George Goes the Extra Mile

George was watching me from his side of the bench. It wasn’t so much that I felt it but more noticed he’d stopped moving. “What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a cutlery tray for silverware.” I answered.

“What’s it for?” he enquired.

“It’s for Mrs B, the cook at the outdoor pursuits centre where I go at weekends to help out. A present, actually” I said.

“Looks like a spider criss crossed the board. Bolder. Bolder! Stronger lines. Prove your intent. It’s a sketch not a technical drawing! Look like you believe in it, Paul. Believe in yourself!”

Drawing things out on wood as a note has become common all through my life. The plane works as an eraser for a clean sheet and it’s cheaper and more eco friendly than paper. That wasn’t the reasoning though. Mostly it was convenience.

George looked more closely and saw that it was more technical drawing than sketching. He asked about sizing, thicknesses and such. Digging in the scraps he found two thin pieces 3/8″ by 2 1/2″. We’d never done dovetailing together before and there we were in work time laying out the cut lines, shoulder lines and angles. I was in the best place I could be. The mystery of school dovetailing was about to be dissolved before my eyes with the myths and mysteries busted. This one lesson would be the way I would do them forever. I added the knifewall technique. I hated the marking gauge bruising and refused to do it after my lesson.

The first thing George did was make me clean up all the faces with a #4 smoother, one he had loaned me at the start of my apprenticeship. We used a tenon saw for cross cutting and a shooting board for squaring the ends. These were fundamental methods that would always remain with me as foundational. I felt clumsy and George said, “Own your plane!. Grip more loosely. Smooth out your action. Press confidently only when you have confidence to work with.”

George took my wood pieces and checked them for square all around. He checked them for parallel when one end was square from one edge and out of square from the opposite edge. It was out. He explained about accuracy being multi-dimensional. That plane geometry can be cross referenced in the same way accounts can by three column accountancy. I got it!

All of these options from a single simple lesson back in 1965!

George tore down the shop on his massively long legs with my note  board in hand. Five minutes passed and he placed the thin sections on the benchtop. “Tonight we begin!” he said. “When we’re done here.”

George and I walked up to the chippy at five thirty. Fish and chips in those days came wrapped in newspaper. Until the EEC, subsequently the EU, stopped it. We walked down the cobbled streets eating our supper.  It was cold but the chips were piping hot. All the men had gone by the time we got back. George reached up the top of the door lintel for the padlock key and we went in. Lights flickered over the benches and we started making dovetails. We did a corner each. It was only after half an hour that I realised. George and I had become friends. That he was truly enjoying this as much as I was. We chatted back and forth; bantering was very much a part of our being with one another. George never swore, ever. When things went wrong he was self controlled. He was fine example to me. All the other men swore all the time. This evening would capture the embryonic moment when conception would eventually birth many things for me. It was the birth of understanding accuracy of the absolute essentiality of sharpness. It was where I learned to plan, master the tools, to release true power of woodworking. This was the juncture skill and the  important thing for me was that I absolutely knew it. This was where a man took a boy and freely gave him the true altruism of pure knowledge. George was teaching me to give freely anything that I might learn. He was ensuring the skills I might ultimately master would be passed on into the future. The skills and knowledge were of course for me, that goes without saying, but it was also for those I might come across in the future generations. It was all because of a simple cutlery tray.

A man wrote a sign for his shop wall. It said, It’s not what the boy does to the wood. It’s what the wood does to the boy!” His name was Sam Bush. Sam was a woodworking teacher in the USA who ended up with multiple sclerosis and the man that gave him this saying was a man from Eastern Europe before the wall came down. I’m giving it to you with the caveat, “It’s not what the child does to the wood but what the wood does to the child!”

Enjoyed it!

37 Comments

  1. Henry van den Top on 14 January 2019 at 9:23 pm

    The stories about George and your apprenticeship always touch me somehow. I can’t explain how or why, but I love reading stories like this. It tells about a simpler time, a time I feel we are losing rapidly and maybe have lost already. Makes me a bit sad really.

