My Book: A Life of Woodworking

The opening days of my woodworking

School and School Woodworking

Part II

How it all began

The lathe whirred and the wood wafted the surface dust from the lathe bed upwards in billowing, spinning powdered waste like the sand rolling ahead of a Texas desert breeze. The quietness of the motor surprised me as much as the power of its turning the blank between centres distorted the squared-cornered section into a hologram of filled-unfilled and transparent space. This was to be my first encounter with the unique sphere of woodworking, the demonstration by a man who knew the best way to manipulate gouges, parting tools and then the half-inch skew too was mesmerising. My then new-to-me teacher, Mr Hope, gave a knot of fifteen boys a demonstration of woodturning between centres by creating an endless series of coves and beads in a solid of wood in a matter of seconds using but one, bright steel gouge. I don’t think the others in the circle around the lathe felt the same way I did — this was no longer playtime for me, but they continued goofing around.

I felt an unwritten, unspoken invitation that was somehow all-infusive. That spinning blank of rectangular wood transformed from square to round simply by the spinning of it. The hard corners spun out into oblivion in a split second, grabbed my whole being. As my teacher lowered the gouge to the tool rest I watched mesmerised by a perfect cove forming in perfect symmetry a matter of feet from my eyes. Inwardly I was captivated and outwardly that curved shape was shaping me in a way I never knew possible. There and then it showed me that wood could be turned from useless clunkiness to total functionality and all in a matter of three or four minutes. It was the simplicity that made turning seem so invitingly simple. Watching it done by someone able took what seemed impossible before that mesmerizing moment into the realms of ultimate possibility. I knew then that I could do it. I could make something neat and lovely and meaningful and it would take only a matter of minutes. Watching the ribbons rise and cascade like fireworks without sound somehow ignited in me a simple spark. I knew I was alive to this more than anything I had known in school before and that this was something simply called woodworking. 

Mr Hope’s more sallow complexion and his casual demeanour belied an inner vitality I had yet to witness in any of the teachers I had come to know. Thin-faced, slightly built and angular throughout his body, he carried himself in a slow-paced faltering gait without the precise movements you might expect from a man his age. He was too young to move so, but it made no difference to his abilities in working wood. I liked the enthusiasm he brought to my life at this pivotal point. His tweed jacket with its leather-patched elbows of soft suede sagged from his thin frame like an old canvas tent. The image aged him all the more but somehow he exuded a warmth in his eyes from beneath his gold-rimmed glasses that magnified them tenfold. His glasses, perched precariously on the low point of his pointed nose, made him look over the top of his glasses for the farther away distances. He was the newest teacher in the school and he was also new to teaching woodworking. It was here in this class that I first encountered teacher enthusiasm. All others were dyed-in-the-wool teachers aged by their profession and not by the years lived. I learned there and then that enthusiasm is everything, a very powerfully effusive mannerism and to any willing recipient it’s always infectious. All of the boys were captivated by this unusually physical work. No desks, paper and ballpoint pens here. And I think it was here then that I first discovered that there was very little physical activity in the other parts of school; a strange example of work if you think about it, when you think that even now half the population at least is engaged in working physically in the multidimensional world of working yet in schools there really is almost no example of working manually. No other lessons beyond the physical education of sports required bodily output beyond sitting at a desk for hours in a day. Whereas sport has always seemed to me more a waste of space, practical hands-on craftwork, no matter the type, filled me with constant delight and still does to this day in the 60 or so years of my doing it full time. 

Mr Hope had previously changed from joinery work to become a teacher through his training at Loughborough teacher training college. This alone had given him a new world to live and thrive in. In minutes he twisted and turned the gouge in, out and over to show how quickly a rolling pin could be turned from a square section of wood on a lathe — handles were formed to fit the hands in two quick manipulations and it was these manipulations that so piqued my interest. My delight met his enthusiasm full on and I felt a symbiosis I had not felt since I was in primary school at eight or nine. 

In my school days, 1955 to 1965,  shorts were for children and long pants were the demarcation starting manhood. I felt like the short-trousered child being tipped into the long-trousered world where something called adulthood began; I was about to do something so totally grown-up for the first time. It was a machine that made the difference and I was about to use one. The wood, held between two points, was as my life, suspended between the points of childhood and adulthood. The gouge was the tool that would add shape and character and my taking the billet from square to round was the defining of growth. The theory was at least good, the intrigue held me in a place of fascination, of anticipation, of future. Mr Hope’s bony hands did express his experience that showed me what was at least possible; that was all I needed. 

I’m not sure what intrigued me from then on but mostly it was the effortlessness exuded by the magician in control of his audience. In just two minutes and what seemed to me a single sweeping pass from left to right, my introduction to something I never knew possible was complete. Soon I would have my turn on that lathe. This, his simple dextrous movement with the gouge, mesmerised me. With the wood spinning in high-speed suspension between head and tailstock, my fascination grew. Shavings spiralled upwards like a sky-filled fireworks display to a rhythmic background whir of wind, the vibration of the motor, the wood and the gouge. The long plumes of ash twisted as swirls upwards, stopped midair and then spiralled softly and slowly to the floor. But right then, when a boy was talking instead of watching, Mr hope seemed apt to skew the gouge and direct those spirals into the ever-open mouth of the recalcitrant. Even that action showed the measured control the master had. Nonetheless, when Mr Hope asked who wanted to be first, my hand had shot skyward ahead of all others — I did not want to miss the start of this journey. He took me first to the bench, handed me a bench plane, a No 4 Stanley, and showed me where to plane. Drawing 8 lines along the length of the billet using his finger as a joiner’s finger gauge, he placed it in the vice and gave me my first lesson with the plane. In fits and starts, I removed the corners down close to and in some cases beyond those guidelines. Amazingly I formed my first octagon shape 20” long. It took most of the lesson, but with his assisting along the way, I was ready for the lathe. 

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