Jack Collins – Quiet Influencer

Jack pulled at the strap of my bib ‘n’ brace to jerk me back and spin me around to face him at his bench. Gentle though he was he wanted to make a point. I always avoided sweeping around his bench because I never liked the grubbiness of his working domain. His spilt drinks and cigarette burns all along the edge of his bench, some deeply burned in and far enough to reflect past fire hazards, spoke of a man whose interest in life was severely diminished. He never kept his benchtop tidy so the floor never, in my opinion, warranted the efforts with my broom. Jack was really the boss of the workshop as foreman and master joiner. He was a quiet unassuming man and was easy enough to forget because of it. He spoke very little and rarely to the apprentices directly. His area of speciality aside from being the best joiner was laying out projects, everything from spiral stairways to circular window frames. He spent most days poring over technical drawings and checking the details ready to go to the wood from which they would be made. As shop foreman, he laid out the joinery for just about every project that came into the shop; no small task with a dozen men and boys working around the shop making everything from doors and windows to drawers, boxes, case goods and the usual joinery of a prolific joinery workshop.

“Clean up ‘roun’ my bench, lad,” Jack ordered. Top, under and around were unpassable for stacks of wood he would get to to lay out. I looked at the wreckage in disbelief, wondering where to actually begin and how any man could allow such dereliction of order to his life. It looked like no one had taken on such a task at his bench in years. The thickly layered dust and shavings clogging every corner reminded me of stratas in geological digs where time shifts were recorded in layers of sedimentary rock and soil changes but in this case, we went from oak to Sapele, walnut to pine and then back to oak again to start over the next batch of projects. The debris had been further hammered down and home in corners beneath Jack’s black and well-worn boots year in year out. What did he want to keep and what did he want digging out and burning in the burn barrel?  I filled fifteen wheelbarrows with trash, shavings and sawdust before I saw the concrete floor. Jack’s bench was much taller by the end f the day but Jack, now in his older years, had begun to shrink. With his only work laying out and reading plans, I suggested cutting the legs down three inches.

 “Cheeky beggar!” Jack said. He cuffed me round the head as he said it, reinforcing our positions in the hierarchy.

It took me two days to retrieve Jack’s work area. Apprentices were the dogsbody of the shop. We were often called toerags for some reason I never knew why. What’s a toerag anyway, you might ask? A toerag is usually used derogatorily to describe someone beneath contempt. A worthless being of no consequence. When you did something wrong you would be referred to as a “little toerag’ and even worse. Everyone would look up at the humiliation and join in.

One thing I discovered under Jack’s bench was a very beautiful tool chest replete with drawers and laden with tools from the previous century. He had inherited them from his father and grandfather. Ebony braces, squares and forty-fives. Long paring chisels and chariot planes with such Victorian loveliness you’ve rarely seen. In my interest, he saw something and pulled open the drawers to show me the deeper things of woodworking.

“I made this chest as my apprentice piece.” Jack said, proudly.

“All mahogany and oak. See them dovetails. None measured and all dead to size!” he said.

One thing I could never change was Jack’s appearance. I doubt I could ever find a replacement who could translate plans into finished projects more quickly and more accurately than he could. His brain was hardwired for the task and he could decipher an architect’s designs to make what was missing happen. Architects never got into the needed joinery for frames and structures beyond lines outlining shape and size. Within each 90º corner there had to be some mechanical joint that held frames fully aligned and strong enough to last for a century and more. This was Jack’s main job. In a matter of minutes, he could decide on the sizes of tenons and dovetails, the numbers, twinned or doubled or whatever and this fascinated me beyond comprehension. The business of equals in terms of mortise walls and tenon cheeks was always silly, little more than a college tutors interpretation for students to latch onto. Think planes lying on their sides here. Silly.

There were days when Jack’s bushy eyebrows had a layer of thick dust on them from the days machining of makore, European redwood, oak, ash and others. His wavy hair too carried a wider layer and so did his jacket which summer and winter never left his back. He was the only one who always had three-day stubble on his chin whereas all of the other men were clean-shaven every day. I always wondered when he shaved because I never saw his face any different so never once did I see him cleanshaven but always with a few days’ growth. 