    I miss having other people around to share my woodworking with and to progress with together. Being in the shop can be lonely sometimes if you have nobody with the same enthusiasm around. Being on a forum, even a nice one like WWMC’s, is just not the same.

    Thanks Paul, for giving this insight. It inspires me to become a better version of myself.



  2. Matt on 14 January 2019 at 9:45 pm

    I think you have another nice book in the making here. Your bio in book form would be amazing to read



    • Steve Treat on 14 January 2019 at 10:18 pm

      Yes, I agree with Matt!



    • Tom Angle on 17 January 2019 at 10:09 pm

      Agree



  3. John 2v on 14 January 2019 at 10:26 pm

    Paul you were so lucky to find George….BUT…..he was so lucky to find you.

    That story was powerful……he and your father would be proud of you



  4. Mario Fusaro on 15 January 2019 at 12:02 am

    Paul, you and George were lucky to have each other and I love reading the stories of your apprenticeship with him. Now the tables have turned and you are the master of thousands of apprenticeships. George would be proud.



  5. Tassos on 15 January 2019 at 6:03 am

    Dear Paul,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences in the old woodworking shop era with us. They’re priceless.



  6. Shaun on 15 January 2019 at 7:50 am

    “George and I walked up to the chippy at five thirty. Fish and chips in those days came wrapped in newspaper–until the EEC, subsequently the EU, stopped it. We walked down the cobbled streets eating our supper.  It was cold but the chips were piping hot”

    Well, congratulations Paul, you have really confused the American readers. 🙂



    • Paul Sellers on 15 January 2019 at 9:00 am

      I doubt it. Experience having lived in the US for over two decades is that my American cousins are very savvy about English vernacular.



      • sla on 15 January 2019 at 9:33 am

        Are you sure EU stopped it? 🙂



      • John on 15 January 2019 at 2:08 pm

        As an American reader, I fully understood it. Paul’s words paint the picture well.



      • Ed on 15 January 2019 at 3:00 pm

        Of course we understand. EEC is an electronic engine control and EU is Estados Unidos (that must gall terribly, but what can you do?) I must say, though, that I prefer fries with fish. Chips are better with cold sandwiches, especially mesquite BBQ chips. Some might even have biscuits with fish, light and buttery, whether baked or pan fried, but fries for me, thanks.

        (Paul, I remember ordering fish and chips when we went out for dinner in NY and you commenting that it is nearly impossible to get proper fish and chips in the US. Some aspire to travel to your shop to apprentice, but I aspire to some day trying real fish and chips!)



        • Paul Sellers on 15 January 2019 at 5:02 pm

          They can be hard to find but when you find one near your home, watch the waist line!! Oh, and the EU was originally the European Economic Community. It changed in 1993 to drop economic. I guess that’s when it cost so much more to be a member so it became less economic so they changed to just European Union hence EU. Just joking of course!



          • Steve on 15 January 2019 at 5:26 pm

            Had them a few times while in London and surrounding areas for work. First time eating mushy peas too, which my coworker said I had to try. But I always have to remember when speakng with my UK colleagues when they say “chips”, “crisps”, or “biscuits” and a few other terms that they are talking about something other than the US version.



          • sla on 15 January 2019 at 6:34 pm

            There is no economy without justice, standards and free movement, you can add here common taxation rules, monetary system, social system and army. I think EU should become like USA, because there is no other way to have an economic community.

            I would like EU, USA, Canada, Australia and some more small countries become one in the future, basically we are the same, with small differences.



          • Paul Sellers on 15 January 2019 at 9:59 pm

            I think perhaps a key difference between the USA and the EU is that the USA has a nationally accepted single language even though the United States originated out of migrants speaking their own native tongue from several countries. The states forming the US were never independent countries I suppose. Of course I am not discounting that native Americans had their own different languages according to tribe.
            I suppose reading between the lines what you are saying is that the EU should become like the USA because the USA is what the EU is not. I’m just thinking aloud here because I am not sure that the USA has freedom of movement as such either, except between its own states of course, but that is within its borders.



