George’s bench

It was an old bench, made of pine, too low for George on it’s original legs so he’d jacked it up to where it was tall enough for him but too tall for me. That was before I came on the scene. The bench was a good 8 feet long at least and two sided with the traditional centre well board for stowing tools in use. We made a quick duckboard using 2″ oval nails and strips of 1″ by 3″ pine for my side, to raise me up 2 1/2″. It ran the full length of the bench. It was a compromise for both of us and it worked just fine for me because I would grow three more inches over the ensuing years.

There was scarcely any part of the surface that didn’t have cuts and gouges into it from the tools. Even though it looked rough, when I traced my fingers over the surface it was surprisingly soft to my touch. The difference between my school workbench and this one was a century or more of use but then too the realness of it. I am sure those hundreds of thousands of surface nicks and saw cuts were never careless or intentional. They would mostly be slips. I say that because a stock phrase from George was always, “Don’t cut into the bench!” Then he’d chuckle because the reality of the surface said different. I began to understand what realness was early on by working with George and the other men. A World war had defined many things for them and the return to normal life for them was their work and their families. It was uncomplicated. Simple. The simplicity defined complicated men raised in complex worlds. I don’t know if any of them loved woodworking like George and I did. It seemed as though it was more a job to them and they never spoke of beauty, shape, scents and tools. Perhaps they were older and more cynical. I could see the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists living in them y their choice of phrases, dress and the influence of working class culture. These things were training me also and influenced my views. It was my living in the USA that changed my perspective. I will always love America for the alternatives it provided me. My return to the UK had adopted many American attitudes that I will always be thankful for and love.

My first planing

Though I had used a plane in school it was never truly taught to me as George did.It was a boy’s world in school so with around 12-15 boys in a woodworking class it was very difficult giving one on one. I used to think that more girls would have liked to do woodworking but looking at the percentages to day where they could if they chose to nothing has changed. Less than 2% women in woodworking classes is quite a difference. The dismantling of my first #4, the fettling and the scrutinising of every tiny miscast component. The filing and the levelling, the flattening and the sharpening but then too the removing of hard corners, the sole treatment and the ‘rag-in-the-can oiler. Though I was using his plane for a long time I still ran my new one alongside until it was “broken in” as George would say. I still like the curls and bands rising up from my planes. It’s nothing more than realness and even etherial and not etherial at the same time. I think we have gone too far in the other ditch today and made sharpening a luxury issue where some can spend an hour working to sharpen a plane when it takes only two minutes the get the same edge. It’s become a conversation piece of work when for me it has always been just essential to my working. I like realness not play acting to an audience, something ‘interesting poor’.

Never the less, the plane gliding in the realness of working for my living added a new dimension. No digs and gouges or torn grain was allowed no matter the wood. The plane, the #4 plane, had to reconcile all things and I learned to twist and turn according to what I sensed through the tool. It was soon evident that George had his work cut out. A tear would cause many rolls of the eyes in a given day.  He’d walk around the bench and use his plane like an eraser, rubbing out my flaws and then demanding I plane it again but without the tear. By this I learned that the plane was not a road grader or a bulldozer to force wood into compliance but a finely tuned instrument similar to a multidimensional stethoscope and sensor through and by which I must tune my hearing and touch to change what was otherwise impossible to change.  George was a patient and kind man. He taught me to respect all things by this nature. This is how we raise our children, live with our friends and work with our colleagues. This is how we make every piece of wood fit into its cohesive whole, form beauty, shape the world. Who can argue with things such as these.

My workbenches have become the same as George’s through the last five decades. Unpretentious, marred, functional, working. There is always the new stage, when all looks pristine and then there is the worked phase where knocks, marks and gouges have occurred in the working on the bench. The in between is the part I like the least, when it has so little character. It’s funny how you can recall every slip you make that records itself in the benchtop. There is an intimacy to it you see. A little romance perhaps. But the romance is the working of the wood and the servile workability of the full workbench. Then too there’s the vise. It’s rugged strength. It’s sensitive hold and its firm grip and all stages in between.

