George and the Puthering Dust

Some days were made longer by the repetitive elements in the projects. Joinery often comprises subassemblies of frames, be they the replication of same-sized frames or individually sized ones. The pile of frame stock on the pallet truck was six feet high four feet wide and the lengths varied from 18 feet long down to a few inches. Oak is always pleasing wood to work, especially English Oak. So there the pile stood and George told me, “This may look just like a pile of oak stock, but it’s actually the vestibule for a National Westminster bank on Oldham Street, Manchester. It just doesn’t know it yet.” The drawings were on George’s side of the bench to show the order and rank of things. Whereas all the stock was machined square, straight , flat and rabbeted, it was not mortised or tenoned.George said all the machines we might normally use would be tied up for weeks so much of the work we were doing would be hand work and there were over two hundred mortise and tenon joints to position and lay out. Hence the plans. Whereas we were to build the main frame, we would also build the two-way double arched doors, side doors, communication windows that were also needed in the building of the main frame.

George worked had a system and we worked systematically through the pile of wood, flipping and turning each of the lengths to select them for their individual part in the whole. George’s enthusiasm for this new job was infectious and I too followed suit as I searched out the right pieces for their positioning. I also began to pick up on the fact that some of the other craftsmen were a tad jealous because sarcasm started to permeate the ranks. Not only that, they and the other apprentices seemed especially jealous that one so young as me should get to work on such prestigious work. At every turn with a board or section of the wood I found someone’s toe between my ankles. The longer lengths, the heavy ones, needed only a tap at the end of a shouldered beam from behind me to send me into a spin and spin I did. George cottoned onto what was happening, took me aside quietly and said, “Next time just go with the spin and let it take its full turn 360-degrees. Act as if you’ve lost control.

“The next day it happened. I swift nudge eight feet from my shouldered beam happened but it actually sent me into a spin for real. George thought it was the best acting job ever and later said I should audition for the stage. One of the mid-range 18 year olds gave the three by eight, sixteen footer a full through shove right by the rear end. This sent me into a full and uncontrollable spin so I half toppled in the midst of all the benches and everyone ducked until the end of the second spin when I dropped the board on top of the benches trapping the fingers of the offending apprentice between the benchtop and the board. Expletives joined the puthering dust from the upper reaches above as the board upended and struck the main beams and joists that had never been touched in decades.

Beyond my view was foreman Jack’s workbench. The bench was always full of plans he worked to in laying out the projects for the men to work to and before I knew anything I heard the livid tones of what was an otherwise quiet and gentle Jack who always ran a tight ship. The lion roared, no bellowed. “Come here boy!” he shouted to me. I stepped into and through the clouds of dust and saw Jack emerging from the same clouds. His bushy eyebrows and curly rippled hair took the main fail and his eyeballs stood out like organ stops against the brown dust covering his whole upper body. Jack took me by the lapels and lifted me from the floor, bringing me eyeball to eyeball with his. I thought he was going to kill me. Everyone stood in a circle around us, all except the true culprit who ran towards the latch gate in the big door until George stuck his foot out and toppled him to the floor. The boy spun onto his back as George lifted him by the collar. He didn’t need to say any more as each man prodded and shoved him forward by the shoulder and neck towards  me and Jack. He needed no more prompting as he fessed up to the boss.

Without a vacuum the task of clean up was not easy for him as Jack insisted that if he saw dust rise more than six inches his life would be over. In those days you could smack an apprentice any where you wanted for the most minor offence. This was major. George tugged me by my jumper away from the situation and told me to get back to work. Shouts went up every few minutes as Jack surveyed the restoration of his bench George chuckled for a good hour on that one and reminded me of it over the years.

16 comments on “George and the Puthering Dust

  1. That’s a great story Paul, although I wonder if anyone has ever offered you counselling in order that might properly get over what was a traumatic incident. Maybe you could retrospectively sue those concerned for bullying in the workplace, lack of health and safety, failure to show a duty of care, physical injury etc.
    I ask you, isn’t it a wonder that we all managed to survive back in the day.

    PS I was on Oldham Street the other day and I used to work there in the early ’80’s. It’s not what it once was, but has some interesting independent traders and hippy shops now.

    • Do I detect a note of sarcasm Steve? Do you miss the “Good Old Days” when you could be physically attacked and humiliated at the workplace?

      • That still happens all the time. some one falling and lumber flying is presumably unintended, but people are always doing dumb stuff to each other on the job, especially apprentices and youngsters. Im not saying its right or wrong, just that those are not old days.

      • I do miss the good old days (I just entered the work force at the very end). Even if there were some bad time. That is when men were men and expected other men to be men. They expected a man to work like a man and expected results. If you did not carry your load, you would regret it if they did not fire you first.

        I for one cannot stand bullies and stand up when they present themselves. Life is full of ups and downs, bullies and kind people. You have to learn to deal with them all.

  2. Great story! Paul have you ever gone back to see the work you did in your early years as a woodworking apprentice such as the bank you mention(if it is still there),and look to see your skill set,from then ,to how they have developed over 50 year career.I have not been woodworking as long as you but I often see things I have made in the past,some I would not like to admit I made and some I say wow,that came out pretty good for my first attempt

      • It would be lovely if you did a blog post on them. I’ve seen exactly one photo that you’ve posted somewhere over the last few years, but if you had any “in progress” pictures and a story to go with that, I would personally love to hear more. Especially so since you’ve referred to this as one of the highlights of your career!

  3. I worked in a shop environment for years and pranks were always being played on people. The men were tough on trainees and if you were inept or lazy you weren’t tolerated. We had a drop out rate of about 75% over the 4 years it took to graduate.
    Our mentors and teachers were WW2/ Korean and Vietnam vets many who were decorated for heroism, they didn’t suffer any fools. You were tested until accepted, it was the best training I ever had. Unless you have been subjected to this type of environment you can’t really appreciate it.

  4. I worked in a cabinet mill in college and when first hired I was the catch man on the backside of a power feed table saw. I could tell the man feeding the work was making it go faster and faster just to get me upset. I did my best and never let it get to me. Eventually, he eased up and accepted this fresh-faced college boy. Glad I kept my cool. Good for you Paul for not belting the offender!

  5. I think I may have seen the door you made in manchester, do you know if it is still there? there’s a very impressive huge door at RBS on mosley street in the city centre, I enjoy seeing it every time I go past.

  6. “This may look just like a pile of oak stock, but it’s actually the vestibule for a National Westminster bank on Oldham Street, Manchester. It just doesn’t know it yet.”
    It is the leader’s way, to point to what is the potential rather than what it is.
    I realy like this series because George was a leader and I can learn a lot with these anecdotes.
    Thank you for sharing, Paul.

  7. I truly love hearing your storys as an apprentice and how George was such an influence on you. Thanks and keep them coming.

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