Progress With George

George kept his plane upright on the bench, mine near his, his a Woden #4 1/2, mine a Stanley #4. One day he said, “Sharpen my plane!”  I was filled with fear and doubt to the point of freezing any and all movement including brain on the spot. I didn’t think about whether I could or could not get it right. It was more that I knew that if I did not get it right it could set at least my confidence back quite considerably—perhaps months—from what I had gained ground under my feet in so far. George was the one that gave me that increased confidence. His encouragement and at times push made me move forward. He replaced the sapping by my teachers scowls and punishments in my formative years in school where I left school with hang-ups and the fears and doubts I spoke of above. I couldn’t see the point in my being there and most of my days in formal lessons were spent staring out beyond the walls and windows searching the skies for sky larks and the under-meadow for voles. From my school ‘cell‘ I scanned the upper reaches above me for kestrels on the telephone lines or hovering over the grave yard beneath. This was my natural teacher. My sketchbook of the real instead of the abstract in classes sat at desks with the unpredictability of teachers and headmasters. Here there was no industry and no nuclear family, no classroom and no harsh teacher with sarcasm and patronisation to mock. My escape kept me sane through a decade until finally I could progress in new spheres I never knew existed. I found new hope in my working with my hands, in lifting a plane from the bench and in sawing a tenon. I didn’t know then that such things could sustain for over half a decade. It was here in the early beginnings that George suddenly urged me on with a responsibility I did not expect. Now, as a crafting artisan, I know what it took for him to entrust his favourite plane to me. He expected something from me. He’d been giving for several weeks, twelve months actually. It was for me to do something by way of return now, beyond brewing tea and sweeping and cleaning the bench. I felt the pressure and reached for his plane.

Though I had been sharpening my tools for a year at this point, sharpening another man’s plane was a big step and one I did not feel ready for. George’s plane was much heavier than mine being a Woden and a #4 1/2. I lifted it gingerly from the well knowing his eyes were on me and following my every move even though he was working on something. I pulled out his oilstone and began abrading the bevel. The stone was hollowed considerably where mine was still fairly flat. Back and forth my hands and arms went. I kept going, feeling for the burr now and then, until I finally had the burr across the entire width. I lifted for the bevelled corners and pulled the cutting edge across the corner of the bench to break the burr. I stropped it on my hand as George had taught me and felt for the edge with my thumb to make sure it was sharp. Reassembling the cutting iron and coupling it with the cap iron I aligned the two together. I wasn’t used to the extra width and I felt clumsy. It was made worse by the attention George was showing. As I dropped the assembly into the plane my confidence increased. Cinching down the lever cap, sighting along the sole, tweaking the lever to align the edge with sole I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. Now for the big test. George placed the plane on a keruing sill but first he placed the sole of the plane on his oil-in-a-can oiler. Keruing is miserably full of stick sap that sticks the plane to the wood. It’s also high in silica which dulls the plane edge in a heartbeat. From then on George regularly told me to “sharpen up.” This was the very beginning of trust.

25 comments on “Progress With George

  1. Thanks for taking the time Paul, I enjoyed imagining what it meant for you and relating to the first time I held a Sony 750 HD cam to film wildlife. It was only the fifth of many produced later and the beginning of a new life for me to explore, with the viewfinder gradually becoming less of a thing between me and nature. I guess humanity will be moving into a certain direction and we need to find the essence of these experiences and facilitate situations that translate them into our modern life with both it’s challenging and liberating aspects and influences – tech being one of them, if not the most important one?

  2. I enjoy reading these stories of your early training. Makes me regret that opportunity to learn as an apprentice here in the USA. Have you considered publishing an autobiography?
    You have lived an amazing life.

  3. I think a lot of people reading this are wishing a mentor of Georges calibre was there for them , hang on! we’ve all got you Paul. I’m glad for your observations of keruing, I have only had the one time working it but miserable sums it up fairly well. It put the workability of some of the more difficult Australian timbers I have used in an almost favourable light.

  4. Mr. Sellers, I hold you in the highest esteem, and not only because of your accomplished artisan- and craftsmanship. Your gentle capable mentorship goes a long way toward filling a huge gap in our object oriented, hurried world.
    Today’s post reminds me of a moment in a sawmill in the Missouri Ozarks. At the end of a lunch break on a cold windy day, the sawyer handed me a flat file, nodded at the 54″ circle saw, and said “P’int ‘er up.” That was 55 years ago, and I’m still filing. Best wishes and respect.

