There’s an ancient song from my childhood that my mother sang that goes something like this:

When you’re smilin’, when you’re smilin’. The whole world smiles with you…

And as I was planing my wood I started to sing this:

…and when you are planin’, when you’re planin’. The whole world planes with you.

Sawin’ does the same but I am not talking skilsaws and air nailers here. Imagine hand drivin’ a nail into a board in the middle of Trafalgar Square or suchlike that. I think maybe the whole world might just smile. That kind of piqued-interest would likely follow each hammer blow or plane and saw stroke as would the mind’s recording system in echoes ricocheting off the brick and stone walls. We should not forget that these sounds have indeed gradually lessened to the point that at some time soon they will all be gone; replaced with hoards of metallic, mechanical minions.

I have had such show-stoppers happen to me when I went to trade shows where all present were selling and buying machines and related stuff and then the “punters“, as the sellers disparagingly called them, were there only to catch the bargain that really wasn’t there. In the midst of chaos and noise, a single handsaw saw stroke penetrated the cacophony with its barely discernible sound, and by this, its stark contrast, though still and small a voice struck out in the wilderness as the plaintiff cry of a curlew high above over the moorlands. This harmonious soul has rhythm and synchrony in a world of discord and it is this rhythm that I have grown so much to love. So much was my presence felt there that people stopped in jaw-dropping amazement, their faces expressing abject unbelief as they moved in one accord to the subliminal rhythm and movement of what I speak.

There was indeed always something about these visible actions, the combining of sights and sounds, that drew others into the world of the maker, even when they were not and could not actually do it themselves. I saw this time and time again, year in year out, wherever I worked, but in my workshop, the barriers came down. I have seen people mesmerized by snakes, the eyes of snake and man both fixed immoveably on one another. Nothing can part the magnetic forces This type of work intrigues passers-by to the point of slowing them and even stopping or causing them to change direction and purpose. In fact, people are so drawn to the kinds of manual work of which I speak that sometimes they find themselves simply staring, in total bemusement.

For 25 years my open-workshop policy to my shop drew people of every background, age, gender and ethnicity. They were free to wander into the safe zones and stand to stare, ask questions and touch the wood as they wanted to as I mostly continued undisturbed to work. It’s not really a British thing to do, open up yourself to open doors, so I did it–I try not to be too British. It can hamper your style. Too much exclusivity and preclusivity undervalues life itself for me. Life is always about sharing and all the more when you have skill. I love having people around my workbench, whether they are woodworkers or not. I would rather catch up on any time loss early next morning or after normal working hours for an hour or two. Remember I hate TV with a passion.

Cutting my two-minute double-dovetail and teaching someone’s youngster to use a spokeshave somehow translated people from the other world into an otherworldliness of the most magical transportative type. Escaping from my adult world took me back to the world of a child. The songs we remember and then recall as we work are not so much melodic and musical but songs written without scores, breves, quavers, semiquavers, crotchets minims or demisemiquavers. Such is the mesmerising power of ordinary handwork that becomes so extraordinary.

30 Comments

  1. Graham Houghton on 18 May 2020 at 12:57 pm

    I believe it was Max Bygraves who had something of a hit with it in the fifties, or possibly early sixties.

    • Steve Blackdog on 18 May 2020 at 1:42 pm

      Indeed. Of course, Max Bygraves always started with “I wanna tell you a story”. How fitting for Paul Sellers! I love this blog because it is Paul saying “I wanna tell you a story” and we all listen.

    • Stephen Tyrrell on 26 May 2020 at 2:03 am

      It goes back much further than that. It was written in the 1920’s and has been recorded many many times. Still being recorded by modern swing bands today. A great song and a great theme for a woodworker!

  2. Thomas on 18 May 2020 at 3:23 pm

    Dear Paul,

    I’ve been working for about a year now in my Dad’s dimly lit loft on an old B&D Workmate, using restored tools I inherited from my Granddad and one’s I found on eBay; practicing joints and making dovetailed boxes like the ones you make. I enjoy the solitude, and it reminds my every day that I don’t need to sit behind my desk at work to be fulfilled.

