The opening days of my woodworking
School and School Woodworking
How it all began
What happened to the turned rolling pin I’ll never know. It’s 60 years since I first pushed the well-worn green button on that massive Dominion lathe in the school woodshop and saw the wood suddenly start spinning full-pelt around at a massive rate of knots. I watched awestruck as the hard corners magically disappeared to become an ever-changing apparition of a ghost swirling to shrug off excess wood and its angular squareness to become utterly round. It spun effortlessly centred along the long axis of the wood, whipping up spirals of shavings in seeming anger at the surrounding atmosphere. I had never seen such a thing before and even mesmerising seems inadequate to describe it.
The gouge, stoutly strong, seemed to me to be something only grown-ups might use. That dulled brass ferrule surrounding the fluted steel, with its brown lacquered, bulbous handle, gave a quality to its robustness that would ultimately shape my appreciation for things wood and equally so the tools that would convert it from a billet to an elegant leg, a chair spindle and a rolling pin and all of this by my own shaping of its future. My simple rolling pin may be well gone now after many years of use by my mother but the memories became fully a part of my changed life. I was on the verge of making but not just my rolling pin, I was about to begin shaping my future.
I think my walking through the red door with its reinforced wired glass marked a new beginning for me. Yes, it was the way into the woodworking workshop, but somehow it meant more to me than I could ever express. What experiences lay ahead for me I could not know anything of at that moment. Little did I know then that state schools would actually be about to determine the total demise of woodworking for young people on a national scale. School teachers cannot teach and train woodworkers any more. They are school teachers with no experience of substance that enables them to teach almost any kind of craft skill.
My going through the doors marked the beginning of woodworking in a workshop I’d never seen or experienced before. My recollection still holds such clarity; the workbenches and hand tools, with bright sunshine spilling over the workshop from the north-facing windows. It was a clarity I never felt about any aspect of school before or after. The mixed scents of different woods permeated everything physical and beyond with an infusion that would touch my very soul with a love for all things wood. I knew of unique feelings with that sense of prescience like this from my time spent being a part of nature where the constancy in my life was the wildlife I always felt so important. This very brief encounter, nothing but a few minutes long, translated all of my being into what would unfold as something I soon came to know as my future. Future had not been something I saw myself taking ownership of until that moment entering the woodshop. It needed no explanation from then on.
Thinking back to the significance of finding myself surrounded by workbenches I see the importance of being separated from academic classrooms and being immersed in a creative sphere of unpredictability. It was for me like art where you give 10 children paper and crayons and they create individual works and none of them looks like the subject they are drawing even though they are looking at the same object; no two are in any way alike. This large, bright room looked nothing like any school classroom I had ever seen and rightly so. For me, the wholeness of this space was a blank canvas where the first brush strokes would outline my future. It seemed completely detached from the rest of the school by its atmosphere alone but then far beyond because it was filled with expectation.
The wood racks were stacked in staggered levels with that awkward randomness of different woods you somehow want to find a solution to but never will for the rest of your life in woodworking. Some wood was still rough-sawn from the timber suppliers, some planed smooth. Every piece a misfit, unstackable, this would be the order of wood disorder throughout my future worklife. It seemed at first glance to be scattered on shelves and racks in a clumsy disarray of more and more misfits with no two pieces the same size in length, thickness or width. This alone defied order and yet there seemed then as now that there was always an attempt to stack and steady the gradual descent to chaos; something I would come to see, know and understand in every corner of every woodshop I would go into in the future. It’s a homeless gathering of orphaned sections of wood in mixed colours, sizes, and shapes that would never fit, never stack neatly yet could never be discarded as waste wood. And then too, I realised that each piece of wood had somehow managed to settle next to a partnered piece, up against, over or under one and then some other as if married each to fit an impossible circumstance of fate. This melding of personalities, dark with light, straight with curved, partnered light and dark, heavy against slight and the most diversely grained left me with a sense of new restfulness–a peacefully acceptable oasis in an otherwise confusing world. In piles of wood, neatly stacked or as piles of logs and limbs always translate me into a world that has come to rest. Here too was a world I would soon find rest in; the only time wood is truly organised is when it comes together as a composition in a finished piece of well-crafted work.
This was the very first time that school and school life made any real sense to me. A hitherto unknown pocket of sanity opened up in my inmost being and though I did not know it verbally, something deep was actively connecting me to a future I as yet knew nothing of; it was a something of true substance, yet only viscerally understood as having a depth yet to be plumbed into my unfolding future. I didn’t know at my then age of thirteen years that I could, would or even should choose something so immersive as a future. No one had prepared me for it. No one suggested that one day school would end and I would need to leave for something I knew only as a ‘job’. Yet now, there and then, somehow I knew that there was a kind of precipice I was moving unprepared towards. I would soon be leaving a world I knew to stretch only a few feet in front of me towards a new future that then seemed more like a vast chasm toward an uncharted territory I was incapable of negotiating let alone actually navigating. Simply put, I saw a future ahead of me for the first time and I was undaunted. I felt an excitement building inside me to leave what I had lost over that previous half a decade in secondary education to move into a personal rite of passage, a passage as deep and wide and long and unknown that became the end of one life and the start of a new one. The boredom and seeming uselessness there gave me the strongest will to escape its coercive clutch of some kind of ownership. The greatest value in the school I finally attended was that I could then see what was not, to see what was. I saw my way out of a darkness I had come to know over too long an era so that I could indeed reject the life offered and mapped out for me to think anew beyond the walls, fences and gates of school. Taking hold of it as a rite of passage, a calling, was what I had to do and I did do exactly that. From those few opening minutes standing in the doorway of the woodshop, seconds even, and by that I mean just pausing there and looking and smelling and feeling the warmth inviting me in, I picked wood as my living breathing future, even though future then had no meaning for me. Life up until then was mainly lived moment by moment and often without considering its meaning. All things until that minute seemed out of reach for my arms and hands to grasp. I could no more grab a hold of a future but merely clutch at the thin air I breathed and by it somehow take hold of my unknown. To say something leapt inside me understates the reality pure hope held for me. I began to feel the possibility of new freedoms. I just needed to get through another year or two and my steps on the journey were just now beginning.
The lathe whirred and the wood wafted the surface dust on the lathe bed of the lathe upwards in billowing, spinning powdered waste like the sand rolling beneath a desert wind . . .