Richard Jones has lived his life with a simple sense of practicality – he has learned what works, what doesn’t and what must be done to get food on the table, while also allowing for trial and error to explore work and hobbies that have ultimately led to fulfillment.
Endlessly interested in the whys beneath the whats, Richard devoted more than a decade of his life to “Cut and Dried: A Woodworker’s Guide to Timber Technology.” And that alone should paint a pretty complete picture, although, given the technical nature of the work, maybe an unfair one. He’s meticulous, yes, but not stuffy. He played rugby for years, dots conversations with the word “bloody,” and enjoys biking through the English countryside – particularly if the destination is a pub with the promise of a warm (by American standards) beer.
Born in Shropshire, on the Welsh border in the West Midlands of England, Richard grew up in a farming family – one that has farmed for generations. He lived with his parents and older brother, and attended a boarding school from age 7 to 17.
“In some ways, I preferred to be at school,” Richard says. “All my friends were at school.”
Richard recalls childhood summers spent working on the farm – driving tractors, baling hay, building fences, looking after cattle and sheep. But he also remembers the joy he found in all the farm’s hiding places, and riding his bike for miles around the English countryside with narrow, windy lanes, hills, trees and green, green, green. As he got older he enjoyed tinkering with cars and engines, breaking things and then fixing them. “I guess I had an aptitude to work with things,” he said.
While not a lover of school, Richard did well in English and his woodworking courses. Once his daily lessons were complete, he’d usually make his way back to the woodwork room and build things (table and chairs) and carve things (hedgehogs and giraffes). He did quite well in sports, and played several – rugby, hockey, cricket, swimming and athletics.
Unlike his brother, who still runs the family farm, Richard didn’t love farming. As a teenager, Richard dropped out of school and came back home to work on the family farm, but six to eight months in, he had a falling out with his father. So, he left.
He worked one or two daft (his word) jobs – hotel porter and the like – to make ends meet. He dreamed of being a joiner and furniture maker, but he was unable to get an apprenticeship. In 1973, he did, however, get a job with a small shop (no longer in business) that specialized in joinery, furniture making and restorations. His mentor was a grumpy old Scot, who occasionally let him borrow tools and taught him a lot (you can read about his sharpening lesson here). Richard stayed on for two years, but it wasn’t an official apprenticeship with formal qualifications at the end. In 1975, Richard applied to North East London Polytechnic, a vocational-type school to study business.
“I thought I ought to get a job in an office where they pay some money,” Richard says. “Work that made my hands calloused didn’t get me very much. But people who worked in offices, that paid a lot more – I thought.”
This time around, Richard loved school. “I had a great time in college,” he says, laughing. “I did all the stuff you’re not supposed to do.”
After graduating in 1977, Richard applied for many office jobs, but couldn’t find work. “I thought, well, I could do something with my bag of tools,” he says. “I could get a job doing some joinery and earn some money rather than have no money. And I’ve basically stuck to that, ever since, one way or another.”
Becoming a Joiner and Maker, in the British Tradition
Richard’s first job was with a joinery firm that made bank and security windows, which he did until 1979. That same year he married his first wife, Jill, whom he met in college. They married in Edinburgh, Scotland. “I managed to get various jobs there for a little while,” Richard says. “All sorts of jobs, working in shops and joiner work.” Then, Richard and Jill, with rucksacks and tents, traveled extensively, to places such as France, Spain and Morocco.
For the next two years Richard and Jill lived in England, near London, and Richard continued to work various jobs, including a short stint that took him back to his roots – driving tractors on a local farm (they had just returned from months of travel, and Richard needed the work). Richard eventually made his way back to joinery work, this time working for Chubb Security Installations.
“I was doing all this work, furniture and joinery malarkey, and I didn’t have any qualifications,” Richard says. “I thought I better get some.”
So in 1981, he applied to Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology, which offered a well-respected furniture course to about 15 students. He was one of the 15 accepted, and the course earned him a City & Guilds 555 Level 3 in Furniture Advanced Studies with distinction.
Steeped in the Arts & Crafts and Cotswold traditions, the college and his instructors were linked to famous British makers and designers through their association with Loughborough College, and connections to such luminaries as Ernest Gimson, Gordon Russell, Ernest and Sydney Barnsley, Norman Jewson and Peter Waals. Robert Wearing, who Richard describes as “a funny mousy little man, always with his damn jigs” came by once a week – every Friday – to teach. “He was very earnest, very focused,” Richard says. “He had a jig for everything.”
Shrewsbury, the great British makers of the 19th and 20th century, his tutors and Robert Wearing all influenced Richard’s education, and, perhaps to some extent, his style. But Richard is quick to note that while he respects the Arts & Crafts style, he doesn’t particularly like it, including the exposed joinery.
“The movement itself produced some great furniture and the philosophy was kind of interesting, but it didn’t work,” Richard says. He says he likes things that are well made with reasonably uncluttered lines. He admires craftsmanship, quality and practicality. “I’ve always been driven by the need to get the job out of the door fairly quickly.”
And that is something key to know – and in many ways, respect – about Richard. While many folks build furniture on the side, a hobby in addition to their work, it is Richard’s work. He’s typically had to work with clients who need something specific, and can pay a certain price. He may consider fancy inlay, he says, but if that fancy inlay is not part of the client’s budget, he has to cut it out.
“Very rarely in my life have I had the luxury to go over the top with my design,” Richard says. “That’s always been important to me – to always make stuff at a price the client is willing to pay. I’ve never really had the opportunity to just play.”
There’s honesty and fairness in that, and a practicality that, in a circular way, has allowed Richard to turn what many can only conceive of as an avocation, into a vocation. At first glance this way of living may seem restrictive. But by cutting out the fluff, Richard has turned a great weekend love for many into his everyday life’s work, and lately, he’s his own boss. What may seem stifling, to some, has actually earned Richard a lot of freedom.
This viewpoint, in part, also explains Richard’s love of technology. “A lot of people reject technology because they believe it takes away skills,” he says. “I don’t see it that way. Technology allows you to make something complex very quickly.” Advanced equipment, CNC, AutoCAD and similar programs all inspire Richard. For, in addition to completing often-boring work (think shelf pins), there’s brilliancy, he says, in the building of the machine and manipulating it to take on complex tasks. “It’s very exciting,” he says.
After graduating from Shrewsbury, Richard and Jill moved back to Edinburgh, his wife’s hometown. Jobless, Richard walked into Whytock and Reid, Edinburgh’s oldest and, perhaps, most prestigious cabinetmaking and upholstery shop, and asked, “Do you have a job?” They replied: “Aye, when can you start?” Established in 1807 and awarded the Royal warrant by Queen Victoria in 1838, Whytock and Reid furnished many fine castles and homes throughout Scotland and beyond until its closure in 2004.
About a year later, in 1984, Richard applied for the furniture technician position at Edinburgh College of Art. For nine years he worked with furniture design majors and staff, fabricating furniture for and with them, offering technical and aesthetic advice. He was also charged with the day-to-day general running and maintenance of the large furniture workshop, buying and storing timber, maintaining all the hand and power tools, and more.
“That’s where my real interest in becoming more of a furniture designer/maker began,” Richard says. “I was in an environment with not just woodworkers (furniture designers) but other creative people: jewelers, glassblowers, interior designers, fine artists (painters), architects, photographers, weavers, stained glass artists and sculptors,” he says. “I really got interested in all this visual stuff that was going on. Prior to that, I would just make things. Here, I started to better appreciate design, form, shape and function.”
Rugby, Love & Moving to America
At this time Richard was playing recreational rugby, his passion. “It’s sometimes described as a bit like American football but some say it’s perhaps harder,” he says. “We haven’t got any helmets and pads on for a start; we don’t change just about the whole team at the end of plays, so we don’t get all those breaks to get our breath back.”
One of his fellow rugby players had a cousin who played rugby in Texas, and he invited the club to spend a few weeks playing in the States. So they saved money for two years and took two teams to Texas where they played for a wild three weeks (in addition to playing rugby well, the teams drank well, too). His first night in Texas, Richard, by then divorced, met Gail, a Houstonian. They clicked immediately, and she followed him and the teams all over Texas. After Richard went back to Edinburgh, they kept in touch, and both took several trans-Atlantic trips to see each other. They married in Edinburgh, and Gail moved to Scotland.
