George’s Gift

I think it was the most beautiful treasure to me, when George left and went to Loughborough Teacher Training College but handed me a small package. His ambition to teach suddenly had legs and off he went aboard a train and it was my last ever sight of him. There was a sadness to it, of course, but his friendship warmed me for 50 years, his mentorship sustained as a craftsman and as a man. A warm smile each day remains for a lifetime and genuine affection warms an eternal soul.

Thursday came around and it would be our last day together at the workbench. We had of course been building towards this end for several weeks. Sensing his excitement daily, knowing how much it meant to him, I got caught up in the change more than the rest of the men. George had taught me at a time when no others could reach me, embraced me as his apprentice when I recall almost all of my school teachers were glad to see me leave. I say almost all, but I really think the metalwork teacher might have felt differently but never expressed it. There was no doubt that I had learned more from George than any and all others involved in my life. I was the better man for having known him. I was now 20 years old and he would leave my life forever. Little did I known then that his smile, his laughter, and the skills he imparted so freely to me would live on throughout my adult life. I don’t believe that he had the love for woodworking that I have today. No, what he had was a love for teaching and training young people. I see that clearly now. George influenced me by his lived life and the decisions he made based on honesty and integrity.

George passed me the small package as we were about to leave at the end of the day. Placed it on my bench in front of me as I was opening my pay packet. “Carry on, count your notes. It’ll wait!”

We all used the count the notes that protruded through the corners off the manilla envelopes, to make sure accounts hadn’t short-changed us, then the coins we could see through the clear windows on the front. You never opened the packet until you’d checked because once opened there would be no arguing the discrepancy with what was handwritten on the front.

I reached for the manilla package neatly folded and wrapped and tied with string. Inside the box was a dovetail marker he’d made from some vintage, tight-grained, quarter-sawn oak. It was exquisitely made and the deep hue of the brown oak with medullary rays seemed so rich.

“I wanted you to have something personal that would remind you of me.” George said.

“Always remember though. Whereas this is a personal gift, the one I taught you to make, that was the real gift. If a man doesn’t pass on the gift he was given when someone taught him, well what good is that?”

The cocobolo one I made to replace George’s

It was such a lovely thing to give me. Both the gift of how to make one and then the personal one. I used it on through the next two and a half decades when in Texas some thieves came and burgled some of my tools from a barn building and in amongst the ones stolen was my George template. I don’t know how many thousands I have taught to make this now nor how many I have made and given away too, but George would be proud of me, I know. I know it’s in the hundreds!

56 thoughts on “George’s Gift”

  1. Jeroen Teeuwisse

    Wow, what a beautiful story and moving as well, especially: ‘the one I taught you to make, that was the real gift’.

  2. Yes, I have your, Georges’ Dovetail Template, that you showed me how to make and use a few years ago. It gets used very often. And I know where it comes from. Thank you Paul

  3. Christian Aigner

    I made one for myself. Thank you for teaching me. For teaching all of us.

    I hope and wish that one day you will collect all your George stories in a book (and make also an audiobook, please).

  4. I need to make a new one. The one I made from your videos a while back turned out great. But I foolishly used my marking knife with it and chewed up the edges. Did I see a picture you posted recently where you made some with different angles than the 7:1?

  5. I just started to try to make historical dovetails, and ran across your template video. I made two this afternoon, and then tried my first dovetails. The template was helpful, although I wound up making the better of the two on a table saw.
    But the reason for the comment is that I’m glad to know the personal history behind the design.

    1. I was sad to see this but then thought, you know, perhaps he will see that skill only comes to those who persevere. Hand tool woodworking is the most rewarding of methods once you climb over two things: one, that machine woodworking is just the evolution of a more advanced way of doing things, and two, the I can’t do it therefor I will give up. Perhaps there is a third, fourth fifth…. tenth good reason. How about developing real skill, mental acuity, manual dexterity and then, of course, ultimately, skill you possess for the rest of your life as I have these 55 years to data and still climbing. Remember I have gone your route and found it the most unrewarding. So I say don’t give up!

