Apprentice Carpenter - Recollections

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Recollections of a Woodworker

Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

I'd like to thank John for allowing me to share his recollections.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

The following is in John's words.

Copyright © John Gainey 2020 all rights reserved.

I stood at the top of the stairs and looked down the long workshop. I saw, workbenches, mens faces, and white aprons. It was 1955 I was 15yrs of age and just left school, I was nervous and shy. One of the men in a white apron beckoned me over to him. I walked to his bench and there started my career as an apprentice carpenter and joiner

I got the job because my mother was an office cleaner for the Great Western Railway - and The- Docks and Inland Waterways - at the Pier Head Buildings, Cardiff (it is now a museum), this entitled her to two free tickets a year on the railway and any member of her family the opportunity to work at a trade for the GWR. There were a number of trades, I was offered carpentry and joinery.

The Workshop

The workshop was above the mill on the first floor. It consisted of nine benches, double sided, approximately 12ft long. Metal vices and some wooden vices at each end. The well of the bench contained loose boards that could be lifted out, to hide personal work from the foreman's notice, and a drawer each side for the tools in use that day. The tops of some of the benches were chipped and gnarled from years of use. Underneath was a shelf containing offcuts of different jobs and woods of every kind.

The Men

The men were either carpenters and joiners (qualified to wear the white apron as a badge of their trade) or, carpenters. The carpenters were unqualified and so did the rough work on the docks such as lock gates, pontoons, coal-tips which lifted the coal wagons and tipped the coal into the waiting ships. These men wore the blue overalls of the GWR workforce.

Hanging above their benches on the wall were various tools used daily. An adze, crosscut saw, and large auger bits with a hole at the end for a wooden handle these ranged in size from 2inch to 4inch . I remember being allowed to use the adze on a piece of green heart for a lock gate, the edge had to be rounded over; the men joked that it would be safer to stand with feet in two buckets to avoid cutting the toes off.

At each bench was a large black wooden tool box with white initials painted on the front, which no one would go into without permission (an unspeakable crime if done so). Billy cans and enamel mugs were stored in a small cupboard hanging on the wall by each bench containing, tea, sugar, and a tin of condensed milk.

A small mess room for eating meals was at the end of the shop but was rarely used as the men preferred to eat at their benches and stretch out on top for a snooze at the dinner hour (woe betide the apprentice who made a noise during that sacred hour)

The Tools

Each man’s tool chest contained his saws -- the rip, panel, dovetail, and coping saw. Chisels, hammers, mallet, and screw-drivers, moulding planes, squares, and gauges. Wheel brace and drills, Stanley ratchet brace, and bits, protected in a bit roll, and the wings kept sharp, these ranging from a quarter to one and a quarter.

A rare piece was the sight of an expanding bit with a single spur and movable wing for larger holes,(no electric drills were seen or used no electric tools of any description were seen on the benches) Holes in the wall were made by hitting a Rawlplug chisel with a hammer (and the occasional knuckle).

Saws were sharpened by the craftsman himself on the saw horse. Especially after the terrible misfortune of hitting a nail secreted in the timber or a slotted screw joint when reducing a table top.

When that happened then a groan would go up from all who heard it and felt it as happening to their own saw, then a saw set was brought into action the spring type with a dial for t.p.i. A file went along the length to even the teeth height, then one side sharpened, then the other, avoiding what was called ducks and drakes, meaning large and small, or uneven teeth. From dovetail saw to rip and panel saw and large crosscut, the same loving care was taken on the joiners personal saw. Then they were oiled and stored in the tool chest on buttons attached to the under-side of the lid.

Of course the most desired or prized saw was the Henry Disston of Philadelphia USA. The combination of Philadelphia steel and the expertise of Henry Disston, who served his time with Spear and Jackson of Sheffield England, made it the most sort after and prized saw to be obtained.

The tool chest contained moulding planes of various shapes and sizes. The bead, ovolo, round and hollow, (no routers then) all carefully stored in a safe position for the cutting iron. Also the sash fillister or plough with its brass tipped ends, spokeshaves (wooden and iron). The ovolo worked at an angle with a line scratched on the toe at 90 degrees to the timber for accurate use. Wooden jackplanes, wooden smoothers, all stamped with the craftsman's name.

Although most men desired and had the metal jack and smoother planes made by Stanley Bailey, of personal choice was the size either 2 inch or 2 and a quarter inch.

