Art,  Crafts

Back to school

If you’ve had much of a look through this blog you might have noticed a few themes, for both Steph and I. A love of food is the most obvious one; when we lived in the center of Bristol that was where most of our expendable income went. Travel is also right up there, although this year has been very travel-light, as we’ve focused on building our new home. If Steph gets her way this will be addressed next year! 

The third main theme is a love of making things, whether it be our very hand-made wedding, or trying our hands at a new craft. For me one of the most satisfying things is to see something nice, and recreate it myself. With many things this is surprisingly easy if you have the right tools and a willingness to give it a go. A can-do attitude will only get you so far though, and there are some skills which take a good deal of time and tuition to get looking really good.

Woodwork is one such field. Whilst anyone can pick up a saw and screwdriver and put a few planks together to create something functional, it’s a real art to create something of beauty which people can really appreciate. I’ve been keen for a while to up my skill level, but never done anything about it, so when a friend mentioned he was doing a woodworking skills course for a week, I decided to join him. 

There was a few months between booking the course and starting it, and a lot can happen in a few months, especially when you’re building a house! So when the start of the course did eventually come around the timing was less than ideal, with our old house selling and the new one at a crucial stage of it’s build; not a great time to be over the other side of the country for a week! I strongly considered postponing, but in the end got on with it, hoping I wouldn’t regret my decision. 

I would’ve been happy doing the course on my own, but doing it with a good friend made the prospect of the week ahead even more fun, and his parents-in-law had kindly offered to put us up for the week as they live nearby (it helped massively that they’re wonderful hospitable people who seemed to enjoy having us about). 

Our home for the week was to be the John Lloyd Fine Furniture workshop nestled away in East Sussex, a stones throw from an actual place called World’s End! Far from apocalyptic scenes through, this place is idyllic (to my mind); a well equipped workshop in a converted barn in a private courtyard, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of life; what could be better?!

Our class for the week had seven eager pupils, and our tutor was John Lloyd himself- an experienced and expert cabinet maker and antique furniture restorer who, as well as making stunning pieces of furniture, restores priceless pieces for the likes of Sotheby’s, Christie’s, St Paul’s Cathedral and the National Trust. 

Day one started with a safety briefing, an introduction to our agenda for the week and an overview of the tools we’d be using, along with a talk about the importance of keeping them sharp. We went on to spend the rest of the day learning how to get a perfectly flat sharpening stone, and how to sharpen chisels and planes, then practicing the techniques we’d been shown. Not a piece of wood in sight on day one (apart from our work benches and tool handles). This seemed a little odd at the time, but sharp tools were essential all week, and the ability to sharpen them whenever we needed was invaluable.

On day 2 we did get our hands on some wood as we learned to plane a perfectly flat service, and how to glue and clamp them together to form the basis of a board we would go on to complete. 

Our class was all fairly evenly matched in terms of proficiency, which helped things move on at a nice pace. On breaks we were fueled by wonderful cake and biscuits (particularly welcome on a wet day!), supplied by John’s wife Sara-Jane, who also deals with a lot of the company admin if my booking experience was anything to go by. And at lunch times, despite our best intentions to take packed lunches, we made the short trip to Worlds End and the fabulous ‘Munchies’ cafe to get our fill of delicious sandwiches. 

On day 3 we started to get really technical and had our first go at a dovetail joint- a classic way of joining two edges at a right angle, such as a drawer corner. Simple in theory, but the level of accuracy required in measuring, marking, cutting and finishing was high and this is where sharp tools, practice and experience come in. A daunting task the first few times with little room for error, but with practice something that could no doubt start to feel less intimidating. 

Over the next couple of days we went on to practice our dovetail joining, with intermittent sharpening, and learnt a new joint with the tenon & mortice: All with the aim of making a biscuit box to go with our cheese board. For a first project I was very pleased with my results; a little room for improvement, but not too bad for a beginner!

The last time I did any proper woodworking was at school, nearly a frightening 30 years ago! I had a lot to learn and I got a huge amount from the course. Our tutor John was excellent; he took the time to explain things thoroughly, and if people were struggling to keep up he was happy to step in and help. Some of the repetitive tasks such as sharpening and planing didn’t require a lot of thought (once you knew the technique) and were almost meditative. Other tasks such as measuring, marking and chiseling required full concentration, and were sometimes fairly physical. Either way, time in the workshop was wonderful and very rewarding.

I plan on setting up a workshop in the garage of our new house (when it’s finished) so I can get on with some fine carpentry projects and put my newly learned skills to use. Before that though, many of the skills I learned- measuring and cutting accurately, and carefully crafting joints- will come in handy in making my workshop!

I’m very grateful to John and Sara Jane for a great week of learning and cake, and to my friends James, Ginny and Brian for putting me up, providing wonderful meals, and for great company throughout the week; it was very memorable for all the right reasons!

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