          • sla on 16 January 2019 at 7:52 am

            There is no common language in EU, but this is a problem of time, english is becoming common language. I don’t think language is the problem, learning a language is not so difficult.

            By the way, there is no official language in USA, theoretically it could change if majority will speak Spanish for example. For example in San-Francisco bus stations are announced in multiple languages depending on the street. Today with computers it’s much easier to translate, language is not the problem.

            We can’t compare a relatively static structure USA, with a very dynamic structure EU. But, in my opinion yes, EU is on the way to become like USA, because there is no other way, details will be very different, but this are details.

            Maybe you have difficulties to understand because you are on an island, but on the continent leaving with borders is very difficult, imagine borders between Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland. Without real equalisation of rights and life conditions it’s not possible, because we don’t have wars anymore, there is migration in place, to resolve migration all the places should be equally attractive.

            Reading my between the lines, EU will become similar to USA because there is no other way. Apropos, EU countries never been independent, it was a big family, most of the countries are formed during 19-20 centuries and had relative independence. In today globalised world there is no independence, you have to play with others and be nice.



          • Paul Sellers on 16 January 2019 at 10:00 am

            I think that most cultures recognise that there must be a common language to unite people as a people. That is why the US uses English, official or not, and Americans speak English in addition to their native languages on a lesser scale for obvious reasons. The USA and others referred to as the new world is made up of people from many European nations that seemed to shed their past to become a part of something bigger than their past. It didn’t happen overnight though. I did experience isolated communities where the residents of small towns spoke, for instance, German on a daily basis both at work and at home but never school when I arrived there, but 20 years later what had survived for a hundred plus years as a German speaking community was all but gone except for the 80 plus year olds. In essence they were absorbed into the new culture of the USA.
            There may not be physical borders between England and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but there are still quite obvious prejudices and biases between these nations even after three centuries of living in a union of neighbours with one another.
            Personally I think it is acceptable for me not to have felt European for a couple of reasons and I am certainly not at all averse to being a European in any way. Throughout my young and formative years we were never referred to as Europeans and nor was this ever mentioned in our education. By the time I left to live in the USA in the 1980s being European was still a way off in the absence of my future. I of course have no dislike at all for my European cousins nor my cousins in the adjoining countries here in England. In my growing years, up until the 80s, Europe was simply where you went for summer holidays and not where anyone went to work. I then lived and worked in the USA from 1987 until 2009, so I skipped the advancing of British ties to mainland Europe through its membership with the then EEC. That means I left as an Englishman and came back as an Englishman but was never really part of the nurturing program to become European I suppose.
            As a closer, I have truly enjoyed growing to know the EU through an ever increasing contact with students from the EU sprinkled throughout my courses and of course now online. This has all be quite wonderful. Equal to that, I have enjoyed getting to know and becoming friends with people who migrated here over the decades from Europe. I have worked alongside them and always found them very inspiringly gifted and of course friendly.



  7. William D. Elliott on 15 January 2019 at 11:43 am

    Paul,
    A detail caught my eye in your description. You used a shooting board to square the end. Today, you square the end sort of free-hand, by placing board in the vice with the end up, which makes sense because of your enhanced experience now. Sometimes in my work, I wonder if I should be using the shooting board until my skills increase. My difficulties are often the square ends and the tenon shoulders.

    Thanks.



    • Paul Sellers on 15 January 2019 at 1:23 pm

      It depends on how wide the board is. It is easier to plane wide boards freehand. Much easier. Narrow stock, say under 3″, is best done with a shooting board. Otherwise you are only postponing what you should really be practicing to master. better to risk and win than never try and never master anything.