The oil stones, rough and smooth, encased in a mortised-out box and lid, lovingly protected and cleaned. Slip stones for gouges and moulding plane irons, all stored with oily rags covering them from damage in the safe drawers of the tool chest.

Paring chisels, firmer, mortice, and bevelled, cleaned and edges protected in the drawers, always used with a mallet, never hit with a hammer. That was considered to be the wanton action of a botcher and a sin to the joiners code of conduct. A craftsman was assessed by the condition of his chisels, a splintered top on a chisel handle was a sure sign of mistreatment and the sign of a botcher.

Workshop Furniture

The workshop contained every day items for general use, namely long seating benches, small stool benches, saw horse, trestles, bench hooks, clamp blocks, and mitre box, and mitre block, and of course not one but two shove halfpenny boards, one of oak the other of greenheart, French chalked.

Each man’s bench was his own personal domain or world of work (his bench was Sacrosanct). It was never worked on by any other person except by permission. Some old timers would not even allow anyone to sit on the bench as this was considered bad manners.

The Glue

The glue was toffee like slabs, known as hoof glue. The apprentice would wrap the slab in an old piece of sacking and break up the slab by hitting it with a mallet until it was as small as possible. Two pots were on the stove, one contained water that was brought to boil, the other was inside the

large pot and contained the melting glue. The smell could only be remembered and described by those who have used it.

When gluing up a job, speed was essential and also accuracy of squareness, using rods from corner to corner. Even to this day I still think I have to work with speed to glue up in case the glue goes off (of course hot glue is no longer used in the modern workshop)

All this was for the wage of £12 for a 40 hour week.

The apprentice, there were 5 in our workshop: the wage was £2.17s.6d. for junior app, and £5 for the senior apprentice, with one whole day and one evening at technical college.

Hand Made Tools

The first thing to make was the tool box (mine is now a blanket box in the bedroom, stained and waxed) dovetailed, brass handled (stamped GWR), box lock, trays and mitred skirting and lid with beaded edging. It stood on the bench when finished and was looked at with such pride of accomplishment (only to be told “Get it down to the paint shop to be painted black” ugh!).

Next was the mallet. Ash or beech was used, with tapered handle for removing if needed to, the head angled and the cheeks rounded to avoid bruising the job in hand . The shape and size was a matter of personal choice, the apprentice usually following the advice of the craftsman.

Next were the planes, rabbet plane, scruffer with horned handle, and grannies tooth.

Finally the oil stone box, morticed with hinged lid and a nail snipped off on the bottom to prevent sliding.

All these were carefully made and skills and knowledge being acquired by the minute from the pool of experience around him.

Tools were bought with due care and attention only the best brands used - Spear and Jackson, Marples, Mawhood, etc. I made a ghastly mistake of purchasing 3 wood chisels from Woolworths and brought them to the workshop. The craftsman took one look at them and said “..they are not going down on my bench” so I threw them away and always bought the best after that, even though it took time to save the money to get them.

The Work

The range of work was extensive, from desks and drawers for the draughtsman's office, to pontoon decking, to doors and windows on the docks buildings.

Warehouse doors were framed, ledged, and braced, 18ft by 10ft, with tongue and grooved boards. When assembling, the tenons were coated with prime paint then wedged and dowelled. They were then lowered down to the mill through two trap doors in the middle of the workshop, into the paint shop, and then taken to the site for hanging on iron sliding shoes. The door was placed in position, a rope was attached and the labourers would pull the door upright for the carpenter to fit it on the metal shoes and slides. The warehouses are still there to this day, and are now used by a well known timber dealer.

There were trestles to be made for the potato warehouse. Sizes ranged from 4ft to 15ft for the wooden chutes or trays to rest on, and the sacks of potatoes were sent down them to the waiting lorries. They were well made and, even though sawn timber was used, all edges and corners were chamfered. So, pride of workmanship was always there.

The walls of the workshop were lined with templates, patterns, and clamps of every description.

Other work of an enjoyable experience were box frame windows, my favourite piece of joinery, with its moving parts containing all the skill and mystic associated with the craftsman joiner: pulley pockets, weights, outside lining, inside lining, staff beads, parting beads, lambs tongue toggle ends on sashes.

The diminished style door, or gunstock style door was artistry of the craft. A combination of window and door for maximum light, with fielded panels and bolection moulding.

