Editor’s Note: The following blog series, ‘Chips from the Chisel’ is John Gainey’s experience as a carpenter and joiner apprentice on the Cardiff Docks in South Wales from 1955-1960. John’s garden woodworking shop was featured in the November 2013 issue of Wood News Online.
CLICK HERE to read Part 1.
The workshop contained everyday items for general use, namely long seating benches, small stool benches, saw horses, trestles, bench hooks, clamp blocks, mitre box, mitre block, and of course not one but two shove halfpenny boards, one of oak and 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 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 a boil and 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, as was accuracy of squareness using rods from corner to corner. Even to this day I still think I have to work with speed during a glue up, in case the glue goes off (of course hot glue is no longer used in the modern workshop).
All of this work was for a wage of 12 pounds for a 40 hour work week!
There were 5 apprentices in our workshop. The wage was 2.17 pounds for a junior apprentice and 5 pounds for the senior apprentice, with one whole day and one evening at technical college.
The first thing to make was the tool box (mine is now a stained and waxed blanket box in the bedroom). Dovetailed, brass handled, GWR stamped into it, box lock, trays and mitre skirting, and lid with beaded edging were just a few highlighted features of the box. It stood on the bench when finished and was looked at with such pride and accomplishment (only to be told to get it down to the paint shop to be painted black).
Next was the mallet, ash or beech, and was used with a tapered handle for removing if need be. The head was angled and the cheeks rounded to avoid bruising the job at hand. The shape and size was a matter of personal choice. The apprentice usually followed the advice of the craftsman.
Next were the planes: rabbet plane, scruffer with horned handle, and grannie’s tooth.
Finally, the oil stone box. Morticed with hinged lid and a nail snipped off on the bottom to prevent sliding. All of these were carefully made. Skills and knowledge were acquired by the minute from the pool of experience around each apprentice.
Tools were bought with due care and attention was only given to 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 from then on always bought the best, even though it took time to save the money to get them.
The range of work was extensive including desks and drawers for the draughtsman’s office, pontoon decking, and doors and windows on the dock 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 and 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 laborers 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 4 feet to 15 feet 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 with sawn timber used for all of the edges and the corners were chamfered. Pride of workmanship was always found in these projects.
The walls of the workshop were lined with templates. Patterns and clamps of every description.
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 practiced making joints to acquire the skills necessary to learn the differences between a haunch and franking, a muntin and mullion, the style and the jamb, the tails and pins, fox wedging and dowels, the mortise and tenon, just to name a few. The books obtained were Carpentry and Joinery (Volumes 1, 2, and 3 by Caxton Press). Volume 2 contained the mystic of the steel square.
The knowledge and discipline of the craft had to be learnt and followed.
To be continued next week…