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  Craftsmen I Have Known by Charles H. Hayward


Craftsmen I Have Known

by Charles H. Hayward


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Woodworker September 1963

 

It has often struck me that there is something rather tragic about the death of an old craftsman. Not in his death as an individual, which is obviously just the common lot; nor in his passing as an old man, for if modern science has added to the traditional three-score-years-and-ten of life, it is still a fair innings to have had; but rather in the complete loss of so much skill and experience.

 

I remember an old watchmaker who, for more years than can remember, used to work in a dilapidated shop in a dismal back street in Clerkenwell. Every morning he arrived soon after eight o'clock, opened the door and let in three or four silent men, each with the characteristic, circular crease marks around one eye. With scarcely a word each went to his place, lit his gas jet and, having put on an apron, pinned the end of it to his bench and began to sort out the debris of a watch from beneath the first inverted wineglass. Until eight at night he solemnly toiled without an unnecessary word to anyone, sitting on his hard backless stool, cleaning, fitting, and tinkering. At intervals he refreshed himself with a mug of tea and a slice of bread and dripping from the local cookshop, but even for this he hardly stopped work, and I suspect that quite a lot of metal filings found their way into his system, for he used neither plate nor paper.

 

As the years passed, things began to fall away from him. The 1914 war came and first one man, then another, left. At the end he was left by himself, but he made no change in his habits and no one could tell what he thought about it all—if indeed he thought at all. Then one day he failed to come; the figure with the hourglass had beaten the man with the watch; and the shop remained closed with its rows of inverted wineglasses covering watches that his hand would touch no more. (I have sometimes wondered whether anyone else had the job of trying to put them right and, if not, what the owners thought about it.)

 

There it was. He was a highly skilled mechanic with extremely wide experience in his job. Towards the end his hand trembled greatly but he still managed to repair and clean a watch with the best. It is a solemn thought that such skill should be lost overnight. I never pass that shop without picturing him solemnly bent over his apron, the eternal cigarette-end in the corner of his mouth, fiddling, fiddling, fiddling.

 

All trades seem to produce their own characteristic types. My early days were spent in a cabinet-making workshop, and I can still see the corner of the street by the workshop gate on a dark winter's morning just before eight o'clock, with shadowy figures leaning against the wall, hanging on to the railings or stamping their feet on the pavement. As the clock struck, the foreman arrived, unlocked the door and the figures moved morosely and silently inside, glad to get even into the cold, unheated workshop out of the biting wind. Five minutes later the door was locked and any late arrival was left to kick his heels outside for the next hour.

 

Inside, coats were taken off and in a minute or two all the confused noise of sawing, hammering, and chiselling had begun. I belonged to the period when the traditional apron was fast being ousted by the blue overall. The older men generally remained faithful to tradition, but nearly all the younger men had changed over to overalls. I suppose it was the invasion of engineering into woodworking.

 

Lucky was the man who on those winter mornings had a ripping-out or planing job to warm him up. Others, less fortunate, had to shiver as they worked on some more fiddling operation, and could only envy the shop-boy who could at least get some warmth from the gas ring as he stirred up the day's supply of fresh glue. It was not until 10 o'clock that spirits began to revive. It was then that the water urn began to boil and the men could make themselves tea or cocoa, or seek refreshment in a can of beer brought over from the local by the shop-boy.

 

The latter had a somewhat exacting job. He had to visit various cookshops for slices of bread and dripping, bread and butter, cake, etc., and he had to work out a quite extensive itinerary in order to take in the various pubs. For each man had his own particular brand and heaven help the unlucky boy who bought a half-pint at the wrong house. Armed with a pole with nails driven in at intervals to hold the beer cans, he made his circuit and so each man refreshed himself according to his wont. Twelve o'clock brought another cry from the shop-boy, -Anything out?", and those who fancied it or could afford to pay for it could have another drink to support them in the last hour before dinner. At it again from two till five when there was a half-hour's break for tea, then on again until seven.

 

In those days everyone was used to fairly long hours. and I do not recall that it seemed especially irksome to put in a week of 52 hours. To go back to it now no doubt would seem a hardship but most people accepted it then as the recognised thing. The physical labour of the work was, of course, much harder then, for we had little in the way of machinery and had quite a lot of ripping, planing, and moulding to do by hand.