      1. “Skill only comes to those who persevere!” That’s it in a nutshell.

        I got the apron boards glued up and the first leg laid out for the mortises this weekend. This is the lesson taught this weekend. Only now do I feel that I’m starting to understand the plane.

        Thanks, Paul!

      2. Old dogs can learn new tricks! This has nothing to do with dovetails and all to do with developing skill. I have been an “off and on” woodworker since I was 14. I am now 65. The finer techniques you taught me through your videos have taught me that with proper usage, the hand tool is capable of producing finer results. I have always gone to the jointer to try to match up edges for a glue up but found I could never quite get the gaps to disappear. So I pulled out my Stanley #6 and found that with a little practice, all my joints were a tight fit. I can’t tell you how satisfying that was. Thanks for your refining example.

  6. Beautiful story. It was sad to know how you lost the gift, but the more important one stayed with you and you passed it on too. Thank you for that.

  7. Ol George’s template got pinched in Texas
    And Texas is the place I’d dearly love to be
    Ol George’s template got pinched in Texas
    But I’ve made a hundred more in Oxfordshire

  8. I love these stories about George, his way of working, his way of interpersonal relationships!

    Would it be possible to collect them as a blog series? They are inspiring.

  9. It’s sad when we loose a memorable gift but George gave you the gift to teach and give to others. Paul may I say that through the years, you have become my “George” and at 67 years, I am still learning the art of hand tool woodworking from you. Your insights and vlogs have also taught me the beauty of things and how we share and care for everything around us. As I lay my father of 91 years to rest, I am reminded of how we who survive are charged with teaching those who remain. As George did for you and you do for us, I am doing for my children and friends.

    Thank you Paul & George

    1. So very true Mario. Well said!
      Unconditional love and paying it forward . . .
      The greatest gifts any of us will leave.
      And, from one life-long teacher to another . . . Thank you Paul!

  10. Hi Paul,
    Your stories about George resonate with me very well. During my apprenticship in Bolton, lancs, my mentor was “old” Jimmy let’s just say Jimmy was a hard man to work with and a lot of guys and a lot worse names for him. Jimmy was old school, Jimmy started his apprenticship in 1939, went to war and finished his apprenticship in the late 40’s. Jimmy along with many others had lived an entire life before they turned 25. Jimmy was direct, blunt, stoic and if he didnt like something or somebody he would let you know with one gruff sentence. If he did like something his silence said it all. Jimmy told me that there is a right way and a wrong way to do EVERYTHING. Jimmy showed me the right way while explaining the wrong ways.
    A couple of years after my apprentship was over I found myself working between UK, Canada and Germany (dual citizenship). Unforunately I had become a sloppy Bricklayer intent on throwing in as many brick as I could trying to make “big money”. My work was bad quality but I didnt care.
    In Canada I started working with a guy called Wallace who was Jamacian. Apart from being side splitting funny Wallace was too this day the best Bricklayer I had ever worked with, as good as Jimmy was Wallace was on a different level. I noticed that Wallace moved very slowly but with intent, everything he touched he only touched once unlike myself always correcting my work. Wallace would light heartedly tease me ” look at this boy from England, cant keep up with the Jamacian”. About 1 week before the job was going to be over Wallace said “I got a present for you”. Wallace had bought me a trowl. It was a Rose trowl same as all the Canadians were using. To compare the Rose to the Spear and jackson it would be like my Jedi master had taken the sword away from me and given me a light saber!
    But more importantly Wallace told me that he can see I have the skills I just need to use them. He the said whatever you do in life be the best that you can. With those words everything that Jimmy had taught me came flooding back. I realised that grumpy old man was right all along.
    That one act of kindness by Wallace immediately changed my attitude. I later went on to train apprentices my self. One of them won the city and guild’s Gold trowel and all of the became fine Brickie. I taught them properly. I later moved to Canada full time where I concentrated on restoration work in Toronto I have won awards for my craftsmanship and worked along side architects to ensure that restoration projects are built to the original specs. My work can be seen on a mural welcoming travellers to Canada as they walk through arrivals at the airport.
    Thank you Jimmy and Wallace.