18 comments on “George’s bench

  1. George, I mean Paul, I have over 25 marks on my bench and I can not recall how any came there, but then I am over 10 years your senior. Ah recalling, that is the trick!
    My bench has a wooden vise, all wood even the screw and is 100 years my senior.
    Remember, “it’s a great life if you don’t weaken”.
    JIM

  2. Paul, I love to watch you use the plane. You always seem to be able to make it dance on the wood , turning it this way and that to the sound of the iron playing on the grain of the wood.
    I have picked up some of your technique by watching you. It sure cuts better when it is skewed this way or that, and seems to glide the the grail a lot easier. Perhaps a video on how to actually use the plane in different applications.
    Thank you

  3. I guess Im sentimental but I love these stories. I wish I could have met George. I always thought the first tool most apprentices’s were given was a broom though. Maybe in your next book you could include at least a chapter on stories like this.

  4. Memories are precious things and just like old friends our tools and bench can take us right back to a time and place that is just amazingly clear and familar. Love this style of post! Tells us a lot about Paul the man.

  5. My bench is only a few years old and already it looks like I may have dragged it face down a few miles down a gravel road. Give it a few years till my grandson is my age and it may look like a toothpick factory reject..

  6. I love these stories. Could you elaborate more about the difference you talked about when you moved to the US. Cultures always interest me. Thanks

  7. Hats off to George! Thank you Paul for introducing us to George. Such a valuable gift to his trade, freely given. I hope George, wherever he is, is aware of the positive impact he has had on so many through you. May he be eternally blessed.

  8. I like those stories.
    “duckboard”, an addition to my English vocabulary (“caillebotis” in French).
    A great solution for bench height problems and experimentation.
    Whatever the height, planing a thin board with a metal plane while wearing thick sole shoes will be different than planing a 4X4 with a wooden long plane while wearing thin slippers (assuming you don’t drop the 4X4 in the vise).
    Sylvain

  9. I would love to hear more about how living in the USA that changed your perspective. I’m not sure that I understood that part.

  10. Please keep the stories about your apprenticeship coming! The more detail the better. What did you plane that first time? How did it turn out? Do you have a photo of George?

  11. September 17th, 2018

    In 2004, I built my bench based on the “Continental” style used in Germany and Scandinavian countries. Although the craftsman of my inspiration was a Hungarian now here in America;
    Frank Klusz.
    I have never wanted for a better designed and made bench as this!
    It’s 33″ height, with twelve square dog mortises, two push up stops and four holdfast bores.
    Main block width 20 1/4″ x 3 1/2″ thick with a 7″ tray.
    It truly is the piano of my orchestra!
    If one cares to view my website there’s photos of my bench there.
    Cheers, Christopher J. Thomas
    Tail vise is a Record serving the dogs at a 5″ centerline. Shoulder vise is a traditional swivel face 1 1/4″ diameter steel bench screw, capacity is 6 13/16″. Length is 7′-0″

  12. Christopher, again:
    I failed putting up my website to enable anyone to view my bench!
    cthomaswoodworks.com
    There’s a small sample of my work as well. Navigation is a bit clunky, one needs to employ the arrows on the site, not the ones on your keyboard.
    The base is white ash and bench top is hard maple.
    Thanks, Paul…

    • Probably not, Christopher. I disallow automatic uploads of websites with or in comments for several reasons and especially people using my site to promote their more unsuited or commercial enterprises. It keeps my site clean and free from advertising, sponsorship and so on.

      • Thanks, Paul…
        I agree with you on this, basically being somewhat an anti-capitalist myself.
        Thought some would like viewing images of my bench.
        Would you elucidate me on George? I came in quite late for a proper understanding of him.
        Thanks for the excellent woodworking content you offer, most invaluable!
        Christopher

You must enter certain information to comment on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *