From the dim light of a wintry grey sky, Jack’s pencil hovered over the drawings on his workbench dipping up and down between finger and thumb. I had gained great credit for achieving something none of my co-apprentices had ever achieved. Jack could now walk from one end of his bench on a clear duckboard that hitherto had been buried and hidden for years beneath inches of downtrodden shavings. Though Jack had never seemed disturbed by the dump he’d allowed to accumulate year on year, it was evidenced by his asking me to deal with it. The trick was to not get in Jack’s way, not to disturb him or his various trains of thought. His unwalled space was the inner sanctum into which few ever trespassed. It was his place of meditation where the architect’s drawings must be translated into three-dimensional products of wood to fill openings, gaps and spaces hitherto indeterminate, unbuilt and far from occupied. The drawings were the outlined intent of men that drew but never made. Mere lines on sheets of blueprint must yet be transformed by workmen handling saws and planes, chisels and mallets. This was Jack’s power to transform. The men scattered at their benches around the shop obeyed the lines placed on the wood by Jack’s pencil alone and cut and chopped to them meticulously. From the day and sphere of now-cleared spaces, I caught Jack’s approving smile with repeated regularity. It was the first time in a year since I started working that I felt, well, approved. The others noticed it too. In any society based on crediting others with approval, meritocracy, there always exists the jealous and envious. With these two demons present and living side by side, there could never be any kind of true peace of mind. While Jack gave me preferential approvals resulting in small tips and helps where possible there would always be some other to stir up resentment. The worst of these came from a 45-year-old joiner called Merlin. I’ll tell you about him sometime when I find time. Wretched man!
My collection of hand tools had grown carefully but steadily over the year so far in my apprenticeship. One day, sweeping around Jack’s bench, I stopped to look at Jack’s tool chest, the one I had uncovered in the sweeping and cleaning I had done. I’d registered seeing Jack’s more approving manner towards when I had cleared his accumulated bench mess but then the more when he realised my interest in the vintage tools dotted in different pockets of men’s toolboxes around the workshop.
I remembered Jack’s surprise in my uncovering the tool chest and here I was again casting my eye towards it once more. How he seemed to have forgotten it was a surprise to me but now that I myself am older I understand better how our minds work. He seemed to more have just, well, lost track of it if you will. That’s all. When I’d given his space the good clean up it needed badly I was too busy to have taken in all of the details surrounding his bench. I had however glimpsed some of the ebony elements contrasting the brass and steel on tools in his tool chest when we’d moved it around a little. But now, with the box closed and drawers shut, I noticed the name had a well-worn ‘R‘ before the slightly more prominent ‘.J.Collins‘ in the upper right-hand corner of the chest. I had assumed the .J.Collins bit only. The calligraphied name was placed there in fine brush strokes with an elegance fit for something more extravagant, more grand, maybe a sign outside a noble home of the landed gentry, a National Trust property. Yes, the name was clear so I queried the R with Jack. “My grandad!” Jack said. “He made the box when he were a lad. When he died it went to me dad and when me dad died me brothers argued over how to split it so I offered them a good price split between ’em for it and here it is. Royce Jack Collins, R.J. Collins. Nice, innit?”
It was Friday afternoon when Jack and I opened the tool chest. Beneath his dust-covered glasses and his bushy eyebrows his eyes were lively and bright. I say tool chest because this wasn’t just one of the more vernacular boxes made from ‘deal’ — the common wood used in making the five-panel pine boxes with four plain sides a lid and a bottom. This chest was different, quite stunning. Dovetailed corners, yes, but more, much more. Jack’s old hands had taken him through World War II. The thick veins stood out from the pale skin, knotted rises mapping his work-life in places but still muscled beneath the wrinkling skin. Jack had seen and done things that had caused the drink and the drink caused his hands to tremor all the more. The recurring memories for some men I worked with had resulted in sadnesses and losses they always kept inside. “Cannon fodder we were mostly!” Jack once said.
The lid was thick-rimmed, heavily strong and solid and reinforced all the further with thick steel corners screwed in place over the dovetails. The lock, hinges and escutcheon were set to stay and stay they had for some hundred years. Jack thought it to be made sometime around 1875. “Mebe more!” he said. He lifted the lid by an inset brass indent in the fore-edge. The suction made it seem stiff to lift but it was the tapered rim that caused an air seal; once the air seal was broken it lifted up against the chain-link stay and leaned back onto the taut links. His rough hands reach inside to lift out a plough plane with screw stems. “Boxwood stems.” he said. There was a filletster next to it with cast brass end enclosures, sand cast and then hand filed and fitted to the hardwood stems before being cross-wedged permanently in place. The various cutting irons for the plough were rolled up in individual pockets but dampness had added a thin surface misting of rust that had begun to discolour the coarse cotton fabric.