  11. It’s funny how some people you meet in life have a lasting effect on you, you may not realise at the time or give it a second thought but every once in a while the memories come flooding back and you think of the experience of learning from them and the privilege of knowing them

  12. I love reading about your times as an apprentice. When I think back on my life I think with sadness of a life wasted by being hurt at a very young age. It has taken me 5 decades to find myself, with a few false starts and a bit of luck i kept going. I sailed the seas with the merchant navy on container boats and saw some lovely places. I never had a mentor and I love to hear how you have met people throughout your career, how they have taught you and then how you have passed your skills on. I am learning carpentry through your youtube channel, the videos are fantastic. Now I know how to sharpen my chisels but yesterday I somehow broke a cheap plane from my dad so will save my PIP money and buy a decent one when I can afford too. In the mean time please keep the nostalgia coming through your blog posts they are so beautiful to read, except when some scumbags stole the gift given to you by George. Next week I am hoping to do my first dovetail joints and make a drawer. Thank you so much Sir, You are a very inspiring person.

  13. There must be something about time served woodworkers that leads them into teaching. My oldest friend, weeks younger than me and who sadly died last October, left the safety of woodworking for the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln cathedral for teacher training as a craft and design teacher. After he had moved hundreds of miles away to take his first teaching job we kept in touch, exchanging visits periodically, and with his childeren staying with us for a week or so annually for several years (to get to rural climes and generally have a good time). I well remember, on walks shopping in his new city, him being greeted by former pupils, some of whom had children that he was currently teaching, as well as current pupils. It was evident to me that he had found his niche, and, once he switched to agency supply teaching (to cut down on the red tape and paperwork of school) he was popular and could never meet demand, being a first choice when cover was unexpectedly required for CDT. It was sad that his much earned retirement was cut short and hand woodworking lost a friend and champion (despite being required to teach machine operations by the curriculum). Although no-one was ever apprenticed to him, I suspect he remains the ‘George’ to a good number of people, and he is much missed in the world.

  14. I was given the chance to try woodwork at school in the 60’s. Because I questioned the poor design of the projects and the waste of fine woods I was ejected from the course! Now turning to trying harder with my woodwork in retirement I realise that may have been the worst school moment of my life and the loss of a more satisfying working life! Schools hey!

    After fifty years I finally know how the plane should be set up and sharpened and your blogs / videos keep me encouraged. We all need the right teacher at the critical moment, so thanks.

  15. The name of my woodworking teacher in France was also George… and just like you he gave me more than woodworking skills. He taught me the importance of being human and kind. Today I use the skills I learned from him and I am thankful for his teaching. However when I talk about him to other people I tell them stories of things that happened with him and those stories rarely mention woodworking skills….

  16. I’m sure thousands of dovetail templates were made, not hundreds. I’ve made one. Such a simple tool yet so handy in use. Wouldn’t want to be without one. Sad to hear of the theft of your unique, irreplaceable template. To the thieves it probably looked like just a worthless bit of odd-shaped wood. Its true value was only known to you.

    Still a few projects to do around the house, some involving woodworking, but a pair of winding sticks is on the list to make as well. I’ve used make-shift ones often enough now that it becomes annoying not to have proper ones. Two pieces of aluminium square rod just isn’t the same.

    So everything we see, read and learn here, we indirectly have George to thank for. It appears I’m not only indebted to you but also to George. I wonder what he’d say if he knew he (indirectly) taught many, many more students than he thought he did, from all over the world. Usually when using my template I think of the man who taught me to make one, but in the future also George will come to mind as the man who taught my teacher. Thanks for sharing this bit of background.

    1. Whereas I give George credit for many things. When I became an adult myself I think that greater credit still goes to my father who was an example of a hardworking man and father who taught me to work, supported me through to adulthood and made certain that I always faced the ultimate responsibility for all that I did.