      • sla on 15 January 2019 at 2:38 pm

        Is it strictly necessary to square the ends? Theoretically, internal corner of the box should be square to the edge. So, we could use a square and draw this perpendicular, and then cut to this line. Problem could be when transferring tails/pins on the next board, but here we could use a different method to transfer them. What is left will be planned anyway on the face.

        Actually, I did like this on my first dovetail box. I can’t say it was perfect but not bad. Now I square the ends, but always ask myself if it is strictly necessary.



        • Paul Sellers on 15 January 2019 at 5:10 pm

          Ah, it is a common practice of old to use a marking gauge the thickness of the sides to mark across the grain for the position of the shoulder lines. I never knew anyone use the knifewall method I established and named before I did it. People used a marking knife but not to establish severance so much as just mark the surface mostly.



          • Keith on 16 January 2019 at 1:47 pm

            I would love to have a mentor, or hands on class for certain questions like this. How square is square, how much variance can be tolerated or should not a ray of light shine between your board and your straight edge? How sharp is sharp? how tight should a joint be? Im shocked at how much ive learned through your videos, but also wonder if you plan to do hands on courses again in the future?



  8. Joe on 15 January 2019 at 6:02 pm

    Thanks Paul. You indeed had a kind and generous mentor. No doubt. I was lucky to have the same but in a different field – organic chemistry. During my second year of university studies, I absolutely fell in love with organic chemistry. It is hard to explain how intense that feeling was. I wanted more than I was getting in class. At 19, I didn’t know how to express it so I just started to come several times a day to ask him questions. Basically I was a pest. At some point, he figured it out (to which I am eternally grateful) and put me to work and gave me things to do. I was as happy as could be. He took me under his wing and mentored me. In fact, he retired my last year at university. He still came once a week to see how my/our research was going. He didn’t need to but he did. For that I was very grateful.

    I ended up dedicating my Ph.D. to him (and two other teachers who made all the difference). In fact, I was so grateful for this kind of treatment, I have been teaching one night a week at my almamater for the past 6 years to give back in the way he did to me. When I semi retire in 10 years from my day job, I will teach a bit more there. All of this because one man, Robert Seiwald, understood that one 19 year old wasn’t trying to be a pest, but was just excited about subject matter.

    He’s still alive and I see him about once a year. I think he is quite proud that I teach at our almamater (he was a student there in the 30s and early 40s before the war).

    As such, I understand your passion about woodworking and teaching it (when you could just as easily retire). Thank you. And thank you George for helping Paul become who he is.



  9. Bill Giles on 21 January 2019 at 10:55 am

    Ah simpler times, before we heard the dreaded words ‘peer pressure’ and felt the need for expensive and useless degrees. I was paid about £1.50 ($2) as a 15 year old apprentice, but the RAF provided bed and board and uniform and my 15-year old needs were few. But I felt that this was an investment in my time and effort for the future, and so it turned out to be.



  10. Dale Griggs on 21 January 2019 at 11:36 am

    Paul,
    My George was my dad. If I came up against a problem on how to do a task he would always say, “Were going to go to school on this one!” Then he would instruct me to look at the problem, whether it was fitting a barn beam mortise or installing a new thermostat in a 1959 Ford 296. The thermostat had to be fitted and held in perfect position while inserted upside down. Any movement and the thing was sure to leak. After the third try I was told my use of the car would be be forbidden if I didn’t get it right on the fourt try. Well, I had a date! “Study it! , he said, “What do you need to do to hold that thermostat in place?” Then he left me alone. I couldn’t be angry long as the date time was approaching. I thought well fooey, I’m just gonna slather it with sticky permatex gasket sealer to keep it in place long enough to get it seated properly. It worked! I went in and told dad I had it done. His answer was a simple question/statement. “You used the permatex didn’t you? You had the answer to the problem right in front of you the whole time.” He was right. In my mind the permatex was for the gasket, not the metal part. But in desperation I was forced to think beyond the instructions on the bottle of gasket sealer and realize it also had the potential for other uses. This because of a man, who at the time didn’t seem to exercise much patience with me but who, I now realize, was blessed with infinite patience for a young boy needing to learn practical applications and more importantly, common sense. To this day a bottle of Permatex and Indian Head gasket sealer has a place in my workshop. Not because I do much mechanical work these days but as a reminder of the man who “sent me to school” when up against a problem.



