Its been quite wet lately so, rather than go to the woods and get soaked to the skin, I decided to tidy up my workshop. I began by sitting with a coffee and watching the rain deluge from the skies for a good hour or so – there’s no point rushing into things after-all – and thought about everything that needed to be done, inside and out.
So, I sat, I sipped, I peered, I pondered, I listened to the rain patter on the lawn, the birds belt out a tune, and I sipped some more while I waited for the coffee to kick in. Eventually it did and I dragged myself out of my comfy seat by the door and reached listlessly for the broom. First thing was to sweep all the shavings off the surfaces onto the floor and then from the floor into a bag and then to the chicken house. great billows of dust rolled out the door and into the rain, to be immediately flattened and washed into the grass.
After a good 7-8 minutes of hard physical exertion it was time to sit and ponder a little longer – what to do next? As I watched the Robin indulge in a feeding frenzy on half drowned worms I formed a plan. Light a pipe, and take the day to sort, clean and arrange the many, many old tools scattered around the place. So I did.
As I worked and looked into half forgotten corners, opened draws, peered under piles of ‘stuff’ I discovered tools I’d forgotten I had – I was on an adventure, and journey of discovery and I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled to rediscover object of staggeringly beautiful utility. These old tools have an energy within, imbued from decades and decades of patient use and care. I took my time, looking carefully at each, cleaning away dust and grime, sometimes labouring to eliminate the rust of ages past, to reveal bare metal and glowing wood – each object receiving numerous coats of linseed oil until it shone and the wood and metals revived and took on a vibrancy that told me they were ready for some serious work. As I restored a tool I found a space for it on the workshop wall, where I could admire it, and, more importantly, where I could reach for it easily and use it for its intended purpose.
I spent hours and hours reviving old hand-axes, spokeshaves, drawknives, chisels, saws, gouges, flat planes, rounding planes, and anything else that caught my attention. When I’d finished I had a wall of beautiful gleaming vintage tools, with razor sharp blades, ready to take on a small forest if necessary. I have accumulated many tools over the years, and I have intended to clean and sharpen all of them for as long as I have owned them – and, intended to use all of them regularly. I never have, until now. Now I can.
To celebrate my achievement and being on a little bit of a high having done something I’d intended to do for a very long time, I went for a drive in the landrover with my chum, Otto. No real purpose, just a mooch about, to look at the world, and relax after some intense activity and concentration – and, if we had the windows wide open and the vents fully open, maybe some of the smell of strong tobacco that clung to us would blow away.
As we barrelled down the road, grinning from ear-to-ear, at a whopping 35mph there was an almighty bang, a clatter and the sound of rending of metal being torn apart by the hands of Thor, or some other god with unimaginable strength. The landrover engine revved to a high pitched wine until I took my foot off the throttle, we coasted to a stop, and I realised there was no drive to the wheels.
I looked in the review mirror and saw a giant lump of metal lying in the road and realisation slowly dawned on me – that was my rear pro-shaft! That would explain the low rumble and increasing level of vibration I had noticed over the last few months! I got out, walked back down the road and picked up the shaft – the UJ’s had literally self-destructed and mangled the prop-shaft. Sitting back in the vehicle I engaged 4-wheel drive and limped slowly home at a sedate 10mph, all the while thinking of all the work I had to do that required a fully functioning workhorse. Flip! This would undoubtedly change my plans for the week, if not the next two weeks. so, I ordered the new part and set to waiting for it’s arrival.
The devil makes work for idle hands, so I needed to get busy. As I sat in the workshop pondering the repairs and the crawling around under a landrover, in what would undoubtedly be a wet cold day (it always is when there are repairs to do), I looked at the wall of tools and the small French axe and three antique spokeshaves in particular. I pondered their uses, and I reflected on the deep dissatisfaction I have felt about the seats I have been making for chairs – In particular the straight, sharp edges of the boards I use. Ok! They are beautifully sanded and waxed, to show off the end grain, but, looking at them from the side, they always, to my eye, look ungainly, unfinished, and at odds with the curves of the wood used in the rest of the chair.
I picked up my saw, put on my willies and rain coat and set out into the rain. As I trudged across the fields to the woods, I pictured a nicely formed seat, with flowing edges, easy on the eye and tactile to the touch. I saw long thin shavings falling from the spokeshave as I worked on the seat. As I walked through the woods, and then back to the workshop with some beautiful hazel, these thoughts occupied me. As I worked on the chair I looked forward to the moment I could start to create the seat – it would obviously be Yew as I am entranced by it beauty and nothing else seems to satisfy me – for many reasons.
I chose a piece of Yew, and started to work on the rough cut surface, slowly revealing a wondrous grain, and colours I knew would radiate from deep within when waxed and polished. I set it to the chair frame and started to cut it to fit the legs, and was about to cut another piece to ‘complete’ the seat when I stopped and just looked at what I had – how the piece of wood flowed, the shape of it. Ok, it didn’t completely fit the chair, and it left a small space towards the rear of the seat – but, I liked it. So I stopped, lit a pipe and pondered for a bit. And, the more I pondered the more I became enamoured with what I saw. It was different – it was verging on minimalist. I could have cut another piece and fitted it to the piece I had, but, why? Would it be more beautiful? More practical? Would it make a better chair? No! It wouldn’t do any of these things. In fact, what I had would provide a wonderful visual element that would draw the eye, as well as exposing a part of the chair not normally seen – like looking into the workings of a watch, only infinitely more simple and utilitarian – a single mortise and tenon, that provide strength and support that usually go unnoticed, unknown.
I reached for a drawknife and started to work the edges of the board, being careful to take only small shavings. Then, I reached for a spokeshave and carefully set to forming the seat edges, rounding and smoothing, so they were flowing and visually soft. I slowly worked the natural edges of the wood, accentuating the natural shape and curves – long, wafer-thin shavings fell to the floor and I became engrossed in what I was doing – the movement of the shave, the precise cut, the transparency of the shaving, slowly evolving shape and the grain being released from deep within. My pipe went out, unnoticed, the rain fell, unnoticed, and the bird’s songs receded into silence.
A whole afternoon passed in what seemed like the blinking of an eye – it seemed that, no sooner had I started, than I had finished.
This chair is the result of many things colliding; tool collecting, a rainy day, rejuvenated tools, a spot of housekeeping, mechanical disaster, dissatisfaction with what had gone before, a desire to use old tools for new things, and the need for quiet calm and things pleasing to the eye.
As if to reinforce this, the chair itself is made of many different types of wood; Hazel, Ash, Willow, Birch, and Yew. Well, maybe not ‘many’ but, certainly, more than usual.