It was a late Friday afternoon when the driver stepped down from his lorry to deliver oak to the workshop storage sheds. I was in the workshop when he came and heard him call to George at the workbench. Do you want some cherry logs, George? George quickly nodded his yes and said, Come on, Paul! Let’s go for a look-see!

We all went outside and stood to stare at the logs like a bunch of calves at a new gate. “We’ll take ’em.” George said.

George and Merlin decided to drop the three logs in a 55-gallon drum of rainwater parked at the bottom of a downspout until it could be “sorted after.”, as Merlin said. At five-thirty we retrieved the logs from the drum and laid them down on the concrete to take a second review of the cherry. Which do you want Merl’? George asked, deferring to the older joiner. He already had his eye on the straightest and largest section and George immediately agreed. Of course, I had a wanted a bit of a tussle over this one but there was no contesting. The second log went to two older apprentices and another nice log it was too. The last section was short and stocky and was crotch-grain intersection where three branches had emerged from this triangular region of confused grain. I think that the other men were quietly laughing at us taking the leftover and I must admit feeling a little miffed when George could have had either of the two good logs.

The next day the logs got cut on the bandsaw to remove the bark and split in two along the length. Ours, of course, was awkward whichever way you turned it and I thought to myself this is a waste of time. George saw my surly approach and asked me what was wrong–as if he didn’t know. I said, “This cherry, it’s rubbish! What good is it?”

“Ah! I see!” said George.

“Well, it’s less rubbish than a boy’s poor attitude!”

I immediately felt convicted and apologised with a ‘Sorry!’

George wrestled the heavy stem to the bandsaw table and we steadied it into the first pass. He managed to keep it dead steady and straight. Turning it onto the new face he made the second pass and then a third and fourth one. The inside looked quite stunning. All the intersections swirling around this way and that. It was at this point that George caught the glint of joy in seeing what no man had ever seen before. I put his arm on my shoulder and led me away from the other men who also took up calf-staring at the wood.

We sat on a pile of oak and George asked me what I thought about the wood now. I told him that it was beautiful. He said, “Well, it’s much more than that. We can get half a dozen mallets out of that.” One each and four to sell. What do you think?”

I felt thrilled to be included in the deal. But then something said made me realise that you didn’t have to wait until yoiu were old to find wisdom.

“The section I chose was calculated. Yes, I did allow the others to have first pick but `i did it knowing that no one would want the section left over. I wanted that because I had a project in mind–mallets!”

He went on, “The best place for mallet wood is the crotch of a tree because the wood is much denser and more interlocking, you see. Live-knotty areas are the same because of course that area is the root of the branches and wherever that occurs you can guarantee the wood will never split because the grain has no straightness to it and the interchangeable grain direction inside means difficulty to work but longevity to the piece. This is especially so for a tool like a mallet or a chisel handle.

The sections were cut further and we painted the ends with oil-based undercoat to slow down evaporation from the log’s end grain areas. George stuffed them under wood stacked and stored in the lean-to wood racks and I never saw them again for two years.

“Why did we put them in the barrel if water when they came, George?” I asked.

“Ah! Well, if they are left out in the open air for any time they quickly start to crack because they are still full of moisture, you see. Putting them in water and weighting them keeps the same level of water in the wood until you’re ready to do what we did. On short sections like that you need to move rapidly but on longer sections it’s not such a problem.”

Two years later the wood was dried down enough for mallet making and George and I got permission to work late at nights after work to have mallet-making sessions. I think those two-hour stints were my very fondest memories. Needless to say, George let me pick my wood and I picked what I thought would be less good so that George got the better wood but he switched on me and said, “I want you to have this one with three hard knots in it. It will be much harder to make but it will serve you the longest.

Layout, boring, mortising and fitting handles came one step at time as I followed Georges steps. We sharpened and sawed and one night we were there until eleven o’clock before we realised the time and jumped on our bikes to cycle the cobbled streets of Hillgate, Stockport and on over to Edgeley. We split up half way and I went home to Adswood.

Over the next few nights we shared more time together and chatted as we made. These are the unforgettable times we all have from time to time and we cherish them the most because they have acts of kindness woven into them.

26 Comments

  1. Ermir on 30 April 2020 at 11:40 pm

    Once again, thank you! A beautiful and meaningful piece to read!

    What you shared on water, moisture and drying was all new to me.

  2. Denis schoone on 1 May 2020 at 2:30 am

    Makes me think of my buddy Spanky. First my boss and later friend. If he hadn’t t taken the time to show me I was capable of anything I put my mind to I would never been able have the life I have. Spanky is now in heaven. I am finishing 35 years in refrig and ac trades retiring slowly and learning woodworking. I hope he knows how important he was to us

  3. Thomas on 1 May 2020 at 9:07 am

    “…like a bunch of calves at a new gate.” What a great line.

  4. Coline on 1 May 2020 at 12:14 pm

    At nearly 90 my grandfather was still walking resolutely to his local pub for his weekly catchup with his “young” apprentice who himself was now retired.

    Something has been slowly lost from our society in recent selfish times.

  5. RODNEY MAGEE on 1 May 2020 at 12:14 pm

    Paul, you are very fortunate indeed to have these memories. Thank you so much for sharing them and giving us a glimpse into what made the man.

  6. Rich on 1 May 2020 at 12:31 pm

    That was just lovely.

  7. Ron Geer on 1 May 2020 at 1:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing those memorable moments. I read this blog post on the morning I read that one of my favorite teachers had passed away. We had lost touch in the years after school, but the memories came flooding back. Good memories.

  8. Joe on 1 May 2020 at 1:40 pm

    Beautiful story Paul! Thanks a bunch!