 

Altogether, we were somewhat of a mixed crew in that shop; mixed in skill and mixed in character. You could divide us up in either way. The finer craftsmen turned out oval pedestal writing desks, inlaid serpentine wardrobes, and jobs of that kind. Others did cheap commercial stuff, whilst another group did nothing but repair work. We were an antique shop and quite a lot of spurious period pieces found their way into the market from our shop. No one questioned the rectitude of the thing. We were just doing a job of work.

 

Those who did the best work were, without doubt, very fine craftsmen and I still feel something of a thrill at the quality of work they turned out. Men in the second group did not do such fine work but they were still good in their way, for it takes skill or knack to turn out relatively simple stuff quickly yet still really clean. My first indication of the truth of this was when I was deputed to help a man who was given a relatively straightforward table to make. He gave me the legs to mortise with a note of the depth and a slip of wood as a template of the haunch size. He himself cut the tenons (he used the old continental type of frame saw) and to my astonishment glued them up with-out any fitting. He knew they would fit.

 

Acting as a sort of working under-foreman was one. Jim, a man completely incapable of even the moderate dignity which his position conferred. A highly skilled craftsman, he had passed through a troubled domestic life and emerged a bad second-best, which he never sought to hide from us. He had a sort of philosophy of his own and I still see his rather weak, kindly face grinning with vacuous candour as he related yet another episode in his unhappy relations with his lady. "Anything for a quiet life," he would say, turning a watery eye upon us, and he would seek comfort in the last dregs of his half-pint.

 

He turned out one of the finest kidney-shaped writing tables I have seen, and it was a delight to feel the movement of a drawer as the air hissed out as you shut it. He had developed an uncanny knack for shaped work and when others had shaped work to do they would invariably follow his methods, though the result never seemed so clean.

 

He originally had a first-rate kit of tools but they seemed to become like their owner, rather the worse for wear, and had a battered, worn look. He lent them willingly to anyone and that no doubt accounted for it. I never saw him really cross but once, and that was when his Norris smoothing plane disappeared.

 

I might explain that there was a sort of partisanship for different makes of planes in the shop. His was the Norris group who championed the British-made, wood-lined plane of that make, a fine plane with steel sole and sides dovetailed together and lined with rosewood. It was made by the old firm of that name who then had premises near Waterloo Station. They made smoothers, panel planes, jointers, shoulder and bullnose planes, block and the now old-fashioned chariot plane. Those tools were a joy to use and Jim, although willing enough to lend his plane, set great value by it, and I still recall the sensation in the shop when this normally mild man made his outbreak.

 

The other "plane groups" were the Stanley and the wood plane parties. In those days all Stanley planes were imported from America, for there were no rival makes over here. Upholders or them pointed to their ease of adjustment and spoke derisively of the Norris as old-fashioned (though eventually an adjustment was fitted to the latter). The "wood planers- had no use for either of the others and used their old coffin-shaped smoothers in triumph. In truth, there was nothing in it. A good craftsman turned out good work whatever the tools he used.

 

Of an altogether different character was the imperious Steve, a tall, harsh, dour-looking man, dressed with a 3-inch collar and always wearing a checked cap. I am not sure, but I have always had the impression that he was bald and wore the cap to hide this physical weakness. He had strong views on politics and would emphasise his points by excitedly waving whatever tool he happened to be using. On one occasion he caught his ripsaw in the flex of the electric light over his bench and his peroration was illumined in the flash of a great spark before all the rest of the lights in the shop went out.

 

Poor old Steve! I think he suffered from some internal complaint which soured him. He must have ceased work long since, and I can picture him in a more exalted state, arguing his case in a place which knows neither ripsaws nor electric lights, though I am sure he still wears his high collar and cap.