  17. Is George still alive. If so, I think it would be great if you could do an interview with him.

      1. I had a mentor for my profession that matter to me similar to they way you have spoken about George. I went 25 years without speaking to him. For some reason I was apprehensive to see him. We then met at a society function. He had tears in his eyes (so did I) as he was so happy to see me. I’ve seen him a few times since.

  18. Thank you so much.
    That is such a nice little dovetail template.
    Made mine two or three years ago now.
    Was thrilled to find that dovetails were not that hard at all to do. A little harder to get perfect!
    Very relaxing and satisfying with nary an electron in sight!
    Love the “George” stories. So glad he got the opportunity to teach.

  19. Is there a photograph of George that you could post here so we could know him even better?

  20. I’ve often heard Mr. Sellers say in his videos: “It’s not what you’re doing – it’s how you’re doing it”. And it’s just right. In woodworking, obviously. But perhaps most important in teaching.

  21. You’re a lucky man to have people like George to think back on, to remember the advise and lessons he offered. All things considered, I think some of that itch to teach may well have rubbed off on you too. My own “George” was also named George, a geologist to emphasized that simply because it wasn’t in a textbook, or was derided by experts, did not make it less something to be aware of. Simply because information was print on paper or opinion from someone with acknowledged expertise did not make it reliable. Thanks for your time and knowledge and examples.

  22. Mr Sellers’ blog posts have been particularly poignant during the quarantine. I’m not sure why, but they are beautiful to read.

  23. About a year and a half ago i discovered the dovetail template video on youtube and wanted to make to make one by my own. It took me five attempts and 4 screwed up pieces with handtools, because i did not have the appropriate skills. I had the the wrong technique in trying to cut directly to the scribe line in order not to have to clean up the shoulders with a chisel either. I could not saw to the line, and i did not have the skill to clean up the “tenon” part of the template with the chisel either.

    What i want to say: I have learned so much from my mistakes with this little project, that i can really recommend not to give up and accept things that go wrong not as mistakes but part of the process to improve your skills. It all comes down to realizing what went wrong and find a way to improve on your next attempt.

    Peter

    1. Now there is some sage advice. Well done, Peter! becoming a master is about not taking the easy path, that’s all.

  24. Paul,

    Would you ever consider writing a book about your experiences as an apprentice? Or just your life as a woodworker in general? Although i think you’ve probably recorded enough in your blogs here to fill many books already.

    Kind regards,

  25. When I was an apprentice I made a small hand vice from mild steel. It taught all the usual engineering skills in the process, filing to an extraordinary degree of accuracy, chiselling, machining and assembly. I treasured that vice for many years and used it almost daily. Like you, I had my tool box broken into and that was one of the items that went. Losing that vice upset me far more than the break in.

  26. Joe Christensen

    This dovetail template was one of the first things I made with hand tools. It was at a time when I didn’t have the tools I do now; I recall cutting dovetails – and the template – using a hacksaw.

  27. Paul, I still own and prize the dovetail marker you taught me to make. Thank you.

  28. Brent Ingvardsen

    I prize the instruction you have given me to make countless templates. Ive given many away and can make a new one from scrap at any time. Thank you sir !

  29. Don J Pollack

    Such a beautiful story, and it’s a parable. No one can take away the truly meaningful gift,-the time, the patience, the love of the craft, and knowledge that is passed on. That is eternal and the physical ‘stuff’ eventually goes back to the Earth.

  30. Your love for George comes through every time you share. I too am beginning to love George, I wish that every young person in the world is able to find their George and I will aspire to be someone’s George in whatever capacity.

