Skip to content

Oxford…

…So many buildings, so much history, too much to seen in a day. I blogged before about the doors of Oxford. How people just walk past them, through them, mostly oblivious to their constructs, the men that made them and what it’s taken to adapt them to ever-shifting decades and centuries of culture shifts. But you won’t find men like me who understand the internalising of massive pocket doors that slide easily out of view and latch gates with studded hinges behind lecterns exposing the life of the doors. I should and could write the book on Oxford doors and frames alone and it would be 2,000 pages in a few weeks just with the explanations of how they were made and by who; that’s without pictures and drawings too.

My family usually walk on ahead when they are with me; they know I stop to contemplate the unknowns within shoulder lines at every piece, be that arm-wrought blacksmithed iron or faces of wood. Betwixt hammer and anvil such beauty transformed rough iron with a sensitivity now much lost to the art of smithing. Polished by a million hands grasping at levers, rails and handles, the steely shine ignores the next hand opening the door or closing the latch. Some steel has been replaced with the rotted wood but the doors and steel were faithfully replicated to match exactly what hung for 400 years before. Arches carved by small gouges sweep up thirty feet and sometimes more towards the heavens in the vaulted ceilings of these hallowed halls of learning. Each precise and though through cut a fallen chip of oak from the then ancient forests of England left behind a rose and a leaf and the face of a new cherub. The classic form from the Greco-Roman empire, when two worlds and cultures collided to subsequently impress an emerging Britain, went beyond geographical limits to influence the seats of learning forming the British Empire and its Industrial Revolution.

So I walk past door after door and enter one or two new places and discover new seats of learning, read books through glass panels and find myself amazed at discovery, wondering to myself, “Would my life have changed had I too come to Oxford to understand 3D. Would my designs for the house we’ve bought to build furniture for be greatly different. How has the internet shaped my perspective?” Whereas I am apprenticed as a crafting artisan, I must say that most of what I know is self taught. When I learned there was no internet and to be honest, people think I have access to YouTube to learn from but I must tell you. I have not watched other woodworkers on YT and that’s mostly because my time making takes all of my time and I don’t watch TV beyond maybe four films a year.

I may pop back into Oxford and consider more that book on Oxford doors today. What a fascinating subject. As I walked out of a common toilet facility in the Oxford Botanical Gardens I saw a framed and ledged batten door and thought about the house we’ve bought and thought these could be the kind of door I might like for the house. They are not in keeping, but they are nice.

Oh, off topic slightly but not really. If you are local and want to, you should take in the 3D presentation as shown here. You should love it!

Now, my days thus enriched by 8, 9 10 centuries of buildings that still stand for another millennia, I think of the past with the future in mind. Will what I build last in the lives of those I design and make and build for? I hope the thread that I have begun will build a sure and true foundation as the men and women of old who are long forgotten as unknown and anonymous makers of material things but who’s spirit remains in the work and legacy they left to inspire us. It was all hand work my friends, we should never forget it was indeed all hand work.

For more on Oxfords long history involvement in the education go to: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/organisation/history?wssl=1

22 Comments

  1. Craig Medvecky on 15 September 2019 at 1:13 pm

    I would love to read that book.

  2. Tom Angle on 15 September 2019 at 2:11 pm

    There are a lot of places in the UK I would like to visit. Just to walk around and look at the architecture and see what people build with just hand tools. To walk a street or a country lane that has been walked for centuries upon centuries. To touch things that men created and imagine rough hands clenching the tools. Maybe the thoughts that went through his mind as he created such work. I could drift off for quite a while looking at such work.

  3. Jay Gill on 15 September 2019 at 3:49 pm

    Thanks for that, made my day. When I’m in an old famous building I’m overwhelmed with history, who has opened this door, who has walked this path before me? In a place like Oxford think of the people changed the world who opened that door. Where they discussing great things, or just rushing to avoid being late?

    Thank goodness the UK cherishes it’s building. Here in the US we “scrape” beautiful structures and put up new ones with cost in mind and minimal regard to longevity or craftsmanship.

