Oh, George!

It was George that taught me so much at the bench over the years. But it wasn’t so much about the woodworking as it was about human kindness. I’ve told you how a couple of the other men at the other benches were often disparaging about Bill because he was Jewish. Well, by contrast, George was an exact opposite. He exemplified kindness and love. Bill too was kindly to me, and in addition, showed me many things about our craft. On this particular day, he was showing me a system he had for sharping crosscut saws with each size having a slightly different take. By way of age, Bill was old, way past retirement by 15 years or so, but he persisted in the face of all adversity. As I watched Bill working the saw and showing me his method I noticed that he repeatedly went into the gullets more times than once and then sometimes several times. The information was good but expediting the filing not quite so. I made to interject when I caught George’s finger go to his now pursed lips to silence me.

“Bill! Would this be a good opportunity to let Paul have a go? That way, we could see how he is progressing with his saw sharpening? What do you think?

“Aye! That would be fine!” Bill passed me the saw file and moved over from the front of the saw.

I hadn’t done much remedial saw work but I could see how Bill was slowing down and could no longer micro-adjust the file. You know, the length of each stroke measured differently, the angles had lost regularity according to touch and sight. It saddened me to see a man losing what he once could do without thinking. Some of the other men would laugh and joke about him, say of him that he was losing his touch. That he was, “As blind as a bat!” Bill was becoming grumpy through this mocking and from time to time he showed it, but he was also a kindly man too. It was the former man I had grown to know. Two world wars had taken their toll on him and the men in the shop. You could see that clearly. But his wizened shape and distorted hands did little to endear others to him, I saw this too.

I took the file from Bill and squared up to the bench and the saw chocks and leaned into the work. The file was a Stubbs file, a file known for its quality but even then, at that time, no longer available for purchase. As the file passed into and through each gullet i could feel the two sets of eyes on me. This was where I recognised something. What I had seen from a distance with my eyes, Bill could here perfectly well and knew what was happening between the saw file and the saw plate.

“Slow down a bit, Paul. You’re in too much of a hurry! Feel for the steel, my dad and my grandad always told me!” A quick calculation told me that he was talking about to craftsmen from the mid 1800s who had trained him. I slowed my pace and started feeling for the feel on the steel through the file. Vibration meant an uneven cut . . . aberrations in the surface of the tooth face instead of a pristine flat. The sound changed as I progressed.

Bill’s teeth had taken a bit of a hammering and being so close to the work he had missed what was happening. As often happens on small teeth, the file took out two adjacent teeth and resulted in one deep gullet. I couldn’t really say anything but I knew well enough to ignore the space and that eventually, a tooth wood emerge over consecutive sharpenings. I also know that one or two missing teeth made little difference to the functionality as long as there were not too many close together. At the close of the filing, I handed the saw to Bill and George and they both said to me at the same time, “This is good!” Bill took the saw and crosscut his wood and remarked on how good it felt. “You can do my saws from here on, young Paul. This is great. Well done!

There is always a moral lesson in my George experiences. Kindness is never wasted and through kindness we extend our love and care to others. The elderly often want to give but may have no context to express their gratitude. Bill passed on his working ability to me even though he could no longer work as well as he once did. The mockers and scoffers are often jealous of what you might have and take for granted. They often learn nothing from people they might despise because their hearts are not open to the possibility that an old man might just have something much more valuable than their mocking.

40 thoughts on “Oh, George!”

  1. Robert J Amsbury

    Just so grateful that you and others of similar mind are here to pass of some of that wisdom you learner from Bill’s generation.

  2. Great story Paul. Did you sharpen the saws moving forward for Bill? The stories Bill must have been able to pass along to you. Priceless.

    At one point, I was dating a woman who ran a assisted living home for the elderly. I very much enjoyed talking to the men who were in their 80s who had been in their prime in the 1940s. Fascinating stories. Real time travel.

  3. Its very neat to hear of things being passed on to generation to generation. This is something that always interested me about the martial arts as well. My old kung fu instructor had learned from his master who had learned from his master, who learned from his master etc going back hundreds of years.

  4. An excellent story of subtle knowledge being given to an apprentice by a man 15 years past retirement, who learned from his father and grandfather. Not the way skills are taught now, that’s for sure.

  5. This is how I learned leather work. And knife makers in Australia have an excellent mebtorial friendly attitude. My engraving teacher took me on just as the coles of his burned down workshop had just cooled. we picked through together finding this and that and then sat in the caravan with his engraving tools. he refused to take more than a minimum wage hours pay from me and then I would still be there most of the day. These are the kindest and most generous men who have given me far far more than skills. They are the sort of people who make the world entirely worth living in. Thankyou Paul for teaching me woodwork with care.

  6. And today we wish to shove them into retirement centers so they don’t interfere in our lives, how much wisdom are we and our children and grandchildren not taking?

  7. Thank you Paul your story came at a time when I needed it. I was asked to serve on the local University’s Diversity program. Have been questioning the value of having a retired 65 year old Irish German guy on a diversity committee. Surely they would need diversity more than an old guy. Now I understand my role. George & I have similar approach to people. Thank you Paul & George

  8. Godfrey Millinson

    A great story, well passed on. Real knowledge and experience is within a person. When they retire or walk out the workshop door it all goes with them. When people like George and Bill were kind, we don’t know what their life experiences have been to shape them, especially in the aftermath of the World Wars, thank you again for writing about them both.