  31. Mr. Sellers,
    I, too, am a teacher. My subject is music. I have been following your YouTube channel and have become a member of your WWMC site as well. I value your enthusiasm in what you do and, more importantly, how you do it. There is no fancy tool selling pitches or endorsements that would lead me to believe you are using a tool for the money, not the quality. I respect your teaching because I respect you. I have made many things following your patterns and have always had the courage to deviate/vary the shape of an apron or leg because it better matched my needs. A good teacher will always let personal expression come through while still maintaining quality and you have always done that. Thanks for all that you do.

    1. George is everything you want your teacher to be. He is a compassionate craftsman. He is most able in his craft, he is accurate, delicate, elegant; he embodies tradition, yet he experiments; he has the courage to take on a challange, and the ability to win it not by brute force, but by technique. George is a patient teacher, George is an older friend. He is someone you ask, when your work needs a tip. He is the one you ask, when your life needs advice. George aims at skill development and, along with it, at character improvment. George was not so rare, now he is becoming estinguished.

  32. I made mine from a piece of rescued stainless steel sheet decades ago. I don’t even recall where the idea came from, suspect a magazine. Unlike many of my tools that I inherited. I remember the previous owner whenever I use them. When I was young I found one of my grand mothers bicycle tyre lever in the snow. She had bought some new ones, gave me these as a reward for finding hers. At the time I didn’t understand why she didn’t keep these I I felt they were better. I now understand.

  33. Richard Misdom

    Thank you Paul. I copied your template 20+ yrs. ago from a visit to Elm Mott
    and have since made and gifted several away. I made a new one in maple last weekend and now that I reflect, think I’ll make another from some bubinga that I have left over from a turning project. Carry on man.

  34. I am so sorry to hear of your burglary. I am a musician who is constantly on guard of my instruments as I have many a fellow musician who have lost their instruments to theives. I feel their emptiness when they find treasures they have collected along their way disappear in a flash. Then I`ve see their concern kick in on how they will perform or teach to earn their next pay. Only the lowest of a scoundrel would take the tools of a man’s livelihood.

  35. “I don’t believe that he had the love for woodworking that I have today. No, what he had was a love for teaching and training young people.”

    I think that equally applies to you…but you seem to have a love for teaching and training (all) people. That’s not meant to take anything away from George – apprentices were usually young men.

  36. Nathan F Jones

    A nice but sad story Paul. Though legacy isn’t something I give much thought to, teaching others, something you truly have a gift for can be cherished by so many.
    It goes without saying that many would feel this way about your teaching.
    Thanks Paul.

  37. I reckon it’s marvellous you journaled the events in your apprenticeship and it lives on. It’s obviously what actions u take that counts, but drawing from past thought-out conclusions means u can share them again and act in harmony with what you believe in.
    I know there is a time to reflect and share thoughts and a time to work and produce on what you have decided (if a person has managed to get to that)…but a “Where are they now, and How did we get here?” By Joseph, John etc might be an interesting project (if not for public consumption)
    Night is coming on here, getting crisp and cool, magpies roosting for a few days and scrabbling thru the earth for worms and chicken bones. Spent a few days dragging black wattle limbs past the narrow gap of my house to the road, trying to unhook from stupid things and actions…plan always to stop and reset, look around you. Chinese diamond plates came.
    Friend is planting Royal Blue potatoes this week. Seeya Paul

  38. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    “wound up making the better on the table saw”. I hope you try, try and try again until you can make dovetails without the table saw. Because using a table saw is of course absolutely fine – but what on EARTH are you going to do the day you need to make dovetails on a 2 meter long piece (about 6’6”)? How are you going to make half blinds, hound tooth and so on?
    All the jigs in the world be damned, it is faster to do it by hand. I made my first dovetail joints recently. NEVER done it before. Had to recut the first tail and pins making the wall shelf 10mm shorter. Ended up with a beautiful piece, tight dovetails – but the second and third I made is up against the wall. 😉
    The fourth and fifth dovetail I made in my entire life is proudly presented to everyone that sees it in our living room. And on my facebook profile in a public image gallery. 🙂 It is only going to get better from here on!

    If I could do it, you could do it. TRUST me on that!

    The shelf I made: google “modern wall shift shelf”

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