New Adventures in Woodworking

I live an urban life; the urbs are my abode. But now and then I’m reminded that they aren’t where I’ve come from.

Jane and I went out to dinner a while ago with a colleague of hers and his wife, and the conversation soon turned to the reliable theme of home renovations. They’re having some sort of problem with a door, and Mrs Colleague suggested he drill some new holes to re-hang it. “I’m not buying a drill,” he said, as if the very idea was laughable. “I’ve never used a drill in my life. It’s dangerous. You could have someone’s eye out.”

We all chuckled, while Jane and I thought of the cordless drill sitting in the cupboard at home, waiting to leap out and blind us. I own two drills; three, if you count the hand drill Mum and Dad gave me for my thirteenth birthday. That could take someone’s eye out too, verrrry slowly.

You don’t grow up in an old house in the country without learning a bit of carpentry. My earliest memories of that place are of the constant renovations during our first years there: watching old Roger the carpenter measuring up wood and sawing it in long, confident strokes, and Mum and Dad plastering and painting. Dad’s workshop was jammed full of tools and wood and electrical bits pulled out of the walls and a benchsaw and a lathe; it had old milk-bottles of green oil, and battered Golden Fleece cans of two-stroke. Somewhere in the back was a log of Huon pine that Dad had fished out of the river, and when the walnut tree died it ended up there too.

Working with your hands was just something you did; it didn’t make sense to get someone in to do every little thing around the place, when every little thing needed doing. My family was hardly alone in this. At high school, every boy did at least two years of woodwork and metalwork (the girls did one; ahh, the early 1980s). By thirteen we weren’t just drilling, we were turning lumps of steel at a thousand rpm, creating new and improved chances of having someone’s eye out. We all had to wear blue caps to stop the machinery from grabbing hold of stray bits of mullet.

For my thirteenth birthday I got my own set of tools, and my own workshop—the old outside dunny, with a re-concreted floor. I tinkered away in it for a while, but never had much to do there, and it was more fun anyway to see what Dad was doing in his. I never felt the same way about my workshop, either, after I tried to turn its upside-down light switch the right way up without turning off the mains first. A giant tongue of electricity slurped its way up my arm before I let go and staggered out to the lawn for a little sit down.

Within a year the workshop had become a woodshed; but I kept the tools (and a healthy respect for their eye-outing, arm-eating potential), and kept the skills, and have drawn on them throughout my adult life. The last place we lived in Canberra was the first with its own shed, so I had my old half-bench sent up from home, and bolted it to the wall. Mum’s mother had just died, and we drove up to Sydney to help sort through the house, where I found a bunch of Grandpa’s old tools, unused for ten years but still perfectly useful. I added them to my old ones and the others I’d picked up in garage sales over the years.

Over the next couple of years Jane and I restored eight chairs, an oak sideboard and a table, and I made four or five sets of bookshelves with Dad’s router on mail-order loan. (A router isn’t an Internet relay, you geeks, it’s a lump of metal with handles on either side and a blade sticking out the bottom, and it’ll have your eye out.) All of them we picked up for next to nothing in auctions or op shops, or made new from planks of pine. I might have been an average performer in high school woodwork compared to the blokes who went on to make it their career, but it was paying off now.

In Edinburgh, though, we’ve been shedless, and apart from putting some shelves up in the study I haven’t used the drill much. I’m not alone there, either. As our friend’s attitudes showed, British schoolkids aren’t allowed near the sharp end of anything these days. The result is that woodworking has become as quaint as trainspotting.

Actually, it’s even quainter than that. My Dad has been getting back into it lately, and asked me to send him a couple of UK woodworking magazines. No problem, I thought, until I tried to find them in an Edinburgh newsagent. I must have tried eight or nine, and came up with only a single copy—and not of a title he was after. The WH Smith at Waverley carried endless mags on home computing, web design, yachting, golf, and a whole section on railways, both real and model. It even had two different titles on bus-spotting—but none on woodwork.

The cover of the magazine I did find showed a smiling grey-haired 40-something standing at his workbench, underneath the title New Woodworking. If these are the new woodworkers, joinery is having serious trouble getting people to join.

Even the hardware stores show signs of it. We spent a lot of time at B&Q in our first year here, buying paint for our walls and other odds and ends. It’s a big barn of a place that looks like it would have everything. But no.

The only thing we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay UK prices for when we got here was chairs. Eighty quid a chair from Habitat was over two hundred Australian dollars each, more than we paid for the four around our dining table in Canberra (which are still there, in our storage unit). We kept meaning to hunt down some second-hand ones in an antique shop somewhere, using some cheap folding chairs from Ikea in the interim... and the interim lasted three years.

Then, a week ago, Jane saw a pair of dining chairs abandoned in the street in Bruntsfield, just up the road from J.K. Rowling’s mansion. I went and had a look; they were covered in specks of paint, and the joins were all loose, but they had potential. So I brought them home.

I was worried I’d have to sand them back and fill the flat with sawdust; and we didn’t have any clamps for regluing the joints. But the dirt and paint came off with a £3 bottle of citrus cleaner, even on the vinyl upholstery, so we figured they were worth the investment in two new clamps. I dropped into B&Q after work and looked for some.

Their clamps came in two sizes, 6-inch and 12-inch. The 6-inchers weren’t any use unless I wanted to glue a pile of hardbacks together and sit on those, and even the longer ones seemed too short; but their labels were covered in pictures of chair-clamping, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and bought two.

They were about four inches too short. The chairs in the pictures must have been from Hobbiton; the label should have read “Warning, Use Only in New Zealand”. I took them straight back.

Sadly, the experience was typical; the urban hardware store brand of DIY is the simplest I that Y can D. You might be able to handle a paintbrush, but whaddaya think you’re doing trying to mend an old chair? Here, let our affiliated furniture chain sell you a new one whittled out of Indonesian rainforest.

Still, there was always plan B: tie them up with rope and twist it tight with a stick. Total cost (and profit to B&Q shareholders): £0. In the end I didn’t even have to do that; we clamped them with a luggage strap, with a pile of books across the seat to weight them level while the glue dried. A couple of coats of wax later and they were as good as second-hand.

And I only risked having an eye out thirty-six times.

Here’s what people said about this entry.

PS: I swear on a stack of glued-together bibles that this is true: my high-school woodwork teacher’s name was Mr Wood.

Added by Rory on a Wednesday in July.

What was your sex ed. teacher's name/

Added by Paul on a Wednesday in July.

Stupid question marks. If you don't stick 'em down tight enough, they just spring straight out again.

Added by Paul on a Wednesday in July.

Need a luggage strap for that?

My sex ed. teacher was Mr Hardy.*

*(This is a lie.)

Added by Rory on a Thursday in July.