 

It seems almost incredible that one man at least used to turn up in a top hat every morning. He kept it in the traditional cardboard box whilst in the shop and put On a more practical, if less dignified, headgear in the shape of a cap. A typical man of the old school, he sported a frock coat and check trousers and with his mutton-chop whiskers looked more like a lay preacher than anything else. He may have been for ought I know, for a more respectable, gentle creature I have never known. He was always clean and this seemed reflected in his work. Every Monday morning he produced a newly-washed apron (I am sure his soul would have shrunk from overalls) and his bench was always tidy. I have never known a cleaner worker, never a gluespot or a fingermark, and when he finished an operation he always brushed down his bench top and cleared the shavings from his bench away before beginning afresh.

 

He was getting on in years even in those days but I never heard what became of him eventually. War came (1914) and he was put off, and the last I saw of him was when he bid me goodbye as he walked behind his great tool chest as it was carried out.

 

By way of contrast, I turn to "Frowsty", who spent his whole life patching and mending decayed and rotten furniture A lean and faded sort of man whose tools were as battered as the furniture he repaired. You could scarcely blame him, for only those who have experienced it know the extraordinary positions in which nails can be driven into old furniture. I think that a sort of resignation had descended upon him and that he came to regard nails almost as a natural by-product of wood. His saws had teeth missing, plane soles were deeply scored, chisels were notched, and his screwdrivers dulled-over at the end and bent, for he used them more for knocking out old screws than for turning them. I never saw him with a clean apron and it would have been difficult to decide whether it was originally white or black. Dust, glue, and snuff (to which he was much addicted) lay thick upon it, and every night when he shook the turnups of his trousers he left a little pile of the same mixture.

 

At the appointed times, he refreshed himself with beer drunk straight from a square bottle which he kept in his tool chest, and in the intervals he solaced himself by chew-ing tobacco and spitting. He had the curious knack of ejecting the latter by a sort of roll of the tongue, and the process was entirely noiseless and one of which he was very proud. Not altogether a comfortable man to work next to but typical of his kind.

 

During those early years in the shop, things seemed in a fixed way for ever. The first world war, with its avalanche of change, had not yet come and we acted and spoke as though 50 years on would still see us there. But it was no merely the social upheaval that the war brought; it drove the last few nails into the coffin of hand work and brought to an end a system by which a man was required to make a job from beginning to end himself; and with it came the end of pride in craftsmanship and the sense of personal responsibility for turning out a first-rate job. There arc a few shops in which a man sees a job through from beginning to end but for the most part the cabinet-maker of today is little more than an assembler, putting together parts which the machine has made or which another man has prepared. That is why I am tempted to think that the best craftsmen today are not the tradesmen but the better type of home workers who have to tackle every part of the job themselves.

 

Had one been asked 50 years ago which type in the shop would be the likeliest to survive in a changing world, which would have been the selection? The highly-skilled craftsman doing the finest work; the cabinet-maker turning out commercial stuff still largely by hand; or the repairer? Well, "old Frowsty" and his type has won, for furniture wears out and needs putting right, whereas only a limited amount of really good furniture is now made at all and the commercial cabinet-maker has become a mere assembler.

 

So I leave a memory which has much in it of both good and evil. Human nature being what it is, we think chiefly of the good. And that is why it is so refreshing to come across the occasional shop where pride of craftsmanship still exists and where a job is done in a certain way, not because it is cheapest or quickest, but because it is the best.


 

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MORE OF THEM

by Charles H. Hayward


Woodworker June 1964

 

IT SEEMS THAT more people have been interested in "Craftsmen I have known" than I realised, and I have been asked whether there were any more of these old stagers whose way of life was worth recalling. There were, of course, many of them. and I can still recall the order of their benches as they were grouped around the walls. Willerby. the silent, who spoke only when spoken to, except on the rare occasions of his getting half drunk, when in addition to speaking to the whole shop he obliged by singing in a high-pitched falsetto voice; SeIfe the fitter who annulled his screws and linings by heating them in a tin and pouring acid over them; or Joe Cannon who fell into a large wardrobe he was repairing and was accused of (or congratulated upon) being drunk ever afterwards.

 

The fact is, however, that some men are "characters". It isn't that they are specially skilled, specially incompetent. or specially anything; but that they have something about them that you can't miss or overlook. Such men may make their mark in life; they may become complete failures; or they may drift on with the general mediocrity of things; but to those who know them they remain in memory for some reason that it is difficult to fix. And that presumably is why, out of a dozen men, perhaps only one or two stand out.