  9. Patrick Sadr on 1 May 2020 at 1:45 pm

    It’s easy to overlook how many purposes/uses a piece of wood can serve!! This story is very fitting for me because I have discovered how beautiful it is to work with cherry recently. I was asking a friend who collects and burns wood like me if he had any cherry logs in his wood pile.
    He told me he he did but it is big and knotty. I immediately got turned off because the piece that I realized down from a piece that I grabbed off the split firewood stack was nearly perfect for planing. It didn’t even really matter which way you planed it. I had never seen a piece of wood become so polished before. Keep in mind my experience is amateur. I have found that splitting wood down to woodstove size pieces and then to smaller pieces of kindling have given me an a huge advantage of the learning curve of knowledge of wood grain, knots, crotches, etc when I started wood working. Realizing grain orientation, and other characteristics came easy almost natural.

    So until I read this I was kind of turned off about the piece he was talking about, but none the less was going to go gave a look see. Now I will approach it in a new regard. Thankyou Paul

  10. Patrick Sadr on 1 May 2020 at 1:48 pm

    I immediately got turned off because the piece that I “resized” down from a piece that I grabbed off the split firewood stack was nearly perfect for planing.

  11. Patrick Sadr on 1 May 2020 at 1:50 pm

    ” I have found that splitting wood down to woodstove size pieces and then to smaller pieces of kindling for 15 yrs had given me an a huge advantage of the learning curve of knowledge of wood grain, knots, crotches, etc when I started wood working”

  12. nemo on 1 May 2020 at 2:31 pm

    Enjoyable post and also educational. ‘Ter leringhe ende vermaeck’, as the Dutch saying goes.

    I had noticed in your mallet-making video that you recommended knotty wood for a mallet. It made little sense to me. The explanation in this post suddenly makes all the pieces of the puzzle come together. The water barrel was also new to me.

    Many years ago I got a lot of very bad plywood from the skip of a wood supplier. The price was good (free) but the material was bad, very bad. It was originally used to transport and protect ‘proper’ wood. Nevertheless, that plywood I later turned in a few cabinets for the shed (and a box for the pruning cutters, which I admired this very morning). It took quite a bit of measuring and working around/leaving out the bad parts but the end-result was very good. It gave me quite a boost to be able to make such good things from such ‘worthless’ material.

    In your case, however, the material was far less worthless than you and your colleagues initially thought. Not low quality but high quality, or rather, fit for purpose. Unsuitable for cabinets but perfect for mallets.

  13. Mike Towndrow on 1 May 2020 at 2:57 pm

    It never ceases to amaze me how far ahead you need to plan ahead. Finding a lovely piece of wood and then having to wait two years before you can finally work into the piece you had in mind for it. Much Patience needed – were you at all anxious to get started during the wait?

  14. Joe on 1 May 2020 at 5:53 pm

    Beautiful story. Do you still have that mallet? Was it the one in the photo?

  15. Francois on 1 May 2020 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing this great story, which combines great wisdom with technical insights! People such as yourself and George make the world a much better place!

  16. Hasan on 2 May 2020 at 11:03 pm

    Beautiful story as always. Thank you.

  17. Bob Wallace on 3 May 2020 at 12:25 pm

    Wish I could have known George. Knowledge you get from the old masters such as yourself is hard to come by.
    Bobby

  18. Thomas on 4 May 2020 at 10:49 am

    Hi Paul and Team,

    if it’s okay, I have a couple of suggestions which you may or may not be interested in:

    -A feature on your blog’s main page so that one can filter blog posts by date, number of comments, subject, etc.

    -A feature so that one receives an email notification if somebody has replied to their comment. (This would encourage discussions even in older posts)

    Have a nice day and keep safe and healthy,

  19. Douglas Mungham on 4 May 2020 at 2:59 pm

    This is such a meaning full story brings memories flooding back of my younger years.

  20. David W on 4 May 2020 at 3:16 pm

    Hi Paul,
    an article on logs and how to acquire and process them would be great.
    Thanks,

  21. John Hollis on 4 May 2020 at 4:14 pm

    Your blog reminds me of my visits to Farnham in Surrey; I ether caught the train or cycle the nine miles from Alton to visit my uncle Ross (Snowy) Wheeler. It was 1943 to just after the end of the war.
    At weekends he was in charge of the wood drying kilns for Crosby timber. He would walk me through the various temperature controlled rooms & explain the different timbers & where they came from. When it was time for me to go home my uncle would give me a small bundle of off cuts of wood from the scrap pile which I kept for many years. Glorious days!

  22. Martyn Legg on 4 May 2020 at 8:35 pm

    A wonderful account! With older eyes, I now see that I owe so much of my ability and wealth to quiet, diligent guys who saw enough in me to make them want to teach me a real craft, even when I couldn’t see it in myself! It’s such a privilege to have had craftsmen that have inspired us to always do better!

  23. Bill Wright on 4 May 2020 at 11:56 pm

    Coline,

    I think your observation is so on the money. Perhaps more selflessness will be one of the very few good things coming out of this pandemic. I am in Canada and news now is featuring many acts of kindness each day.

  24. Alan Goldizen on 5 May 2020 at 3:36 am

    Beautiful piece Paul. Many thanks from Tasmania!

  25. Dave Cross on 5 May 2020 at 10:13 am

    I’ve just realised why I find your voice so familiar. I grew up on Daw Bank then moved out to opposite Jacksons Brickyards. Small World!

  26. Nathan on 6 May 2020 at 2:36 pm

    A story worth telling and how nice it was to read.
    How far was the ride home.? On a racer.
    Thanks Paul.

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