George Said, “Stand and Watch!”

It was a few days after I started that George began working on some oak boards that came from Jack the foreman joiner to be “Cleaned up!”. I wasn’t exactly sure what cleaned up was so I asked George how we cleaned them up. George said we had to wash them, “You know, with soap and water in a bucket. With that he said I should go and get a bucket filled with boiling water and charged with dishwashing liquid. Everyone was watching me as I trundled away to the brew room. I should have sensed something there and then but when the foreman met me as I returned to the shop he asked what I thought I was doing. “George said we needed to clean up those oak boards.” “Oh, right, get on with it then.” Jack said. I was about to pull the scrubbing brush from the soapy water when George shouted, “Stop! It was then that he explained that ‘cleaning up‘ wood meant planing the surfaces with a smoothing plane to remove scuff marks and surface discrepancies and such, marks that weren’t particularly deep but would mar the appearance of the wood. Everyone was laughing. “Lad’s a bit wet behind the ears yet, George!” Merlin shouted.

“Stand there and watch. Don’t speak and don’t ask questions until I say you can.” This was a time when treasures were made. Gems of wisdom and knowledge. I had not realised that at this stage in my apprenticeship, but George would frequently set me aside for some hands-on insights that could only come by watching him for a period of minutes throughout a given process. Brushing off the shavings from his workbench with successive swipes of his broad hand, tools set aside from nestling beneath them, George prepared his bench. The oak shavings looked like curled leaves and discoloured feathers from an autumn fall and they crunched under our feet as we stepped this way and that. Dust puthered from the benchtop like miniature gusts and rolled with the shavings and the wafting arm stroke. I don’t know if George’s plane was old or whether he’d bought it new but watching how George worked his body taught me many things. Every so often George said, “Sweep!” and I swept. The shavings piled up as he worked and I watched. I filled the wheelbarrow several times and took them to the boiler house where I burned them to heat the workshop. George sharpened up three times in an hour and a half. Things were different then. Sharpening on oilstones first, coarse side then fine, George did as all the others did and stropped the cutting iron 20 times on the palm of his left hand. It was a fast action thing they did to part off the burr from the cutting edge. Whether it polished out the cutting edge I never knew, but it was fast and the whole action of sharpening a plane was over in under two minutes with the iron reloaded and back in action. In those days such actions were commonplace, today it would be hard not be impressed by the no-nonsense speed in taking an iron assembly out, dismantling the cutting iron, sharpening and stropping and reloading in so short a space of time. I have watched the modern gurus do it at shows and in instructional videos and it is the most tedious and mind numbing of tasks. Unreal, obsessive and despairingly dull. So glad these are not my peers.

In that day I learned more from two hours of watching George than watching days of today’s videos online. It’s this that spurs me on to record as much as I can of what was given so it’s not lost in the missing links coupling the decades.


43 thoughts on “George Said, “Stand and Watch!””

  1. I was sent to the stores for a ” long weight “( wait). Couldn’t make out why I just stood there waiting
    Or a “bucket of holes” if I’d drilled some in the wrong place that need filling
    When I started fabrication ( steel work ) in my apprenticeship and the foreman spotted gaps in joints, he would say ” you’ll need some prairie rods for that ( welding rods for ‘wide open spaces’)
    Or if I’d cut a length of angle iron short he would say
    “only short one end” …boy

    1. Kathleen Basiewicz

      Working for a cigarette paper factory, as a newbie I was sent off for a paper stretcher. I kept asking and I kept getting sent around and around.

  2. I worked at a place that made cables. The common thing was to send the new guy to the basement to get the cable stretcher. I never fell for it since I had been around the building and knew there was no basement entry in the back.

    The funny thing is that there for a while we had a lot of older guys start work there (plant closing) I got to train all of them and the first thing I told them was there is not cable stretcher. They all said yeah, yeah I know. Now that I think about it, that was a stupid thing to tell them since they probably had seen all the pranks played numerous times.

    I loved working with the older guys, they were fun and showed me a few tricks.

  3. 15 years old and the head mechanic sent me on a parts run. Spark plugs and break shoes from a 1955 Chevy Impala. “Oh by the way, the Finagin box is almost empty so get a box of Finagin pins, will you?”. When I got to the parts house, I gave the counter man the order and then he asked if I wanted the 1/2 inch or 9/16ths Finagin pins. Yeah,vthey were all in on it.

  4. Paul-
    The most interesting bit of the story for me is this single line “George sharpened up three times in an hour and a half”. You have often mentioned stopping and sharpening the planes while you work, but I don’t think it has every really come across just how often the task was done till now. I wonder if that is in part why there is such obsession over sharpening, folks have just lost a sense for just how frequent a practice it should be. in the working of a project or build.

