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.