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.
CLICK HERE to read Part 2.
The Yard and Workshops
The workshops overlooked the commercial dry dock where ships came in for repair, cleaning, and painting.
The building was an old stone victorian type. At the start was the top office. Underneath that was the timekeepers 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 pounds, 17 shillings, and 6 pence.
Next was the plumbers and tinsmiths. Then the electricians. Next were 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, and faces were all red with paint. There were no showers or baths, so they went home like that.
Then there was the mill, the carpenters shop, and 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. Also within the mill were a large bandsaw, small circular saw, tenoner, planer, and an old iron lathe that was 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 patternmakers shop.
All blades and saws were continually kept sharp and true. Floors were swept clean at the end of the working day. As to the jobs, he only accepted mortising if it was authorized 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. The occasional packet of cigarettes was a good bribe now and then to have a mortice chopped, but not too often.
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 an off-white scarf around his neck.
The wheelwright’s shop was down in the yard and was 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, 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 til’ it was red hot, then burn down the hole until it made contact with the other hole. This enabled the bolt to go right through, but as was noted, resulted in much smoke pouring out of the work shop, leaving George glassy-eyed, coughing, 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 how colorful it was too!
Another character was a man called Mr. Jack. He was a laborer. A very, very quiet man. In fact, during all the time I knew him I never heard him speak. He was, I presumed, traumatized from his experiences in the war. He always wore the same old shiny suit with no shirt, just an old jumper, and an off-white scarf around his neck. My attention was drawn to him when I had just begun 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 to not be disrespectful to people, especially adults. 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 of the apprentices.
Jack 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 to the handlebars. 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 same time as a young man I didn’t pursue it, much to my regret.
All of the men in the workshop were characters in their own right. They all had pride in their work from carpenters to laborers, from painters to shipwrights, they 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. They were willing to pass on their knowledge, skill, and experience, and I am grateful for that!
To be continued…