  5. At sea, we don’t use much rope. There are really only a few ropes on a ship. We use line. The new guy is often sent for 10 fathoms of “shore-line”, or “Waterline”. Engineers are often sent for a bucket of prop wash. Other items to be sent for might include red oil for the port running light, tobacco for the bosn’s pipe or a bucket of steam. Normally everyone else is in the know. A good laugh is had by all. I could tell George truly cared for his young charge because I’ve never seen anyone call the new guy back before he could go on his mission of futility and explain that he was being played on but George did. Says a lot about George as a man.

    1. “I could tell George truly cared for his young charge because I’ve never seen anyone call the new guy back before he could go on his mission of futility […]”

      Either that, or he cared more about the moisture content of the (presumedly properly dry) oak boards… I think that was the real reason, as I suspect George and the rest of the men would otherwise get a good giggle out of him scrubbing the boards – which he’d probably be (not-so) subtly reminded of for years to come….

    2. All in good fun I am sure. Part of an initiation and ritual that I am sure gets passed down generation to generation. My dad was once going to take me on a snipe hunt.

  6. When I was in the Marine Corps and stationed El Toro Air Base we sent a new guy to the paint shack for a can of “striped paint.

  7. I smile at the pranks pulled on the newbies, But on one occasion the joke was on the old time fitter. the ‘Boy’ was sent to the store to get a new bubble for the fitters spirit level. I was the store man at the time and when poor josh came and asked for the bubble, I asked, what make and size level? Poor Josh went back to the workshop and came back 10 minutes later. Stanley XYZ. OK leave it with me. So that’s the end and the laugh is on Josh. A couple of days later I called Josh over and gave him the new bubble (in its little glass phile), so the fitter got a surprise as he did not know there were replacement ‘Bubbles’. Perth 1974.

  8. In the first half hour of my first day on a landscape crew when I was 15 or 16 and weighed about 140 pounds, I was brought to a tumbled stack of railroad ties (the full sized ones, not the little decorative ones) and an empty truck and told to load them up, and then everyone else walked away. I had a lot of practice making up for my lack of strength by cheating and using leverage, so I managed to load them without asking for help and then went back to the foreman to ask for the next task. I was too dumb to know they were hazing me. They didn’t expect me to be able to do it, I guess, so the whole thing fizzled and they didn’t try to haze me any more. I was fired two weeks later when the owner learned I was under age to be a legal employee.

  9. “…stropped the cutting iron 20 times on the palm of his left hand.” For real, on the ‘palm’? I know us woodworkers get toughened hands from wood and tool use over time but stropping on the palm, that would take courage…

    1. I’ve done it since i was 15 years old but now that I use the strop with buffing compound for the ‘extra’ edge I no longer do it. I certainly don’t recommend it with stropped edge after buffing compound.

      1. Collin Gallagher

        Bot the bullet and tossed the sharpening guide and started to learn “by feel”.
        Learning curve was quicker than I was expecting.
        I have been amazed at how much more difficult and time consuming the process is when you use a guide.
        My hesitation and use of that crutch made Sharpening Up a “process” instead of a quick offhand step on par with sweeping shavings.

    2. It is common practice to strop the straight razor on the palm of your hand while shaving using one. Safe unless you do something stupid 🙂

  10. Great series, I love those George stories. About sharpening – it took me a while to change the attitude towards the task. The moment it became just an ordinary necessary action that you just *do* from time to time, it became easier and faster. Like sweeping shavings. Oh, and I also removing the burr by rubbing it on palm back and forth, and have yet to cut myself using this method.

  11. When i did an internship at a metal workshop my first job was to find the square drill bits. So off I went and little later he came back with an order sheet for a range of rather expensive square broaches, billable to the departement i was in.

    These pranks are a nice way to send someone around the buiding so as to show your face everywhere and meet some of your new colleages. I knew this and did the rounds and then conspired with the guys from the tool shed to write up the order. Joke on the boss 🙂

    1. I had to go back and look…huh, what *is* that for? It doesn’t look like a shaving, and it looks like it’s there intentionally…but I can’t imagine what purpose it serves.

    2. The blade was too thin for the scraper so I packed it out with a convenient piece of folded sandpaper.

  12. Bill Cleaveland

    I have been watching your videos, and reading your posts for years. I have learned so much from these resources, it is hard to “package” it all in a short post. Many times, I have referred friends to your site, knowing what they will see and learn is special.

    Today’s world is almost entirely filled with people motivated solely by the incentive of gain, profit, notoriety, and adulation. I say “almost entirely” because that leaves the remaining space in this world that you occupy! Thank you for taking the time to share all that you love. Working with wood, with the tools that require one to engage the process, and to add a personal piece of yourself, is so much more rewarding that any other option. The fact that in your more recent videos and Vblogs you are including personal stories, is an icing on the cake! Very rare indeed.