  5. Burr burr burr
    burr burr burr angst
    Think maybe the Beach Boys couldn’t get their planes sharp enough back in the day
    Sorry if it’s a lame gag!
    (I’ll get my coat) 🙂

  6. I’m surprised George didn’t teach you to close your tool chest lid when planing.

    It’s a nice photo but I’d kick myself if I walked around the bench to see that.

    • There are those that always look for fault and those that are always a solution. You know, in my experience at least, I have found that people sometimes just forget to do things like close a toolbox lid or close a drawer. I didn’t nor would I kick myself and George would have just smiled with me. I guess that that’s the difference between George, myself and others. I just swept the shavings off, bagged them for my chicken nest boxes and got on with life. It wasn’t really too much of an issue

      • Take it easy Paul, Steve wasn’t “finding fault” he was only joking…..do what George would do ……and smile……after all Steve IS……..a paying customer.

        Best John

  7. Dear Paul
    As a new woodworker it would be great if I had a George to call on but i don’t so I am totally reliant on your videos and books, without these I reckon I would not be able to continue. I spend one hour most nights in a shed with no electricity on woodworking. Lately I concentrated on sharpening and found to my surprise that I was above average at free hand sharpening and good sharpening skills are almost as important as the woodworking itself. The other are of concentration needed for me is patience and that I cannot do it all in one night and that the reason woodworking is called a craft is that it takes times to get better and it won’t come overnight. I am unsure if I will get to the level of making the beautiful blanket chest or the chest of drawers but there is an echo in the shed lately…… ‘ its not what you make it is how you make it’. I will get there I reckon even without a George. It was important for me to recognise that sharpening and patience were so critical rather than reading this or been told, maybe sometimes being without a George may also help in this regard….

  8. I should also have stated that I also fell into the traps of buying too many woodworking books and also buying the wrong handtool at the wrong time. I have stopped both practices and now only buy a handtool when it is mission critical for the task in hand. I am sure plenty of woodworkers have fallen into the same traps.
    I also learned only way to get good at woodwork is to do woodwork… sounds pretty damn obvious but it is so very true.

  9. Paul, were the Woden planes better, or better quality, than Stanley planes? Just curious, as I see they were made during a narrow window of time.

  10. Paul, I can’t imagine that there are No photos anywhere of George (and Jack Collins, etc) and the Stockport workshop, and of *you* in that time. There must be photos somewhere. Please consider sharing them.

    • Not one as far as I could ever see. Their faces are so vivid perhaps I could sketch them even now. I never saw a camera there. Not like today when everyone carries a device with them. No internet, no Polaroids even. No internet nor cloud thought of even.

  11. Thank you for your passion, Mr Sellers.
    And thank you for your wise tales.

    You are a great guide and inspiration for many.
    Words and crafts do last. Teacher and learner swap their roles over the years.
    Great teachers come from great learners.

  12. Paul , from your article you must know the Henry Reed poem “Naming of Parts”.
    Some teachers had no idea of how to teach French in my school . Any mistake in such a difficult language was cue for yet another Strapping . You might have heard French music on the radio in those days. But not a lot of use for speaking it . My classic rebuke from a Geography teacher when I asked if Europe had once been joined to America was “Oh John , don`t be so stupid “. A bit of a classic put down .

  13. What an awesome story, Paul! I appreciate you sharing this memory with us. I’ve felt the pressure to please somebody that you look up to before and it’s not always easy to deal with.

  14. Paul, reading this story takes me back to my apprenticeship as a stone mason at 16 years old with a European Trade Master in Australia.
    He watched carefully, smiled a lot, and lead by example, unlike my school teachers back in the 50,s. Never a cross word or unseemly language came from him.
    Great to get these memories from days past.

    Kindest Regards
    Stephen

  15. What a wonderful recollection. I was going to say story but this was something that happened in real life. Thanks so much for sharing George with us. It takes me back to the days when I was in woodwork at my Technical High School and, more than that, it takes me back to being the “apprentice” when my father did all the DIY work around the house.
    Like you, he was a man to aspire to being like and your blogs videos are an inspiration for me to take it all back up again now that I have retired.
    In a lovely moment recently my son-in-law and I were talking woodwork and what we wanted to do and he asked me if I seen the videos from this guys called Paul Sellers on youtube. I was proudly able to say that that I had been watching them for some time and weren’t they an inspiration…

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