    I’m currently in the process of designing a hallway console table as a gift for my Mum and Dad, using joint you taught me, tools you introduced me to and an appreciation and sensitivity you instilled in me. My Granddad would spend all day making in his small shed. The other day my Mum said to me that he would be happy to see me using his old tools. I just wanted to say thank you for giving me this connection to my Granddad, who I miss very much.

  3. Joe on 18 May 2020 at 5:21 pm

    Thanks Paul. When I started woodworking with you four years ago, part of it was to evaluate if I wanted it to be a new career direction for the last third of my working career or just a hobby. I ended up changing from the big company I was at to smaller companies and my career feels reinvigorated so woodworking is a hobby.

    The plan was to open a shop in the heart of our downtown. In one window would be examples of pieces for sale. In the other window would be my bench so those walking by could see me at work. Inside there would be an area where 4 or 6 folks could sit for some free coffee and cookies. I figured the elderly gentlemen Of the community might stop and have a cup in the morning making for some social gathering. I’d also have a shelf of some of the good woodworking books for sale and some core hand tools for sale. That way if the furniture was out of a price range but they wanted to buy something, there would be items.

    Our downtown area is nice but it lacks traditional male interests in terms of shops. As such, I thought this kind of storefront would be a welcomed addition to the community. Who knows, if I tired of the small start up companies that have reinvigorated my career it could still happen.

  4. Jim on 18 May 2020 at 10:36 pm

    I remember that song your mother sang to you as a youth here in calfornia in the fifties a legend on children tv ” sheriff john”sang that song . What a coincidence love your blog .

  5. John Cunneen on 19 May 2020 at 12:39 am

    Paul, here from politicians to those trying to sound like they are part of working class use that same phrase to describe customers, clients and the general public. I have thought it a great disservice. Even those of my own profession, lawyers, frequently use that expression. I dislike it. In Australian slang the full expression is “mug punter”. It is a racing term to denote a bettor that loses their money. It applies to those who buy that gadget, latest machine etc.
    I was privileged to have to work in factories when I was a student due to poverty and my father’s early death, sadly not in woodwork, I clocked on and off, saw both the good and bad in the old factory, now long gone. I remember the foremen, leading hands, the young apprentices, the tradesmen and the labourers like me, the long area from one end of the factory to the other that I swept each day. The sound of the presses which I still hear at night when going to sleep.
    Out there please do not call your customers punters, it is a great sign of disrespect. Keep going Paul. We are listening, watching and trying even if we don’t always succeed.

    • John2v on 19 May 2020 at 5:40 pm

      Mr John Cunene. Please read Paul’s blog again….he was referring to sellers of machines, thinking of their customers as ” punters” not a term used by Paul!

      • Paul Sellers on 19 May 2020 at 7:04 pm

        Thanks, John. You are right, and I did express the derogatory term I witnessed regularly being used by sales staff in every quarter. I would never regard a fellow human being in such a way.

        • John Cunneen on 20 May 2020 at 9:42 am

          Paul, I never thought for one moment that you use that phrase punters to refer to others. I worked with tradesmen and I now help older friends who are tradesmen restore their old cars. They have their talents which I do not have, I have a small ability to rebuild old engines, taking the time to refit them, slowly working to the tolerances and some problem solving on the way.
          They and the ones I worked for and with never used that expression. You have too much respect for us out there to think of us in such terms.
          I apologise unreservedly to anyone who thought I have criticized Paul. That was never my intention.

          • Paul Sellers on 20 May 2020 at 10:00 am

            John, don’t worry at all. I never get offended anyway and I see that you did not do or say anything out of hand. Kindest regards and thanks.



  6. Bill on 19 May 2020 at 5:35 am

    Paul, I know what you mean by “ people stopped in jaw-dropping amazement“

    I once went with my family to an amusement park – Silver Dollar City. Just inside the gate they were making a new shelter of some sort and there was a man there hand hewing the beams with an axe. I could have watched him all day – and would have helped had he handed me an axe (of course he couldn’t – lawyers and insurance adjusters would never allow it.). But alas the kids were excited for roller coasters and log flumes; so off we went.

