encased in a square prism of metal, sharp on it’s bottom edges. Pull the handle, and it goes through the wood (to a stop if needed). turn a cog to move the bed along a bit, repeat until you get to the finish line. I enjoyed thew rhythm of that. I still have the scar from when I was cleaning up a mortice after, taking away the waste with a 3/8ths chisel, and went right into my nuckle…..

    George sounds like a great mentor. It’s a skill as much as the woodwork mentoring a person, but one that isn’t taught so much. Little things like this are what make a good mentor great.

    • John2v on 18 September 2018 at 1:15 pm

      Hi Anthony ..Paul’s was like a bicycle chain….open all round with very sharp teeth.
      It’s sometimes good to cut a finger! As you did, won’t do it again?? After, although not as deep as yours!

  3. Thom on 18 September 2018 at 12:49 pm

    Paul, I’m really loving the look at you’re history of the beginning. I must say there are still pranksters in shops today, which is fine ( I like to joke around) as long as no one could possibly be hurt or something nothing goes wrong on the product your producing like the two that you had to deal with because that effects a company product.

    Thank you Paul I start my day with your blog post and it really inspires me gets my juices flowing in get in the shop.

    • Mike Bullock on 18 September 2018 at 2:53 pm

      I agree. Every workplace needs some good-natured jokes (even pranks). Like Thom says, however, jokes and pranks should never interfere with safety, affect work quality, or impact someones paycheck or bonus. A prank like the one described strikes me as incredibly poor judgement- at best.

      • Paul Sellers on 18 September 2018 at 3:56 pm

        I like to joke too, fool around a bit, but as you say it’s important not demean or demoralise someone from a controlling background and cause anyone to be downhearted. Even today I still find myself battling the efforts of the thoughtless and mean spirited who offer little more than to judge and condemn, create false misinformation for a wide range of unhelpful reasons.

  4. Joe on 18 September 2018 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks Paul. Wonderful post. It helps me to hear that woodworking didn’t come naturally to you. My daughter needed a night stand/light stand in her bedroom. My wife was going to buy something at IKEA. As a beginning woodworker, I balked at the idea and said I could make something that would be nicer.

    Well, it is my first “big” piece. I found a plan online that we liked and set out to make it in cherry. It has been a humbling experience to say the least. There are all kinds of things wrong with it. I have really wanted to give up on it but I keep hearing our voice in the back of my head to keep at it. It should be finished in about 8 weekends.

    I have learned a great deal. I have decided to make another one. Mostly, because I want to be able to use what I learned to try and prove to myself I can make it better and learn.

    Hearing things were a challenge for you early on helps me get through the difficult times when I feel like giving up on a project and burning it.

  5. Ben Smith on 19 September 2018 at 8:08 am

    I worked for a small joinery company that employed six staff. My boss who owned the bussiness was checking a huge pair of Iroko gates that I had just finished. We put them together and he held the end of the tape measure on the edge of the gate while I checked their size. They were 30mm too narrow! The blood ran from my body and when I looked over at my boss he was looking down at the ground with his shoulders shaking. He’d moved his end of the tape in towards me by 30mm.
    Some practical jokes are better than others.

  6. Noel Rodrigue on 24 September 2018 at 7:18 pm

    Well, Paul was lucky as he had George all to himself. Us, however have to share Paul amongst thousands! On the other hand … he is there providing his wisdom and techniques to whoever is willing to watch, listen and learn.

    Lucky us!

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