The apprentice practised making joints to acquire the skills necessary, learning the difference between a haunch and franking, a muntin and mullion, the style and the jamb, the tails and pins, fox wedging and dowels, the mortice and tenon. The books obtained were carpentry and joinery volumes 1, 2, and 3, by Caxton Press (dark green covers). Volume 2 contained the mystic of the steel square. The knowledge and discipline of the craft had to be learnt and followed.

The Yard and Workshops

The workshops overlooked the commercial dry dock where ships came in for repair and cleaning and painting. The building was an old stone Victorian type.

At the start was the top office, underneath that was the time-keepers office, where we collected our brass discs, or checks, for time in and out and our wages. My first number, and one of many obtained through life, was 806, with which I collected my wage of £2.17s.6d.

Next was the plumbers and tinsmiths, then the electricians. Next the stores, with ladders and heavy equipment. Next to that were the bricklayers (jokingly referred to as failed carpenters to us).

Next the painters and decorators and special crew, called scruffers. These men worked in the dry-dock, and red-leaded the side of the ships using long handled brushes to reach the underneath and sides with the red-lead paint. At the end of the day, their boots, clothes, hats, faces, were all red with the paint. There were no showers or baths so they went home like that.

Then there was the mill and carpenters shop, and then the wheelwright shop.

The mill contained the basic machines. A very large circular saw that took two men to lift out the blade for sharpening, especially done when a nail or sometimes a bullet from the war was deep inside the timber and the teeth were damaged. A large band saw, small circular saw, tenoner, planer, and an old iron lathe, run with a wide belt that clanked noisily. On it we turned chisel handles, made from old hickory shunting poles discarded by the railway men but still usable by us.

Then the cattle pens, blacksmiths, and pattern makers shop.

The Sawyer

All blades and saws were continually kept sharp and true, floors swept clean at the end of the working day. As to the jobs, he only accepted mortising if it was authorised by the carpenter - all apprentices had to chop out their own by hand, large or small - but he would reluctantly put stuff through the saw and planer for us. But the occasional packet of cigarettes was a good bribe now and then to have a mortice chopped, but not too often.

The Characters

One old character was Mr George. He was quite a small chap and wore an old suit (very shiny from age) an old cap and off-white scarf around his neck. The wheelwrights shop was down in the yard and overlooked by the carpenters shop. Often it was enveloped in blue smoke pouring out of the doors and windows, then the cry of “George has missed the hole again” was given by an observer. What that meant was that George, when repairing a cart or sack-truck in ash, would have to bore a hole for a long bolt, first through one end then through the other as the bit was not long enough to go right through, but George would occasionally miss joining the two holes, so he would put a poker in the fire till it was red hot, then burn down the hole until it made contact with the other hole, enabling the bolt to go right through, but, as was noted, this resulted in much smoke pouring out of the workshop and leaving George glassy-eyed, coughing and wheezing, and gasping for breath, but still with a smile on his face.

During lunch time we apprentices would go down to see him and to hear him tell us the tale of working life when he was strong and healthy; and colourful it was too.

Another character was a man called Mr Jack. He was a labourer, a very very quiet man, in fact during all the time I knew him I never heard him speak. He was I presumed traumatised from his experiences in the War. He always wore the same old suit, very very shiny, no shirt just an old jumper, and an off-white scarf around his neck.

My attention was drawn to him when I had just began my apprenticeship. I was told that if I needed help timber carrying I could ask Jack snot to assist. This name seemed to me derogatory and insulting to call him as I was brought up not to be disrespectful to people, especially adults, so I could not use the term. The reason for the derogatory name was that jack always had a perpetual

dewdrop positioned on the end of his nose that always looked about to fall, and at times did. on the job that was being worked on. Some would say he timed it to fall on the shove halfpenny board when it was his turn and always won the game, but I think that was an exaggeration made up by a poor loser. He was always very helpful to all the apprentices. He lived in a district called Tiger Bay, and cycled to work on a very old upright bike. But what was so unusual was his means of lighting: the obligatory front lamp was a lit candle in a jam jar tied on the handlebars, and the rear light was a glowing cigarette held behind him. So he would draw and hold, draw and hold, all the way to the workshop. I often think how I would have loved to have heard his story, but at the time as a young man I didn't pursue it, much to my regret.