Jack’s overalls were what we call the bib and brace type but in the vernacular came out bib-n-brace as a single word. Basically, these were loose-fitting pants with access to inside pants through slits, button-up fly, and a side knee pocket for the folding three-foot four-fold rules that slid along the side of the lower leg before tapes replaced them later. From the front of the pants was a bib held up by straps that came over the shoulder from either side of the back of the pants. The keyhole clasp slipped over two brass buttons to hold up the bib which also had an angled pocket for a small notepad and pencil. Jack’s bib ‘n’ brace was many years old and I doubt that they were ever washed whereas the other men even had theirs washed and ironed once every few weeks. Mostly these were to keep dust off your inner clothes. In every crease of Jacks being, eyes, hands, clothes and overalls held encrusted layering of ever-present wood-tan sawdust. Whereas this did indeed define Jack, something else defined him that seemed quite incongruous. His cut lines for all joinery and the overall sizing for finished elements of the work to be done was always within fractions of the smallest fraction of an inch — that’s near to thousandths of a millimetre. I doubt that I ever saw any craftsman use finer points on their pencils than Jacks. This alone set him apart from all others as did the inch-and-a-quarter chisel with which he sharpened his pencils so many times a day. He was the one who taught me exactly how to sharpen my pencils when I needed perfect accuracy. He did this with superb speed and accuracy to place the crisp lines for the men to cut to. Any slight variance here would come back on him. That never happened. When I need something sharp for technical drawings, I use a newly sharpened chisel and sharpen up half a dozen pencils so as not to break off in my work.

Jack’s interpretation of life revolved around three things; ale, work and more ale. I could say it was a sad condition really. Drink was his downfall and at aged 65 when I met him he looked to be around 80. There was another element in his life that I wondered whether it would cut it short. He chain-smoked  John Player cigarettes and consumed three packs of 20 a day or more. They hung either from his lips or the edge corner of his bench. The ash dropped into the shavings most of the time yet no fire ever started up. When he spoke to me his eyes screwed up to deflect the streams of blue smoke wafting up to his forehead. When he left for home in the evening he left for the pub. His pace at the bar was sacrosanct as was the pint pot he kept behind the bar. Ten pints was standard over the evening but five minutes before seven o’clock he left for home and dinner which arrived on the table dead on seven. But he never missed a day from work because of drink, smoking or a hangover though he did come in with a hangover once or twice a week. He was never grumpy but I knew when to leave him alone.

Jack was the one who would strip down a carburettor, change out the parts and reinstall it ready for the drive home. He taught me to repair machines like bandsaws and how to strip them out, fettle parts and reinstall a whole manner of components. Back then we filed bandsaw teeth by hand as we did what we then called sawbenches with 22” circular saw blades. This instruction mostly came from Jack who took every apprentice under his wing in the first two formative years. But one time he removed the wheel from his 1940s Ford Prefect, removed the innertube, cut up some rubber and applied some contact adhesive to both pieces and reinstalled the tube in the tyre (tire USA). Then he tied a rope around the tyre, used a stick as a tourniquet and started pumping the tube until a seal formed around both rims. The tyre popped when he released the tourniquet and he finished off the inflation ready for restoring the wheel.

Well, that was Jack. Another influencer in my life. Some people occasionally ask me which other makers influence my life. Well, none of them can really match what Jack and George freely gave to me. I will never forget his blue-grey eyes clouded and shrouded by blue streams of smoke and overhanging eyebrows covered with wood dust. Such men influenced many an apprentice’s life in both very positive and sometimes mildly negative ways. The dusty shoes though always polished beneath were covered in dust from the machines that surrounded his bench which was centred in the hub of activity both for the machine workers and the bench hands. Such quiet, unassuming influencers were throughout England with no intent to ever leave their mark through quick-witted, smart-alecky remarks. They just deposited their knowledge and skills in the lives of those that followed and did it quite freely at that. They just did it!

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