  7. nemo on 19 May 2020 at 10:07 am

    I had the same a while ago when I was working in the front yard with a Stanley Yankee screwdriver. A boy of about 8-9 stopped in the street and spent many minutes gazing as I was just working along, removing hundreds of screws from the fence at rapid speed. After a few minutes he asked what tool I was using. He remarked it was a very peculiar screwdriver, that he had never seen one like it before. I answered that that didn’t surprise me. But he did notice it was one mighty handy tool, as I was rapidly removing screws with little effort (nor noise nor empty batteries). After a few more minutes of staring, he said goodbye and walked on.

  8. Tom Bittner on 19 May 2020 at 1:41 pm

    I know a couple of very dedicated doctors who do nothing but take care of patients. They are passionate about their chosen profession and can’t understand what other people do for an occupation that’s different.
    They have almost zero outside interests other than treating patients or doing diagnoses on illnesses. Other people have occupations like sales or insurance and also can’t imagine doing anything else.
    Some people just aren’t interested in making things, let alone doing manual labor. I think it’s sad to be so narrow in scope but on the other hand I’m grateful for people like those doctors, salesmen and clerks. Everybody makes a contribution in this world, if you spark an interest in the work you do then you have done your part.

  9. Adriano J. M. Rosa on 19 May 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Since I became aware of your work, I realized that you are also a poet.
    Poetry is one of the joys of the soul.
    It is not necessary to write Poetry with the metric that the rules dictate and that poets such as Florbela Espanca, Alexandre O’Neill, Pablo Neruda or Rudyard Kipling, for example, use. We also have Japanese poets.
    Thank you, always, for the encouragement.

  10. Samuel on 20 May 2020 at 2:49 am

    That’s the battle every day, probably the beginning of depression — succumbing to the anti-mindfulness world. The human race is fixated on TV, porn, coffee, coffee, mmm nice car, why do you have what want? why can’t I be a musician? Ooh celebrity pretty face. You are brilliant, I wish I knew you, I wish I was a soccer god!!!
    And we go crazzzzyyy!
    But the “harmonious soul has rhythm and synchrony in world of discord”
    I’m thinking that maybe have to switch off stuff from outside awhile, then see what I can hear left over.

  11. Rhett on 20 May 2020 at 5:14 am

    Thank you for what you do. If I travel from the US to there, could I meet with you? I would love to have a meal with you or a “cup o tea” as you British folk say.
    My best to you.
    Rhett
    Idaho, USA

    • Paul Sellers on 20 May 2020 at 9:58 am

      Most likely not simply because my schedule and geographical locations are mostly undetermined but always action-packed. I can suggest that you might look out for any events here that might come up in the coming months and years as it is just as likely I might do a show or venue in the USA.

  12. Steve P on 20 May 2020 at 7:26 am

    Definitely something about that. A couple years ago I visited George Washington’s residence and they had a lot of “working sections”. What really drew me in was the blacksmith shop. Running just as it did back when Mr Washington lived there. I was mesmerized by these guys making horse shoes and even something as simple as nails, I even bought some. So much to do there and so much history and I spent a majority of the time just watching the blacksmiths heat up iron and hammer it down.

    Also, i recently watched a public broadcast show about the making of Notre Dame. I would have loved to watch those men build. Some of the most skilled craftsmen of all time working on something they wouldn’t live to see. Such a different mindset.

    • Paul Sellers on 20 May 2020 at 9:12 am

      Many of our cathedrals here in the UK saw four generations of stonemasons go through the building of them. Craftsmen, yes, but ordinary men, that’s all. We treat soccer players kicking a ball around a field like gods and demigods and then too glams on world stages to be worshipped and adored. So glad we don’t and cannot do that with the truly skilled artisans whose work mostly remains hidden and at rest in anonymity.