    A better writer, could do more justice to what I want to say, but please know, my heartfelt “Thank you” is Sincere.

  13. Jonathan Wright


    Now I understand the entire reason behind your desire to share your knowledge- your last paragraphs sums everything up you’ve done these past years. Keep things simple, all the while relying on skill.

    On that note, I have to admit that I still get bamboozled by shiny new tools that claim to help me in my workflow, and most recently that is a patternmaker’s vise. I’ve just acquired a new yearly contract that finds me working with curved and tapered pieces, in the hundreds, and I have to say that I find myself struggling with efficient workholding solutions. Sooo, all this to say, how were curved pieces handled? Especially small ones- under say, 10 cm? I’m finding the clamp in the vise method a bit cumbersome for repetitive work.

    I’ve been following you for years, and just recently I’ve been able to make woodworking my main source of income. Much of my skills and methodology are owed to you. I rely heavily on my bandsaw, but all other tools are powered by my own hands and eyes. But perhaps the most important tool own is my stereo- I love working to music and hand tools fit the silent bill.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Jonathan Wright

  14. When I started my apprenticeship I thought I was wise to the usual fools errands, the ‘bucket of holes’, ‘McCloud’s tartan paint, etc. So when I was sent off to get some ‘4″ grab’s, I thought I knew I was going to get manhandled a bit. So I sauntered off, hung around out of sight and came back about 10 minuets later feeling very pleased with myself that I dodged that one. I was then my very irate tradesman told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of my loitering about and I discovered that ‘a grab’ was the boatyard slang for a G clamp. When he calmed down he also told me that he would never send me on a stupid errand like I had feared.

  15. I remember the requests for a “left handed hammer” and “a long weight” (wait) in my apprenticeship on aircraft maintenance. When I was a school our woodwork teacher was Mr Pook who sharpened all the planes and chisels (us boys were not allowed). He sharpened the tools much as did Paul’s George. Mr Pook also had a 2 foot diameter whet wheel, which was foot operated, for removing the nicks and damage caused by careless boys. But woe betide you if you were caught messing about or putting a plane face down on the bench. Heavy old wooden jack planes they were but nice to work with. I am looking for one in good condition to add to my (working) collection of old tools.

  16. Good Fun.

    I’m a pharmacist, or chemist for those of you in Britain. You always send the intern for a “vial of dehydrated water”

  17. In the restaurant business… the new person would often be told to, “Mop the walk in freezer”.

    Two from the dry cleaning business…
    1) That’s a tough stain… go to the bathroom and get a cup of Dihydrogen Monoxide (water).
    2) My father’s favorite line… “There isn’t a stain, that I can’t get out… then he would hold up a pair of scissors.”

    Nice work! Head over to Lisa in accounting and ask her for “two-atta-boys” from petty cash.

  18. Lonnie Funderburg

    The first thing I learned from Paul Sellers was that my tools were dull. Just seeing how a sharp chisel is supposed to function was an eye-opener. Now I enjoy that wonderfully quiet sound of a sharp plane gliding through wood. Shavings are infinitely easier to clean up than sawdust.
    After the first humorous encounter, I became alert for such things as a muffler bearing or a board stretcher. I did purchase a metric level in Germany. My metric level is 60 cm. long.

  19. Soap and water, jejeje. Pretty sure that things like that happens all over the world in most jobs. “Grab me the 3 faced hammer” is used a lot here.

  20. Christopher J. Thomas

    When attending Cal. State University – Fullerton.
    My biology professor was describing various species of sea sponges, I was rapt with attention, taking notes, he held up a half dozen. Finally he held up a wrapped kitchen sponge …
    “Genus Dupontas”

  21. I would like to thank Paul and everyone else for providing me with new “things” to send people after. I always find new things in all the comments.

  22. Mr, Sellers,
    Thank you for your diligence in keeping up the hand woodworking skills. It is a treasure not to be lost!

  23. Back in the “old” Air Force, we got a new Civil Engineering 2/Lt at our radar site. The commander called him in and told him that he had been informed that the fence around the site had holes in it. “Go count them” he said.

    The shave tail came back and said he found no holes. The commander said, “it’s a chain link fence, I know there are holes in it somewhere”.

    As the young troop started to leave and go count, the First Sergeant explained the joke to him.

  24. That was the story! I was thinking to myself “so they washed the boards with soap!” and then I realized. Much fun.

    1. He became a woodwork teacher in a high school and left the area so we lost touch after that. Sad to say.

  25. I to remember being sent for a bucket of sparks on my first day of engineering apprenticeship and came back with a bucket of hot cinders from the blacksmiths shop.
    I was also taught at thirteen in woodworking class to use the palm of the hand to take the burr off the blade , still use it today sixty two years later!!! But after watching you Paul will give the leather strop a try
    Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

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