Richard continued working at the college, but after nine years the job became too comfortable, with no chance of promotion. Gail missed the States, so in 1993, they moved to Houston.
Richard got a temporary job working with a firm that built exhibition stands, and while there, a colleague recommended Richard for another temporary job, this one at The Children’s Museum of Houston. He was soon offered the workshop manager position; he was responsible for running all aspects of the Exhibits Fabrication Shop. While there he also managed the build for the museum’s “Magic School Bus” touring exhibition.
In 1995, Richard decided it was time to open his own shop – Richard Jones Furniture. He rented a shared 7,000-square-foot workshop, which included office space. Two one-man businesses co-existed, pooling and sharing machinery. Richard’s clients were mostly householders and small businesses. He worked with designers and also designed himself. Occasionally, for big jobs, he’d hire sub-contractors.
It was during this time that Gail suggested Richard write an article for a magazine. “This was before I got into computers and stuff,” he says. “So I bought a computer and thought, this is a good way to learn all the damn keys on the keyboard. I didn’t know how to type or anything like that. I started to write about woodworking. Once I found where all the keys were, all this stuff just spewed out of me.”
Coming up with content was easy. It was the editing that took time. He bought a nice camera, took accompanying photos, and easily sold his work to publications such as Woodshop News, The Woodworker, Woodworker’s Journal, and Furniture & Cabinetmaking.
At this time Richard’s work was also being shown in exhibits including the Philadelphia Furniture and Furnishings Show, the Houston Furniture and Design Expo, and invitational exhibitions hosted by Brazosport Art League, Gensler Architecture, Gremillion & Co. Fine Art, Gallery3 and more.
It was hot in Texas. An outside temperature of 100° meant an inside shop temperature of 110°. So in 2003, Richard and Gail moved back to the U.K. “I couldn’t take the heat,” he says. “It was great in the winter, but the heat just drove me nuts. My wife loves the heat. I missed the British things. I liked America and I liked Texas, and the people were really nice. But I missed the warm beer at rugby and, just, all that kind of British stuff. I missed my daughter and family.” Gail agreed to move back on one condition: Richard needed to have job. “And that’s how I became an accidental teacher,” he says.
Richard had been applying for a wide variety of jobs, including that of lecturer at Rycotewood Furniture Centre. He was quickly accepted for the position. Although he had never taught before, Richard said he was reasonably organized and managed to wrap his head around the job fairly quickly. Plus, the subject was second nature to him – guided by course curriculum he taught furniture design and making to undergraduates. He also continued to write for trade journals, a kind of teaching in and of itself.
In 2005, Richard accepted a position at Leeds College of Art, where he served as leader of the BA (Hons) Furniture Making program. Throughout his teaching career, Richard kept writing and building furniture on his own time, and exhibiting his work throughout the U.K. Exhibitions took place at or with the Northern Contemporary Furniture Makers at venues such as Tennants Auctioneers in North Yorkshire, and CUBE Gallery in Manchester. Between 2006 and 2008, Richard also earned a certificate in education, teacher training from the University of Huddersfield.
Eventually, Leeds ended its furniture course citing, for instance, income from furniture student fees and the footprint requirements of a furniture student compared to, for example, a graphic artist. “The craft furniture market has shrunk massively over the last 50 or 60 years,” Richard says. “Not many people are able to sustain themselves on craft furniture.”
In 2014, Richard forged a new path filled with varied work – furniture maker, joiner, woodworker, writer, teacher, consultant – a path he’s still on, today. “I kind of like that, it keeps me out of trouble,” Richard says. “My two best subjects at school were English and woodwork” – two subjects he excels at and makes a living with, today. He also became a member of the City & Guilds Institute, Leadership and Management, receiving his Masters Award in 2014.
By 2005, Richard had stopped writing for magazines, for two reasons: One, the pay was simply too little for the amount of work each required. And two, he realized timber technology, what he wanted to write about, was too big of a subject for the magazine format. So, in 2005, he started writing a book on timber technology. He finished it 10 years later.