  13. Paul Beanland on 20 May 2020 at 1:13 pm

    I want to comment on your last few posts and vlogs since the corona thing started.
    I have found them to be inspirational, grounding and, above all, calming.
    I started “making” years ago as a metalworking machinist. Lathes, mills, surface grinders, CNC’s and such. Worked with every material from wood to inconel.
    LOVED EVERY BIT OF IT.
    Taking a piece of raw stock and transforming it into a part that could be used on a piece of machinery or whatever was/is mindblowingly gratifying for me.
    After I got out of machine shops because of my health and being fed up with the hollerin’ and screamin’, I wanted to continue “making”. I found out, real quick, that setting up my own machine shop is a VERY EXPENSIVE undertaking.
    Like a lot of others, I stumbled across your youtube vids. I found that with 10-15 hand tools and some wood, I could
    “make” and feed that part of me that was gratified working as a machinist.
    There are others on the interweb that espouse the same “philosophy” about woodworking as you do.
    You’ve got ‘em all beat by a mile.
    I say the following without nary a hint of flattery, YOU ARE A MAN TO EMULATE.
    Thank you teaching us and for trying to keep our happy hindend’s calm and grounded.
    Like somebody said recently “TRUST IN GOD ALMIGHTY and wash your hands.
    😃😃

    • Paul Sellers on 20 May 2020 at 6:27 pm

      Thanks for this, Paul. It is always inspiring to hear back from everyone and especially when people are so genuinely struggling to stay positive.

  14. charlie dickinson on 21 May 2020 at 9:09 pm

    Hi Paul

    Been reading a few of you blog posts and i am fascinated by how things were made/built in past era’s

    I have read your posts/watched videos on sharpening and and note is this blog post you are using tools from before the iron plane was invented.

    Can you shed light on how these were made flat and true and what did the craftsmen of the era use to sharpen the blades used in their wooden tools.

    • Paul Sellers on 21 May 2020 at 10:14 pm

      I think all of this is already written in previous blog posts. If you use the search box id does retrieve information very accurately.

      • charlie dickinson on 22 May 2020 at 6:48 pm

        Found your wooden jack plane restoration video.

        The plane didn’t look like it had been used much since construction and your comments regarding the blade at around seventeen minutes were very informative.

        As a youngster i can remember grandparents and neighbours sharpening knives on the stone door steps. Also taking scissors, knives to a man with a grinding wheel who came around every few weeks or so on a horse and cart.

        Thank you Paul

  15. Loxmyth on 25 May 2020 at 4:03 pm

    Random thought: has anyone ever titled a book on handplanes “Plane Fancy”

  16. Fred Smartt on 31 May 2020 at 5:34 pm

    Paul,
    I bought a rebate plane from an antique shop yesterday and found something interesting: there is a very small iron (about 0.25 inches wide) on the cut side of the plane body. Do you have any idea what it may be for?
    There is a stamp on the toe that says “B. Fuggle”. I don’t know if this the manufacturer or the last owner. No other identifying information.
    Any help from the Expert would be greatly appreciated.

    • Paul Sellers on 31 May 2020 at 6:30 pm

      I will assume this is a wooden plane, Fred, and so the side cutter is a cutter for using cross-grain so that this cutter cuts the fibres just ahead of the main cutter behind. Without this cutter, you would need to cut the shoulder with a tenon saw or such before cutting the rebate. Without seeing the section of the plane itself I cannot conform that it is a rebate plane or panel raising plane.

      • Fred Smartt on 1 June 2020 at 4:10 am

        Thanks for the reply. I understand rebate plane bit not “panel raising plane”.
        Yes, it is a wooden plane. It has an adjustable base to adjust the transverse position and width of the rebate and a vertical stop for depth. How can I get a picture to you?

        • Paul Sellers on 1 June 2020 at 11:07 am

          Can’t do it here, but no need, I have seen these and know of what you speak. I assume it has a long wedge that slips into a dovetailed channel that holds the snicker cutter in or indeed a separate mortise with an ‘L’ shaped cutter.

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