I remember making my first chairs in 1968; hard for me to imagine! Patience for a variety of processes is not something you are born with and patience combined with the teen age seems even the more incongruous — a period in need of the greatest level of development, from what I have seen. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find it on my own. I had a mentoring craftsman named George hovering just the other side of the workbench, me at one corner, he at the other, saying, “Plane it!” or, “I wouldn’t plane that.” or, “No way, Jose!” Perhaps then, “Scrape it! Split it! Pare it!” The heartache of having to redo meant reaching out to understand and there are some things you have to learn in the doing of it, no matter how good the explanation of another, no matter what’s read, etc. Reaching deeper to within with the need to understand and master is best achieved by the ignorance of a subject you feel. It starts with that internal searching for the cause of a very slight vibration — an iteration left in the surface of the wood by a plane often and wrongly called chatter but most likely plane skip, skidding, friction sticking or a dozen other reasons including thick and heavy overweight planes without the flex and versatility more modest planes have. Those walls of resistance and the subtle resistances were there in every made move, the ‘catch’ of the plane, the file’s ‘stutter’ and ‘stammer’ in the saw gullet and the ‘jibing’ of the spokeshave’s taunt when we least expect or want it. It was the swift turn of the wood in the vise, the flipping of the plane to a pull instead of a push that became part of the immediate solution, the cure, if you will. I believe I pull my plane, spokeshave, scraper as much as I push them but not because some Japanese advocates suggest I buy Japanese tools but because it was an industry-standard in my early day of learning my craft. Part of the fuller education an apprentice in training got right there at the bench that you could never nor still ever find in just a book. The immediacy of George’s prompts was invaluable. It’s this that’s mostly gone. That one-to-one face-to-face impartation of a mentoring man opposite you. I haven’t seen it in the last fifty years or so of making, anywhere yet it is something I have done with many new to the craft and that over a number of years in their training. But then there were the times when George just left me to it. I’d feel his eyes on me as he slowed to a gradual stop to stare bemusedly at my struggling, wondering if I’d ask for help or just muggle through, muscle through to learn something new on my own. These were cathartic moments as in the split-second flicker of light, that moment of revelation where you just suddenly get it and you get it just for yourself in a way that no other being can tell you and it’s yours, yours for life. And it’s this that separates crafting artisans from the all-knowing know-it-all smart-alecks that have become ever-more prevalent in today’s woodworking culture.
People talk about luck. I never believed in luck. Never saw the term of any real value. I was not lucky to apprentice. It wasn’t such a happenstance thing at all. I had decided on a path, a calling if you will, and pursued it with all that was within me. This still happens. How do I know? Hannah, John, Jack. They knocked on my door and the door opened wide to them. These are the free spirits that will carry my craft forward as I did when I started back in 1965.
Working with George especially, and all of the other men I worked under later, left me in no doubt of my position on the totem pole. Starting at the bottom and serving the men was the best thing that ever happened to me. I made tea, swept the floor around every man’s workbench many times a day, and then, with no extraction system hooked up to any machine in the shop, and wood being milled for the work of ten or so men, machine shavings from half a dozen massive machines had to be bagged and that could easily be an all-day job week in and week out. “BOY!” became my new name from day one and throughout the first two years until the next apprentice came along. You had to graduate to first-name terms being used. ‘Boy.’ was the title given to the newest apprentice and in many ways, it was easier that way. You had no illusions about yourself, your ability or your status and position. The bottom is a good start for anyone.
I have been finishing off the dining chairs for the Sellers’ Home series on making dining chairs and though a chair takes me about two days of handwork per chair, filming multiplies the task-time manyfold. What was two to three weeks’ work has been two and a half months for nine chairs if I include three iterations in prototyping. The processes I used took my wood from rough-cut commercial mill-sawn wood to a finished chair with each in relatively quick succession and the issue of what can a machine do better than handwork inevitably creeps into the minds of other makers out there. I will admit that having used machines alongside hand tools for three decades, it took strong determination to wean myself off the dependency that took place through the years. With my long-term experience in both realms of woodworking, and with a 40′ by 80′ workshop, my quest would be greatly different to yours. How so? I was teaching classes with 20 students who in a given month would use 150 pieces of wood to make a series of 10 projects. That’s 3,000 sections in various soft- and hardwoods of equal or greater proportion. Well, there can be no doubt that a power planer reduces the rough-sawn to planed four square and parallelity lickety-split. In the schools I started that went full-time and year-round over two and a half decades both in the USA and here in the UK, I had no choice, but when I started teaching and training online, and with my apprentices too, I felt it was time to disconnect from the woodworking grid that had now taken over the world of real woodworking to replace it with machine-only methods. Remember, when I began teaching hand tool woodworking, there were only a handful of types even throughout the world. But then the question comes up, what are the gains and the losses? My wood was consistently reduced in size by repeated cuts on the bandsaw. These rip cuts were essential on the back legs because nothing ran parallel and I had dog-legs with knees throughout. Once cut, all of the pieces came to a finished level with half a dozen swipes to every facet with the bench plane. Wood from the planer still needs this remedial step one way or the other as the planer rarely gives a finished level ready to apply finish to. Now I do know about spiral cutterheads and they work well, as I am often told. Do I want them or the planer in my workshop? I don’t. The pollution would be just too much. Pollution? Use a dust extractor! I’m not talking about dust and chips pollution. I’m thinking the very presence of the machine itself first, then there is noise pollution. On it goes, “Been there and done that!” I’m not going back. And don’t get me wrong. Owning and using power equipment like that is just fine with me. I don’t think reducing stock to size using them is some bad thing. I think we must all choose for ourselves what we want. `i think too that I have proven for many decades that you can achieve some of the finest work if you never turn on a machine. I am fitter for my decision now than when I was 50. Stronger and healthier, I move forward working my full-time career as I did at 15 when I began. I’m just as interested, just as enthusiastic, just as happy if not happier!