 

Some things are best left to memory; to lie undisturbed in the long valley of former personal experiences, where they glow with the rather false radiance which seems to light up only the pleasanter aspect of things, leaving the seamy side in shadow. People appear to have known about this from earliest times, yet some still go back to earlier scenes in the hope of recapturing something of the glamour of a life which, if it held much that was good, carried a heavy counterweight of evil, and which in any case is hopelessly dead.

 

A year or so back I found myself by chance in the home town of the man under whom I was apprenticed, and was tempted to see whether he was still around. Having unearthed his address, I proceeded to his house, picturing to myself the man I had known; a tall, virile man with keen mind and considerable manual skill; the self-reliant type whose wide experience enabled him to tackle almost any job with confidence.

 

What I found was a bent-over, frail old man with piping voice, hard of hearing, and barely able to see. Of course I ought to have known better! He scarcely remembered the workshop and didn't recall me at all (in heaven's name how should he? I must have altered as much as he!). If I was glad to see him again I was equally shocked by the deterioration that had occurred in him, though even then a spark in him seemed to light up occasionally when I reminded him of the Norris planes he used to have. "I've still got them; my son uses them". Then back again to the bleared and smooth-worn evanescence of old age. Some things are best left to memory.

 

 Yet to recall these early scenes and the actors who played their parts has its fascination. Some no doubt played their parts better than others; most had only lowly parts to play at best; and others seem to have done little more than walk on. And in any case the play was certainly not one of high society, but rather of the workshop and cookshop order with a rather strong savouring of gas-light, sawdust-strewn floors, and the eternal smell of the glue pot.

 

Typical of his times was Nobby Clark, who had originally had his own small cabinet making business which descended to him from his father. Apparently it was a somewhat bleak inheritance, for what the elder Clark lacked in business ability he made up in drinking capacity. so that when his time came he had nothing but his blessing and his tools to hand on. For a while Clark junior struggled on, arriving at our workshop once a fortnight or so with a cart load of furniture in the white which he had made, and for which he demanded immediate payment in order to be able to pay the cart driver for his share in the transaction. I can recall the three-sided argument that used to go on the pavement outside the workshop on a Saturday morning, which generally ended in the unhappy Clark accepting a considerable reduced quittance for cash. It appears that further arguments often took place with the cart driver on the way home which could only be resolved in drink. There was thus a further decline in the profits—from which it becomes obvious that Clark the son had the same double weakness as Clark the father. Eventually he gave up the unequal contest, and took a job in our workshop at 10 1/2d. an hour.

 

He was extraordinarily quick and clean on certain straight-forward jobs such as mahogany dwarf bookcases with barred doors, and wardrobes. There wasn't a man to touch him on such work. His large cornice mouldings were cut straight from the saw, and his doors needed little more than a skim to make a good fit. He never used a metal plane, though his coffin-shaped smoother had an iron sole over the front part. The rear of this plane had worn away purely by friction at least in. at the back, and even the metal front was bow shaped. How he produced his results with it I could never fathom. As a youngster he must have bought it new when its sole was straight and square, and he had never noticed the slow wear over the years. He once gave it to me to clean up a panel with but the surface seemed to end up rather worse than when I started.

 

No doubt we all have our limits, and those of Clark occasionally became disconcertingly obvious. Take him away from his straight-forward jobs and he began to flounder badly, making curious miscalculations and becoming involved in doubtful or impossible joints, sometimes with extraordinary results. He was often rescued by other men and even by some of the apprentices, all of which he accepted kindly without the slightest feeling of indignity.

 

At tea break he would occasionally reminisce, and tell me about his early life in his father's shop. How one of the Saturday afternoon jobs used to be that of sharpening moulding planes against the next week of labour. He must have had a large kit of these planes, and keeping the cutters of these in condition must have been one of the most tedious and unrewarding of jobs. involving slow and endless rubbing with oilstone slips of all shapes and sizes. A constant bevel had to be maintained because once you started down the slippery path of dubbing up the bevel to get an edge quickly you rapidly reached a stage when you could go no further, and the cutter had to be reground, a job which only a plane maker could undertake.