All the men in the workshop were characters in their own right. They all had pride in their work from carpenters to labourers, from painters to shipwrights, all had respect for each trade and the material being used. There was plenty of banter (what new apprentice hasn't been sent to trundle all

the way back to the stores to ask for a skirting ladder or a bucket of sky hooks? But never anything malicious, and they always shared a desire to teach the apprentice, and were willing to pass on their knowledge and skill and experience. I am grateful to them for that.

Don't misunderstand me, and my views on hand tools, I am not advocating we should go back to the days of the sawpit, with the frogs and sweat I haven't got a misplaced romantic view of hand tool use - today's machines are wonderful, and well into the price range of all - there is nothing like having the stock on the bench, machined accurately to the required sizes and all square and true ready to be worked on.

I remember being on site, working on a hardwood threshold sill, at the time I was using an electric hand planer to reduce the stuff, even then it was hard work. The gaffer, or boss, came along - an entrepreneur type; camel hair coat, cigar in mouth - with his hands in his pockets, said in a derisive tone “I don’t know what my grandfather would have said about using electric tools to do your work today”. My reply to that was “I would think he would have been overjoyed to own this and any other tool that eased up on the backbreaking jobs we sometimes have to do. It would have reduced wear and tear on his hand tools and his poor body if they were available in his day”.

The changes I saw and have seen had a profound affect on the craftsmans life even then.

GWR became BR (British Rail), affecting pay and conditions. Diesel engines replaced coal fired engines - job loss (no need of firemen). Ship containers on dockside - job loss (less dockers). The electric drill became widely used and was part of the tool kit. It changed the whole aspect of working tools - more speed and proficiency. The battery tools where tradesmen walk around today like Wyatt Earp with them strapped to their waist, but still very efficient and skill-full for all that, and we cannot do without them.

Sadness At Times

There was sadness at times with the old timers and their tools. Every second hand shop contained wooden moulding planes for sale for 5s. Any bead, ovolo, round, or hollow, could be purchased when needed. They were examined thoroughly - the blade not pitted, the wood not split or worn down, and the name stamped on the heel. As they were held, thoughts of “I wonder who he was? What conditions did he work under?” It was always tinged with sadness. Also each second hand shop contained a number of carpenters tool chests. These were no doubt put in by his widow - perhaps he hadn't returned from the War, perhaps he had no son and heir, or perhaps she just needed the money. I always felt I was trespassing and had no right to be in his box when the shopkeeper opened the lid and exposed all his tools and bits and pieces of the craft for all to see and for me to choose a tool I needed at the time. Then one day they were all gone. Americans came over and bought every moulding plane they could find for the antiques market.

Sadness too when an old timer was retiring. The tradition was to give each apprentice a tool from his box to help us in our career. I had a dovetail saw given to me that I used for many many years

and always thought of the craftsman every time I used it.

Sadness too when one day as I was employed as a maintenance carpenter on a housing estate. I saw lying in the roadway gutter a wooden jack plane sadly without its wedge and iron. I picked it up and looked for the name stamp and was so surprised to read the name on the heel. It belonged to an old-timer, Mr T. I had worked with as an apprentice. I could not believe it, what a coincidence. How

did it get there? What happened to Ted? Why was his plane lying in the road? It was so sad.

Yes, the workshop was full of self respect, pride of work, traditions, skills and methods, knowledge and experience. Unwritten laws that were duly kept:

  • Do not touch another man’s tools without permission

  • Do not work on his bench without permission

  • Do not open his tool box without permission

  • A place for everything and everything in its place

  • No matter what the job do it well

We apprentices learnt them and obeyed them without question and passed it on to the next new apprentice.

The skilled craftsman is an artist and artisan
Still willing to learn
A patient and tolerant man
Set apart from other men by the nature of his skills
With a great respect for the material he is using
Steel or wood, glass or clay, iron or copper
The tools he uses become part of him, old friends
The shape, the size, and the weight, familiar to his hands

The role and esteem of the craftsman is summed up in the proverb:
Have you seen a man
Skilful at his work?
He will stand before kings
He will not stand before common men
Proverbs 22 verse 29 (New Testament)

Yes the greatest man who ever lived was a humble carpenter, and to be in the same trade is an inestimable privilege. And to be able to answer the question sometimes asked, “What do you do?” with the words, “I am a carpenter and joiner’’ still makes me feel so proud. As to be a carpenter seems the most natural thing in the world to be.

 Thanks to John for sharing his story.

If anyone else would like to do the same, please get in touch.

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