Sensational people were not exhibitionists but ordinary workers making. There was no acting and no faking.
I remember watching George make a dovetailed corner to a cutlery tray with divisions for each type of eating implement using sycamore offcuts kept after our making draining boards for a school’s commercial kitchen. Each move was deliberate, unwavering, incredibly direct. A dovetail quickly formed became template for the pins. The pencil came to sharpness from the chisel’s edge twice to lay down pristine lines black on white with the light fineness that became unordinary. Back then I recall him squaring the ends of thin wood without the aid of a shooting board using only the briefest glimpse and glancing placement of a square alone. The ends gleamed beneath the fluorescent lights as he twisted and turned them in and out of his Record quick-release vise and then came the tap tap tap of his Warrington hammer as the dovetailed corner seated one piece to the other. This pattern of working, fits coming straight from the saw, airtight joints utterly gapless, taught me in a matter of two minutes how to cut dovetails. I never used any other method as a matter of course. Pins first seemed backwards and illogical and I never resorted to substitutes for skill.
He passed the next corner to me and I stood transfixed in a stare eying each piece end in incredulity. He expected me to repeat what he’d just shown me with no words of explanation. His gently laughing as he passed me the dovetail template told me this might not be as easy as he made it look and he had not used it on his corner but then he said, “No ruler though.”
The saw seemed heavy in my hand somehow even though I was now using it daily. It all related to the thickness of the wood, the size of the work and the relationship between the saw to the lines. Today, I anticipate grains by knowing their fibrous innards. What? Internally I grade woods by my reference of decades of experience. On a scale of one to ten oaks come somewhere between 8-10 whereas maple comes mid to lower and many exotic woods come in at one to two. Ebonies are a solid mass where grain can sometimes seem non-existent. Pick up an old bowling green bowling ball and you will understand what I mean. Oak on the other hand will be half or less than half that weight. Gaboon ebony, very endangered, weighs in at 70lbs per cubic foot while red oak is 45lbs a cubic foot. Back then I had no terms of reference. Woods were all the same — pores, hardness, density and such meant very little to me. My sycamore felt somewhat soft and lightweight (34lbs per cubic foot) but when the saw entered the wood it seemed somehow to be gripping the saw plate.
I had placed the lines by copying George’s, roughly. They looked right, spaced evenly. And two dovetails are easier to visualise spacings for than three. The width of my wood was 2 1/2″ (63mm). 7/8″ (23mm) dovetails gave me 1/4″ (6mm) pins, near enough.
My saw did not glide as George’s had, slipping into and through each cut kerf as smoothly and effortlessly as always. The edges of my dovetails looked a little jagged as each stroke left its ragged trace of even the slightest of wobbles. I can’t remember whether I was conscious of this or whether the evidence came when the two parts were married. George’s even hand, steadily powered through with far fewer strokes than mine. And then there was the chopping. Hmm! Knifewalls were not called knifewalls then. I created the term to have the word describe what was being created with the knife: Marking knife seemed so inadequate and more apt for timber-framing and general carpentry. I’m glad that I had the foresight — striking knife was the same. I am sure George would be surprised by where I am now, 58 years to the week later. Blogger, influencer, knifewall. Such terms didn’t exist back then and neither did any of the social media or even the term exist either.
Surprisingly, my dovetails did come together and held. I did two and George did two and the foreman, Jack, came over and took a look at them. Taking his glasses from his forehead he looked over the top of the dark tortoiseshell rims and smiled. “Not bad, not bad!” he said, nodding. “They’ll be better next time. Do it again!” he said. And I did.
In the mesmerising world of YouTube, we often see the ordinary sensationalised by something sped up by time-lapsed, almost instant videography. Cuts and edits come almost instantly at expert fingertips dancing across a keyboard. It’s easy to forget that handwork skills must be developed by rote practice and that it will take time and repeat processes to understand the complexities of various wood types, how the tools work with them and then our humanness relating to everything. Usually, few of us own skilled and ordinary work straight from the first try. To own it we must expose ourselves to our own weaknesses. So many times I have seen the obvious become confusing when my hand, my arm, my eye and my body seemed incapable of doing what I felt was completely understandable. The ordinary now unseen in most crafts owned by the ordinary man and woman seem to me all the more extraordinary now that I am an old man. 200 years have passed since the man and the woman warped the loom, spun the yarn and wove the fabric. George and Jack, the ordinary, showed me the better way of patience and skill so that I could truly own all that I would need for sixty years of making and selling and living a lifestyle of making all that I loved in the making of things wood. It’s the ordinary that reserve the right as extraordinary people to be recognised.