 

The deterioration in father Clark must have accelerated rapidly towards the end. "He died with a spoon in his hand, sitting in a chair at the workshop door," I was told. What the exact significance of this was, I never learnt, though the implication seemed to be that he would not stay in bed but was equally unable to stand up.

 

By a curious chance met Nobby some twenty years after these apprenticeship days. He had then turned completely teetotal, and indeed began a sort of lecture to me in the street on the evils or drink. I am not sure whether I liked him the better or the worse as a consequence.

 

In any workshop of any size you always get men who seem specially good (and sometimes specially bad) at a certain type of work. I have already mentioned the best sort of shaped work, and the straightforward, fairly quick work. I now come to the really cheap jobs. I know that some shops never condescend to such work (some never do anything else), but apparently our motto was to meet a demand, whatever it !night be. Thus it happened that some really low grade stuff was wanted now and then, and this invariably found its way to one Dan. a short man of scarcely 5 ft., but with tall head and large features which seemed to stand in even greater prominence by the blueness of his unshaven chin and cheeks on the same principle that a lady's eye shadow emphasises her eyes. He wore a dirty apron which almost reached the ground, and in the shop he put on an old pair of boots which trailed along the floor at every step for they had no laces. His tools you could have got into a small box, but by borrowing here and there he managed to get by, especially as his chiefly used tool was the hammer. Nails and glue blocks were his standard system of construction, and the odd thing is that when covered with veneer and heavily polished the result was quite presentable.

 

He came from Shoreditch. which was then the home of innumerable small cabinet makers who occupied many of the small dwelling houses, and he seemed to bring some-thing of the atmosphere of that colourful district into the shop. When he could afford it he drank "Bovril" from a cracked, handleless cup, but towards the end of the week it became more and more diluted as the bottle became low, and by Friday was little more than hot water (which, by the way, he drew from the glue tank).

 

This mention of borrowing tools brings me to what has always seemed to me to be a curse of workshop life. There may be some justification in a man borrowing from a workmate an out-of-the-way tool. Some odd tools may be used perhaps only once in a year or more, and it may be that a man has never felt the need for them before. But how it happens that a man can be engaged at his trade and yet be without the basic fundamental requirements is almost incredible. Of course this seldom applies to the better type of craftsman, but invariably it happens that there are some men in a workshop who will go through their whole careers borrowing a plane from this man and a saw from another. It is particularly iniquitous in the case of tools which need to be sharpened, because no two men sharpen exactly alike. Thus it may happen that when a man gets the tool back it is sharpened in a way that he does not like.

 

I have seen it happen that a good craftsman starts off with a good kit, and over the years has lent some tools which have not been returned, has lost some, and worn others out. Some men used to pawn their more valuable planes on Thursday in the hope of redeeming them on Saturday. Then one week the inevitable happened and the plane came hack no more. One man I knew gradually drank his tools away. So in one way or another a kit might be reduced until it was only by borrowing that a man could earn a living at all. It is one of the evils that nobody likes except those who do the borrowing. Even those who apparently lent willingly would avoid it if they could.

 

A matter that may interest some is the proportion of tradesmen in a shop before 1914. We were: fourteen cabinet makers with four apprentices, a carver with an apprentice, eight polishers, one machinist, one upholsterer with an apprentice, one packer, a glazier-storekeeper, and the foreman. I have since thought that for a single machinist to meet the needs of 18 bench men was good going. His plant consisted of a handsaw, spindle moulder, planer, and lathe, and he had to grind his own cutters and sharpen his handsaws. Yet, except for an occasional hold-up he managed, and still found time for chat as he drank his mug of tea and warmed his back at the stove where he burnt up the odds and ends of wood. (When I think of the marvellous pieces of Cuban mahogany, figured oak, and walnut that went into that stove it makes me wish that it was possible to go back in time and rescue some of it).