  11. Joe on 21 January 2019 at 1:10 pm

    “The birth of understanding”. The phrase evokes humility, awakening, and possible awe. It is best achieved with the assistance of another.

    Mine was working with a gentle man, Mr Amos. He needed a “helper” in his advanced age. In return I gained much more than a paycheck. I think of him often as I enter my shop and am thankful for the lessons learned.



  12. David Alvarez on 21 January 2019 at 1:56 pm

    “Sam was a woodworking teacher in the USA who ended up with multiple sclerosis and the man that gave him this saying was a man from Eastern Europe before the wall came down. I’m giving it to you with the caveat, “It’s not what the child does to the wood but what the wood does to the child!”

    Enjoyed it!”
    Another great quote from George, and though second hand, by you Paul.

    What actually caught my eye was your reference to multiple sclerosis, an affliction which, by chance I have as well, though not as bad as it sounds like old Sam had. It is allowing me to pursue my woodworking and woodworking teaching through the odd circumstance of my being deemed ‘incompetent for work’ and paid (a pittance) on disability. Though its not much, it does allow me to pay the necessities, so I’ll be chasing that woodworking as long as I can, the diagnosis of MS actually freeing me from the necessity of survival, as truly odd as that may seem.
    Joe’s post to you also caught my eye, expressing his own gratitude to his mentor, as have I in my own limited way towards Arnold and Charles, my own woodworking mentors in the US. Gratitude towards our mentors is a funny thing, given that in a lot of cases its only one sided, as the mentors have passed on as we’re expressing it, though it is probably the youngsters who will benefit the most from what we have to say, including our stories of our mentors, which is why I enjoy (and profit from) everything you tell us about George and what HE had to say. Its getting passed on even here in the sunny southland of the USA. George lives on.



  13. John McDermott on 21 January 2019 at 2:15 pm

    I just finished attending the Working Wood in 18th Century conference in Colonial Williamsburg. One of the CW journeymen who was presenting gave us some encouragement because we were all so dismayed at the documented speed that these small 18th century shops could achieve. He advised us not to try to go as fast as they could. He pointed out that they had all been through a 7 year apprenticeship. Thank you, Paul, for sharing yours with us.



  14. Gail Millard on 21 January 2019 at 5:49 pm

    I think I enjoy the comments as much as the stories about George. The comments leave me thinking that with age comes more realization of who we are and what we missed. George taught much more then working wood. To me one of the most important things to learn is patience, whether teaching or learning. Accuracy would be next coupled with focusing on what you are doing. I live in the U.S. so all my life it has been instilled in me that “time is money.” At my age{70}, I believe that time is more then money. This only comes with time. In my humble opinion the U.S. has done a fantastic job of marketing that our way is to be the envy for everyone else. Be careful what you wish for. As for those who had a George you carry a responsibility to those who don’t have one provided they are willing to listen. Thanks Paul.



  15. Kenny on 21 January 2019 at 8:12 pm

    Here I’m going to say it !!! You are the BEST “TEACHER on you tube Bar None !! If. 67 year old newbie can learn it …………!!!! Enjoy your programs so very much !!!!



  16. Gordon Dayton on 21 January 2019 at 11:00 pm

    Paul,

    Your story is poignant. You were an apprentice and George was a master. This is a very conventional set of roles for the time I guess. The Master has an obligation to teach and the apprentice acts as a student, working as they learn the trade. This still happens today, but it is rarer, and somewhat distorted from what you probably experienced.