Do these work? I asked, inquisitively.
“Course they do! Work great. Daft bugger!”
Without more ado, he had the plough out of the chest and pulled a chunk of redwood pine to clamp in the vise. Before I knew it a 3/8″ groove had bottomed out on the internal brass stop down a two-foot length. Equally fascinated were half a dozen men and apprentices behind me gathered as a group to watch. A couple of the older men knew but the younger ones were surprised.
What amazed me equally though was the transformation I saw in Jack. His whole face had taken on a brightness I doubt that any one of us had seen before. His whole body seemed somehow younger; he’d suddenly sprung into action with his voice infusing us all as if something ancient had been unlocked from deep within him. It was at this point that I realised his abandoning of these brilliant dynamic tools was never from choice, never from them not working and never from them not giving excellent results. Even then, at barely sixteen, I saw that they were abandoned because they just couldn’t keep pace with the industrializing of woodworking. Specialisation had gradually but steadily eaten away at craftsmanship and had taken over something so much deeper. Two World Wars had been the vehicle that took away men and women, yes, but it had also been the vehicle by which mass-making would replace it. The continuum by which the Industrial Revolution would become the Technological Revolution embracing a technology yet to be born. He’d been forced by the different generations of soulless bosses chasing profit to adopt machine methods only. As he placed the plough plane in my hands he transferred to me a belief that I could take a different path. It was exactly what I needed to know. A door opened at the back of a fur-filled wardrobe into the wonderland of real woodworking.
Placing the plough plane to the wood, feeling the edge of the iron bite to engage in the cut, I sensed the union begin as I pushed the plane forward. A new revolution began. Up until that point, I did not know it was possible to still work in the abandoned ways and the opposition did not come from any worse an opponent than my peers right there in the workshop. Just what was it that drove them to jeer and mock what then seemed to me such a loveliness even some of them had never seen fully? They held nothing back in the unfolding weeks ahead. They simply seemed to hate my love for what I was engaging with. My pathway to discovery was just beginning. Those tools, that wooden box, the drawers in mahogany and oak that glided in and out with so small an effort though weighed down with many tools; chisels and gouges, wooden spokeshaves, scrapers, hand-made scissors and things I’d never seen before. In those opening moments when the case lid lifted in an arc and the history of all woodworking hand tools seemed to nestle there in the silence, in the dark of its inner chambers and partitions was amazing to me. In the opening of that single chest of tools, my life began its changing. So succinct for me was that I welcomed it to become mine. Not the tools and not the box. No. It was the way of working. I knew then that it wasn’t what you made that mattered so much as how you made it.
It was as much the fit in my hand that impressed as the shaving spiralled up from the throat and parted off at the end of each long stroke. Everything came together in the first stroke even though the plane seemed far too big for me. Planing with a number four Stanley bench plane had indeed equipped me but it was the expectation that surprised me in the repeats of successing strokes. Imagine the thumbing of the pages of a book like a flip book where images shaped move as stills but look like a moving picture of old. This was how everything impressed itself in my brain. The indelibility of such happenings are seeds of vitality. It wasn’t so much Jack volunteering into something but more my questioning that stimulated latent memories of a time when his tools and his work engaged with the true tools of the trade and craft he had been trained and raised in. I think 99% of it came from somewhere within me, the innate calling to the future. Conversations of depth and substance often if not always start with some kind of basic question. Questions alone can spark new life in old men and knowledge passes from one ancient to a new generation. Sixty years pass and a man matures with rootedness as a tree that outspreads huge branches to reach around the world. What happened with Jack reaching me and me him can cause me to share similar tools and matters of real woodworking and in a matter of minutes others. In my world now I often reach 20,000 people intrigued by ancient methods in a matter of only a few hours and my craft now lives on in the lives of dedicated woodworkers like myself known as amateurs — those who do it because they love it: Amateur from French amateur “one who loves.” So it is with my recessing hinges for 50 years when only a handful saw and now over a million, no, two million and more if you include the whole series, watch me make a workbench from studs on a grassy lawn in my backyard and people feel that they too could do such a thing.