  4. Ron McGee on 15 September 2019 at 10:52 pm

    I too am totally amazed by the doors in buildings with history . The hinges and locks always fascinate me and how the carpenters set about hanging them . It must have been quite a task .

  5. Richard Harnedy on 16 September 2019 at 10:39 am

    Hi paul is the casing on the clock beside the door in the front photo old or a modern reproduction?

  6. John Howard on 16 September 2019 at 11:03 am

    What a great post. Lots to think about and as you say, it’s so easy to walk past things and not give them a second thought. I love what appears to be the woodworm in the panel next to the carving in the third photo. OR, this just decades of unthinking drawing pins holding up impermanent posters and bits of info that was relevant at one time.? As my teachers may have said from time to time, discuss.

    • Paul Sellers on 16 September 2019 at 11:47 am

      Predates blueTac and sellotape by a century or three or four!

  7. mark e baldwin on 16 September 2019 at 11:35 am

    Thats a book I would buy. I hope you can find the time to write it.

  8. Del Seibold on 16 September 2019 at 11:58 am

    Very thoughtful article. The appreciation of the past and the hope to leave something for the future is something I understand and appreciate.
    And thank you for leaving with us some of your hard earned knowledge as well.

  9. Deborah Cutler on 16 September 2019 at 12:51 pm

    Hello Paul !

    Thanks so much for a beautiful article ! I would be thrilled to get a copy of your 2000 page book if you have time to write it.
    Your website and videos are such a blessing and inspiration to me. I hope to get into woodworking when I can afford to retire. I buy old hand tools all the time at yard sales.
    I would love to take a class from you in person some day.
    Thanks for all you do.

  10. Ken on 16 September 2019 at 1:27 pm

    That is a delightful post with some great photographs showing examples of skilled workmanship unlikely to be found in any building erected in the past 100 years (with a few possible exceptions such as the work of Frank Lloyd-Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

    Oxford has been an important and therefore wealthy place for over a thousand years. Unlike many English towns and cities, it was denied the ‘opportunity for post-war redevelopment’ as Hitler’s bombs did not inflict much damage on Oxford and much of the city’s best (and quirky) architecture remains as it was hundreds of years ago.

    It has always been important for the rich to display their wealth and so the first impression of a building as one approached from a distance is given much attention by architects. Estate Agents rediscovered this recently and dubbed it ‘kerb appeal’. After the first impression comes the front door. This had to be robust, functional aesthetically appealing and inviting. The owner of the house would be very keen to encourage other wealthy folk to enter the house.

    In my experience, the attraction of these old buildings seldom ends at the front door. If it is open to the public, step inside and there will likely be a timber floor polished and perhaps worn with age. Staircases are sometimes simple and sometimes grand structures but they have to be well made – usually with joinery you never get to see! Walls are finished with skirting boards – which again provide an indication of the owner’s wealth or the functional importance of the building. Picture rails and other woodwork often add to the beauty of walls. Sash windows – sometimes with wonderful interior shutters – frequently provide much more than mere light by framing a view of the garden or countryside.

    As you wander around the inside and outside of almost any historical building you will find delightful examples of artisans’ workmanship, from the boot scrapers by the external doors to the chimney stacks on the roof. None of that happened by chance – it is all carefully planned and executed to satisfy specific objectives. A beautiful external door in an historic building delivers the same message to me that it was intended to project by the original designer and maker i.e. “There is much more to see inside”

    Modern buildings, even architectural masterpieces, usually lack all this wonderful detail. We should therefore be grateful for Hitler’s failure to provide the post-war redevelopment opportunity’ to places like Oxford!

  11. Brian on 16 September 2019 at 2:18 pm

    Just a quick mention for Oxford’s Open Doors weekend – it has just happened (14&15 September)! But it will happen again next year so log it in your diary. A great favourite of mine is to visit the University woodwork shop on Tidmarsh Lane. They make a great range of things but also have to repair some of the woodwork that Paul refers to here.
    https://www.oxfordpreservation.org.uk/content/oxford-open-doors

  12. Mike O'Neil on 16 September 2019 at 2:49 pm

    Wood and stone skillfully hand-shaped with care – how I wish I was there.

