My first projects

Benchtime

It’s 3am. Generally the Devon nights have delivered some great zees but I suspect that my circadian rhythms took a battering by the brightly lit pixel portal, or perhaps it’s my inner tortured fledgling artist musing on my next project at the Atelier… I’ll come back to that in a moment.

For the past month I have been honing my eyes, hands and grey matter in the art of being a ‘good cabby’ (cabinet maker). The eyes have fully adjusted to this new landscape and the distant horizon glimmers with potential – or is that just a dazzling french polish? The actual projects I’ve created to date (pictured) are no more exciting than what a 12 year old may knock out in a couple of days during high school Design & Technology. A cross halving joint, winding sticks, bread board, book ends, mallet and mortise and tenon joint are pretty much all I have to show for the past month of tennis elbow and calluses. To the casual observer they look simple, perhaps banal, but (he says in the tone of an earnest and openly searching 12 year old D&T student) each has been shaped from rough cut wood completely by hand using the traditional cabinetry skills. Wow – right? Ok, so not so amazing, but the idea is simple – walk before you crawl, or something like that.

I now move from the micro to the macro. These little wooden trophies so far have been small, discrete, delicate and easy to accidentally knock off the bench. Now, I make the bench. A cabby’s rite of passage is to design and make his own workbench and gift himself with a bulk of hardwood timber to be shaped into something that will fill his immediate world in front of him – its surfaces and vices becoming extensions of his hands.

The reality is somewhat less romantic. The scream of a radial arm saw, the drone of a bandsaw and the piercing chatter of the thicknesser/planer – all with the smell of wood dust is what any cabby can reasonably expect a good dose of. Yes, bench time will always be an integral part of fine furniture making, but it’s clear that if one is to make a living out of this trade, you can’t only use hand tools. Making the bench is a perfect case in point, as the quantity of timber to be flattened, squared and dimensioned is just too large to do in any reasonable amount of time by hand – so I’ll be spending most of the next couple of weeks in the fluorescent dungeon of spinning teeth and blades, aka ‘the machine room’.

“Machines are very patient – they will wait a lifetime to take off your finger, or your hand, or your scalp,” my tutor explained in my machine room ‘induction’. I signed the box and ticked away the obligations. Luckily, this is England and the OH&S is of a high enough standard that guards and failsafes are common practice. There is, however, still ample opportunities for maiming or grizzly death if your attention is not arrow sharp. I could tell you the scare stories I’ve heard, but all I need to say to gift you the image is ‘a girl with her hair down…’ or ‘a man who used his fingers rather than the push sticks…’. So, it’s with some trepidation that I begin to look at my ‘cutting list’, and my half tonne of wood that will be cut, sliced and shaved down to the components of my bench. (This won’t get done by itself…)

The bench is another ‘set project’ of the course, where the design specifications are pretty much given to you, however there are a few choices to be made and, to an excitable 30 year old, this delightful slither of choice is enough to wake him up at 3am brimming with inspiration. For instance, you can angle the back legs. This is almost imperceptible, but to a cabby it’s one of the first things you’d notice and a strange form of bling that I unashamedly fell for. Of course another choice is the height, but by far the most exciting is the choice of timber.

A good workbench top has to be: very hard (self explanatory), blonde (insert joke) so as not to impart any colour to the work, closed-pored grain to be precisely flat and resist collecting dirt, and reasonably dimensionally stable so that changes in humidity don’t impact the performance of the surface. These parameters narrow the selection down to either maple or beech and as maple is currently three times the price of beech, it was a fairly straightforward choice. I also take comfort in knowing that beech was always the traditional choice of cabbies over the centuries, too.

The underframe of the bench is much more open to choice, as the main considerations are for it to be a hardwood and dimensionally stable. I chose American oak that I will fume with ammonia, which will turn the tannins of the timber a beautiful chocolate brown. The contrast between the speckled blonde beech and figured brown oak timbers should be something splendid.

Before being consumed by the construction of the bench, which will take me the next couple of months, it’s a good time to briefly reflect on the first month gone by. It’s uncanny how quickly you adapt to new environs and I feel like I’ve been here much longer than I have. Just like becoming jaded with a commute to work like the one I used to have in Sydney past beaches and harbours, it’s easy to catch myself not fully appreciating the rolling countryside and the Turner-esque sunrises over the River Torridge as I head into the workshop each morning. This feeling is made all the more bizarre by the contrast of how quickly the days feel like they go by – the joy of each day spent converting wood into shavings seems to vaporise the hours… I do take time, though, to step outside of myself and look at where I am, what I’m doing and who I’m with to see how lucky and fortunate I am to have arrived ‘here’ – in the broadest sense of the word.

This move has met my expectations easily, and I say easily because I didn’t have many expectations to begin with. People ask me ‘why wood work?’, and I say ‘why not?’. The terribly trite saying that has served me well is ‘Good enough is almost always good enough’.

Stay tuned for more 3am pearls of wisdom/cliches/streams of consciousness…

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2 thoughts

  1. Enjoyed picking up, feeling the heft and finish of your first projects. They all seemed to be precision-made, as if by a machine. Perhaps you could etch a date and place onto the base?

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