    But George went beyond that and acted as a mentor. The roles of mentor and student are much rarer and closer and usually takes place over a longer period. I suspect that many students today are searching, yearning to find a mentor, someone to help them along the path in ways that a Master or a Teacher or even a Coach will not or cannot. I know that my son felt this way and as much as he looked for it, never found a mentor in his technical field. Fortunately he has bonded with his Grandfather who is a wood turner and has learned much from him, not only about wood and turning, but also (I suspect) about life.

    How to we get this set of roles back into our culture? Are we now too commercial and calculating for all that? How can you train someone to be a mentor? How can you educate a student to the value of mentoring? Or is this even possible? Is this kind of relationship available only through serendipity?



    • Paul Sellers on 22 January 2019 at 8:15 am

      I am afraid that graduates see themselves as equals with men and women with decades of experience. They may even look down on older members of staff instead of looking up to them , seeking them out. They DO NOT teach humility in higher education but to get out there and self promote your independence as a “freelancer” this or that.



      • Brian Matthews on 22 January 2019 at 3:55 pm

        You are so right there Mr Sellers, you have nailed that one. I was a welder/fabricator, Lloyds 1 and ASME9 coded, and before disability threw me on the scrap pile, and all too often we had newly “qualified” welders coming in that thought they knew everything. In my time I mentored about 30 young welders who had the intelligence to ask for help, acknowledging that thier new qualification did not give them real world experience, and I was happy to help them, at the same time as standing back and watching failure after failure of the ones who “know what I have to do thanks”.



  17. James R Light on 21 January 2019 at 11:32 pm

    I agree that you should write a book about your learning years and years working side by side with George. It would would sure be interesting and educational.



  18. Maxwell Broome on 24 January 2019 at 1:16 am

    I doubt that much has changed. Circumstances and pace maybe but people are people. I suspect there were several of the hooligans in the shop who learned just enough to get by. And there were plenty of experienced craftsmen who would not have taken the time. I get a kick out of watching new engineers arrive at our company all full of themselves come face to face with the need to learn their trade. Some do. Some don’t. The ones that do are a joy. The ones that wont, well, they move on. Its always fun to watch the ahah moment when an engineer can see what the math is saying. I’m still waiting for my ahah moment in woodworking. I had a minor one the other day when I finally got my chisel sharp. Such a difference. I cant explain truly what I did differently but it went from mostly sharp to sharp. Seriously sharp. Sharp like don’t be stupid and test this on your thumb sharp unless you want stitches sharp. No I didn’t. I do agree that a book about George, Master and Mentor would be an excellent read.



  19. John on 6 June 2019 at 12:17 am

    Paul,

    I joined Masterclass at the beginning. I was confused about hand cut dovetails, hand planing, sharpening and gluing. I read articles all the time but one can only learn so much without a master by his side. The videos you made from the cutting board to the chest of drawers cleared up most of the confusion, practice is clearing up the rest. But there’s something else that I never expected. And that is how you came to be a master woodworker.

    Your stories of George, trimming old English houses using a spoke shave, coming the the U.S., making pieces for the White House are so intriguing. The methods you impart to your subscribers could be hundreds of years old but are fully relevant today.

    In the U.S. college is a full fledged industry that’s becoming, in some cases, too expensive for its rewards. College debt is rising and there may not be a good paying job after graduation. College usually does not provide a master by a student’s side. More often than not it’s the opposite; an impersonal lecture followed by reading text books. I know of tradesmen here in America who can’t find help; there are jobs that are hard to fill here because few want them. I’m guessing that, in a culture that teaches college above all else, young people just don’t understand master craftsmen.

    But I see there is a small population who do crafts and show their wares at craft shows. I see items skillfully made and being sold at a fair price. I think a story of how you came to be a master woodworker would generate interest for young people to see that there is something else besides college that can provide them with skills to make a living.

    Learning a craft the traditional way is college. It’s a college of a different sort but it still is college. I love your blogs about George, your experience trimming old, out of plumb houses, and the methods of working wood. I look forward to more reminiscences about George and you journey becoming a master craftsman.