  13. John2V on 16 September 2019 at 3:07 pm

    Well said Ken……like Paul I stand and look at a door or panelled wall close up….looking for makers marks, that over scribed line, looking for screw head slots in line, depth of a hinge recess.
    I look and learn

  14. Fernando Cela Pinto on 16 September 2019 at 3:38 pm

    Hello Paul,
    Once again I identified a lot with your perceptions.
    When touring Europe with my family, I always stayed behind, admiring the doors and gates, photographing and wondering how they could have been made, who would have made them, where the wood had come from, and how long ago. Obviously without much technical sense, much more for aesthetics.
    Always being “rescued” by the callings of my wife and childrens. rsrs
    Beautiful article.
    Thanks,
    Fernando Cela Pinto

  15. Thomas Robinson on 16 September 2019 at 5:04 pm

    When I visited the church my great grandfather, William Schenck, built in the late 1880s I noticed that different hands had crafted the woodwork in the office spaces. It was evident that the overall design and execution of the woodwork in the sanctuary was first rate. Curved pews were flawlessly fitted to the sloping floor. In short there is not a bad seat in the house. Upon examining the furniture in the pulpit I knew immediately that it had come from my great grandfather’s hand. Numerous pieces he built are in the hands of family members. Sadly, a book on the church history, based on notes of a member written in the 1940s, does not mention William Schenck. I can only surmise that anti German sentiments had colored their perspective. Yet contemporary newspaper articles prove that William was both the architect and builder. And sadly again, no one seems to care.

  16. David Lindsay on 17 September 2019 at 12:35 am

    wonderfull words. thank you Paul.

  17. Nathan on 17 September 2019 at 11:10 am

    A great read Paul!
    Each and every one of us have the power to change the world for the better with just our two hands.
    We should get to it.

  18. Steve P on 18 September 2019 at 6:03 pm

    Would love to visit there. Was in London for work a couple years ago. So many places I want to see in UK, but as I was working, I had very limited time. Managed to see Bath, the Cotswalds, and Stonehenge. But Oxford is definitely on my bucket list for some day…

  19. Jonathan Wright on 19 September 2019 at 1:58 pm

    Paul, one question: what was the predominant finish for the woodwork at the College? Varnish?

    Thanks.

    • Paul Sellers on 19 September 2019 at 3:44 pm

      Indoors it was originally shellac but in the wear/touchy areas varnish of one type or another.

Leave a Reply Cancel Reply





  • John2v on Pallet Wood, Trash Wood, TreasureHi Paul......your picture shows several squares of timber with a contrasting strip set in. I would really appreciated if you could advise on tools used PLEASE I have a selection of…
  • Jurandyr on Pallet Wood, Trash Wood, TreasureMr. Sellers, congratulations on your talent, professionalism and dedication. At this point, the internet is a blessing as we have its teachings available anytime, all the time. Hug…
  • Ken on Pallet Wood, Trash Wood, Treasure"The tragedy of the age of so much info at our fingertips is our ever-increasing inability to understand how quickly we make things go pear shaped." That is far and away the best q…
  • Paul Sellers on Pallet Wood, Trash Wood, TreasureI see nothing inciteful at all Samuel and even when it is we generally allow it as long as it's not too disrespectful and even then... And also, I love to hear other people's stori…
  • Dave Alvarez on George Leaves…Not to rain on your parade, Michael Michalofsky, but in my view Paul has already left a 'living tribute' to George and his work, in the person(s) of his apprentice(s), both first h…
  • Samuel on Pallet Wood, Trash Wood, TreasureI don't want to be given to provocative incitement. Anyway all my wood is pallet wood or jarrah garden stakes and offcuts. I love the hardwood pallets. The grain becomes darkened w…
  • Tim on George Leaves…My first woodwork teacher at age 12 was a Welshman. An absolute stickler and disciplinarian. Put a plane down flat on the bench without resting the toe to elevate it, or allow a ch…
Scroll To Top