It was 5.30 Friday evening when George and I finished the big ritual of sharpening all of our tools. Planes, saws, chisels and spokeshaves were lined up with bright shiny cutting edges ready for our return to work the next Tuesday morning. George was a happy man when all the tools were in order, I could tell. This habit above all else was, well, so established for all that each man did the same religiously, but this particular evening all the men were in a similar frame of mind. This weekend was the Spring bank holiday in front of us and the men had spent time that week preparing for their family trips to the seaside or to the countryside a two or three hour drive away. I remember the sense of freedom weekends brought post war because some of the men knew life before that time and spoke of it with a mixture of warm camaraderie and extreme sadness and loss. It was the simple act of cleaning together that somehow seemed so cathartic. Reestablishing order showed the preparedness they all valued and which they had all learned from being in the military. The importance of self discipline was ever evident even in those who had known no war but it permeated because of the men who had. Half of us were much too young to know anything of war and most men seemed only to want to forget it. But the orderliness insisted on by Jack, the foreman, came directly from something much bigger than himself and he was very much head of the woodshop. No one challenged his position because he was never authoritarian. He was confident in who he was. It’s a gift to have this. The order of authority he had been trained by extended on into future life and though no stripes or shoulder pips showed his position in shop hierarchy on his crumpled work jacket, his presence was of preeminence, even over the bosses owning the business. Their success was rooted in his ability as a craftsman, manager and leader of men (It was all men there.). I am not sure that I have really witnessed the kind of quiet, disciplined order that governed my youthful years in the same way since. It was very different than in school where control came mostly by fear of the cane and I was caned enough to understand the fear of punishment because it was very painful to be bruised by an angry man or woman.
My early training at home prepared me for these Friday clean ups. They thoroughly took care of all areas and brought order to the workshop generally and specific areas around each workbench where all feared to tread except the occupant of said bench. With the wood racks in order and components for batch runs all palletised, neatness seemed to fall on all things. With this done the men turned to their bench tools and everything with an edge or point would get sharpened with a file of one kind or another or an oilstone. There was nothing prissy about this next hour. No discussions on honing angles or micro bevels, diamonds versus Japanese water stones or the difference between an Arkansas or a Washita. Each man had his preference and went to the task. All the tools were as sharp as one another’s and no man picked up a dull tool when work resumed the following workday.
Being still the baby in the group I acted as though confident at sharpening but George helped me to understand my place by asking to see my results at the stone. “Back you go and start again.” he’d say, but with a smile stretching out his cleft chin. I did. There was no question of not subjecting my efforts to his critical eye. This was how I grew. He was an honest man that supported me. Never mean spirited, he trained me so as not to exasperate me, My father was that man too. These examples counter those given by others we seem to encounter every so often when we are young and in training. Insecure men, that’s all. It’s not a bad thing to have the occasional contrast kindliness.
We all used oilstones of one kind or another back then as I said. The older men used natural stones, which were much more expensive and harder to get hold of whereas we younger ones generally relied on man-made combination stones made from carborundum. We all enjoyed the bantering back and forth as we prepared for the longer than usual weekend off. It was a more relaxed pace when the shop was fully swept and put in order. The bosses were all gone an hour before and just the workers left to go home.
I liked this Friday ritual, it’s something I have always enjoyed and still kept up with today. George and I had been making some mahogany drawers. The drawer fronts lay on the benchtop and I left my oilstone without its cover on which I never did normally. Unaware that a few shavings lying around my less resolved bench top area I didn’t give things a second thought as we all closed the day, grabbed our lunch sacks and left for the weekend.
It was Tuesday morning when I returned to work. George often arrived before me and this morning, expecting his usual smile to greet me, George had a very black look on his face. Knowing something was not right he nodded towards the oilstone. At first I didn’t see anything untoward. He lifted the shavings which were now sodden with oil. Then he lifted the very dark and splotchy mahogany drawer fronts we had completed with half lap dovetails the Friday before. The machine oil had wicked along the shavings to the drawer fronts and I knew I was in trouble big time. With the dovetails cut and fitted, nothing could be done but to replace them. My week started badly. I was exasperated and rightly so.