 

"Min" he was called, apparently a contraction of something longer, but I never heard of his being known by anything else, and he was addressed by that name equally by the new shopboy of 14 and the foreman. He was a tall, jovial Irishman who in his more leisured time was a keen motor cyclist, somewhat of a rarity in those early years. Occasionally altercations took place between him and one of the cabinet makers, especially when he was asked to saw a piece of old wood for a repair job, and ran his saw across a hidden nail; but he was of a calm and friendly nature, and accepted life on the principle that in no circumstances could he do two things at the same time, and if he spent a quarter-of-an-hour in sharpening a saw he was saved a quarter-of-an-hour machining. Probably his view might have changed had he been on piece work.

 

This mention of hidden nails reminds me of the sensation that was always felt in the shop when a man rasped his tenon or handsaw across a nail. You couldn't miss the horrible grating sound, despite the fact that all the mixed-up sound of sawing, planing, and knocking was going on at the same time, and it brought a gasp from the whole shop as if each man felt it in his own saw. Those at the next bench or two came round to see where the saw had struck, and you could hear the queries of men round the corner, "Who was it?" It always seemed more of a tragedy in that no one in the shop ever sharpened his own saws. I am not sure of the reason for this, but suspect that it was because the foreman would not allow it as a job taking too long, and no man could be bothered to take a saw home to sharpen. Alternatively, it may have been regarded as a trade of its own, and men did not feel able to make a really good job of it—certainly to sharpen a dovetail saw with 22 points to the inch is one which I have never been able to tackle with any success.

 

One of the jobs occasionally to be done was to carry some panels up to the polishing shop for the edges to be stained before fixing. Mouldings in the length, too, had to be polished, and in winter time one rather welcomed taking them up, since the shop had to be kept warm to avoid the polish turning milky (Min was the only other man who had the benefit of artificial warmth). I have heard that in their domestic life many of the polishers (shiners they called themselves) were perfectly average, respectable people. Yet in the shop they were foul-mouthed to a man. Scarcely a sentence was uttered without the coarsest of language, accompanied by blatant references to the human anatomy generally and uninhibited remarks about the physical functions. Few workshops are remarkable for their restraint in this respect, and our cabinet shop was no exception, but the shiners beat them hands down.

 

One man I recall must have been in an advanced stage of consumption even when he joined the firm; a tall man with the typical polisher's stoop, and a never-ceasing dry cough (he was christened –Chesty"). He smoked cigarettes made from shag, which he rolled himself—in fact I cannot recall seeing him without the stub end of a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. For a reason I never understood smoking was allowed in the polishing shop—or if it wasn't the blind eye was turned, and that was probably an additional reason why the cabinet makers were glad of an excuse to go upstairs. It seems strange that in a shop with inflammable polishes and spirits smoking should have gone on.

 

Chesty was a kindly, obliging soul and was considered something of an authority on horse-racing. Before men made their bets they invariably asked what Chesty fancied. and if they lost (which was frequently) they always seemed to blame the horse rather than had judgment. It is indeed strange the things men can be proud of. He thought more of his ability as a tipster than his skill as a polisher, and this indeed was considerable. The way he could work his rubber into awkward corners and give a clean result was amazing. Of course, when it was possible such corners were avoided by polishing before fixing, but some cannot be avoided, and after a while Chesty came in for all the best work. But the writing was on the wall, and one day he failed to come. Yet it was not until a long time after-wards that we heard in a completely roundabout way that he had died in an infirmary quite alone.

 

All these men are now scattered, heaven knows there. Most of them must be long since dead, and those w ho have survived no doubt find themselves out of tune with present-day conditions in the trade. It seems that whatever men do in the way of inventing things, making better social conditions, or devising amusements, is at the cost of something. There is no such thing as a hundred per cent gain. Machines do work, and men lose the skill of their hands; radio and television bring easy amusement and the thing becomes a sort of drone in the background which people after a time fail to hear, yet know when it is turned off; and the better social conditions bring shorter hours which men spend—how?

 

After all of which you may well ask whether I would want to go back to the old days, and the answer is, no. In the words of Captain Smollett, we have to go on because we can't turn back, but one cannot help a passing regret for a period in which men seemed to have a decent pride in the works of their hands.

 

Articles originally published in Woodworker September 1963 and June 1964.




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