    1. Robert Millinson

      Its refreshing to read Paul`s experiences in his working life. If we look hard enough perhaps we can all find George and Bill in our past, that is if we can see thru the `past` smog of the black country. Which I guess from your surname is where you emanate from.

  9. Wisdom can just as often be found in what a person doesn’t say, as in what they do say. Thank you for continuing to share your knowledge and wisdom with the world Paul, it makes a real difference.

  10. People think they are being smart when they insult others but they are simply showing how low their intelligence is. Loved that story!

  11. The things we have, and the things that we do may change over time, but people remain the same.

    Some are mainly good. Others set out to do bad, and hurt others while bettering themselves. And then there are a lot of us who fall somewhere between those extremes.

    People should honestly look into their own souls to see how they truly rate, as opposed to how they wish to be seen.

  12. When I was young I just thought be should be kind to the old. They had time for us young ones, our immediate parents were too busy and preoccupied.

    As I grew older I started to appreciate the acquired knowledge and wisdom of the elderly. Now as I approach old age I realize, I missed something: fully understanding becoming old. We are all becoming Bill, so fully understanding that might be a good thing.

    So be kind to the Bill’s around you because that might allow you to get closer to them and you might learn something valuable from them – about life if not woodworking.

  13. Paul some of your writing’s remind me of “A Carpenter’s Life” by Larry Haun. Especially your ideas about enviromemtal problems. I hope you publish that book on your work expiriences soon. Thank you for a you do,

    1. Erick,
      I too have noticed the similarity and have one of Haun’s books. He was a treasure trove of not just “How To” information, but “Why It (meaning craftsmanship) Mattered” too.

  14. Paul:
    That took me to my apprenticeship. We had a couple of men who were wonderful and many from the city of Philadelphia that were as nasty as could exist . I was nineteen. They thought nothing of treating a young man poorly but soon learned differently. What a learning experience. I moved on from the machine trades but never forgot how people could be. The great admonition of do not engage was not lost on me. A few well placed words usually had the desired effect.

  15. Dear Mr. Sellers,

    It would be a wonderful thing to create a book compiled from all your George and Bill memories………

    1. I second Peter’s suggestion. This is a wonderful blog post, and I can only imagine that a full book of them would be delightful. Thank you for posting these stories, Paul. They are almost as great as your videos, which are very informative and wonderfully calming.

  16. I was being mocked for using a brace and bit by my brother in law with his Fancy Dan new drill specially for driving screws. It made a funny five minutes joshing .

  17. What a wonderful way to learn how to work with hand tools and how to keep them in top working order is to learn from our elders. They are willing to pass on the skill if we only observe and listen to what they do and say. A wonderful story from the past.

  18. Paul, your anecdotes remind me so much of the James Herriot veterinary stories. If you weren’t so busy passing on wood working skills you could easily occupy yourself with several novels of amusing, moving and philosophical tales set in the wood working world and still (and maybe even moreso) get across that sense of a lifestyle woodworker.

  19. Lovely story Paul. I served an apprenticeship as Fitter and Turner and I was grateful for the knowledge the older tradesmen passed on to me.

  20. Thanks for the inspiration Paul I had drifted away from hand work over the last few years . I had some house renovation that needed to get done out of necessity I had any array or power tools going. I was thinking how the dust and the noise take away a lot of the pleasurer. Have done most of my “must do jobs” I started playing around with a combination I bought in Stockport UK 35 years [I have been living in the US for many years now] I put a rebate in a length scrap board, and it reminded me of you and the meditative exprince hand work. I decided to keep going try a hunched mortice, it tuned out quite nice. So why not keep going and make three more, and we can have a cupboard door with a raised panel all be hand, wow I did that, Now we need the rest of the cupboard.

  21. Thank you Paul. I always enjoy your post, how you take your past experiences and turn them into real life lessons for us all. Love conquers all! Matthew 7:12

    Larry Smith
    Former student Dallas TX

  22. There is such a great untapped repository of experience and knowledge in the minds and souls of our Senior (I call them “experienced”) citizens.

    With a small investment of the time to talk and show some genuine interest, and listening, one can reap big rewards in that small investment.

    I have a retired neighbor who is 20 years my senior, lives alone (wife long passed), kids grown, gone and living out their own lives, he usually keeps to himself.

    A few months ago he saw me in front of my garage, struggling to figure out how work on my 60 year old Delta table to replace it’s blade arbor bearings that finally gave out. He came over to the fence line and yell out “Hey, whatcha doing?” I explained, and he says “Hell, I know how to do that, I worked in a machinery repair shop in the 50’s & 60’s”. So he comes over, and while standing beside me, instructs me exactly how to remove the blade arbor assembly. We take it over to his garage where he has a bearing press, the old bearings are removed and we hop in my car to drive to an industrial supply shop for new bearings.

    It’s during that trip that I learn of this man’s background in being a machinist, a tool and die maker, and a welder. I also learn that we’re both interested in various endeavors, both of us remarking “I had no that idea you would be or might be interested in…. ”

    We got the new bearings pressed onto the arbor shaft and installed back into the saw in about 1-1/2 hours. The saw is running great, and I have a valued new friend who is now teaching me to weld! And after that, how to use a metal lathe.

    He’s been uplifted by feeling purposeful again, and I’m grateful and yes, honored at having his knowledge being passed to me.

    What a God awful shame it would have been for it to just have passed “quietly into the night”.

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