The Making of “Cut & Dried”
Richard wrote “Cut & Dried” while also working full-time, and building furniture nights and weekends. “I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve put into it,” he says. Those years, filled with sometimes-intense four- to six-week periods of writing, included research, asking for peer reviews, editing and more. “If I was to say, I probably spent the equivalent of two-and-a-half to three years on it,” he says.
Richard also took care of much of the photography, traveling up and down the countryside in Scotland, the south coasts of England, and visiting and talking to people at timber kilns.
And this was, perhaps, the first time in Richard’s life that he eschewed practicality in terms of time. At one point he was offered a publishing contract, but it came with a deadline. So he turned it down. With no buyer for the book, he had no obligation to factor in an hourly wage. It was side work that took over all of his free time; it was work in addition to. The end result, he thought, would be the result of all his years of training, work and knowledge. And he wanted it to be worthy of all those years, he wanted it to be good and right, and intellectual but accessible, no matter how long the process took.
“Hopefully the result is very good for everybody,” Richard says. “I was bloody-minded, determined. I thought, someone needs this. I really believed somebody needed a book of this type on this subject.”
Part of that belief stemmed from the fact that the book he was writing did not exist. He wanted to create the definitive guide on timber technology, not from the point of view of a wood scientist, but rather from the point of view of a woodworker. He wanted to offer the often-complex information in a less-dense format, and in a way easily understood by those not scientifically minded. It took him years to make sense of it all. And so, throughout the writing process, he constantly asked himself, “How can I make it so that any other reader can make sense of it?”
And that took time.
“Wood is a bloody difficult material, and if you just keep blundering along you’re going to keep making mistakes,” Richard says. “I felt like I needed to know more about this stuff because I work with it. And although I am reasonably good, I thought I’d really like to know the why behind what’s going. There’s just something about that that really appealed to me, the fact that we take this material that grows naturally, and we turn it into other things.”
Richard loves trees. Perhaps it’s a love that developed when he was just a boy, riding his bike through the hills of the English countryside.
“I look out the windows, and I see these lovely trees, and they are just fascinating,” he says. “Many of the trees drop their leaves in autumn. And then by magic comes spring, with new flowers and leaves, and how do they all do that? I just think it’s fascinating. The homes they create, for bugs and all that stuff, the medicine that comes from them … I cycle on my bike through the woods and I see the magpies and crows and trees are just fascinating places, habitation for lots of different things, all together.”
Richard and I spent a lot of time working together on “Cut & Dried,” and given the distance, it was all via email, hundreds of emails – editing notes, answers to questions, at one point panicky queries regarding images and a chart (something like this happens with every book and thankfully, as with all the others, this one, too, worked itself out). And, as often happens in many months’ worth of writing, whether by hand and posted or sent electronically, more casual notes are dropped in, often near the end – details about weekend plans, family happenings.
The editor/writer bond is interesting, as you’re almost always working on years’ worth of work, sometimes, even, someone’s life’s work. There’s a sacredness to the task, for all involved, and as rewarding as it can be it’s also teeming with anxiety. And so, it was with great apprehension I read Richard’s email dated June 11, the day he finally, after so many years of intense work, received his author’s copies. “I’m really pleased,” he wrote. “The book looks wonderful at my first skim through. In a funny sort of way, I feel a bit overwhelmed and just don’t know what to say. I think I need a bit of time to get my head around what’s just happened.” Kind words followed – Richard excels at graciousness and professionalism.
Richard’s days (and nights) feel much longer now. With the book done, new paths are open – there’s more freedom.
“I like to keep busy,” Richard says. “I don’t fancy retirement.” In addition to work, Richard gardens, bikes, spends time with friends and watches rugby. He visits his family, including his daughter and twin 12-year-old grandchildren. Richard’s father died young, at the age of 70. But near the end of his life, Richard says they both began to understand each other. Richard even built some furniture for his parents, and they paid him fairly.
Richard would like to design and build more furniture, but he has little interest in owning a furniture-making business full time. “I don’t want to invest in all the machinery and premises at this age, over 60,” he says. “The craft furniture designer/maker road is really tough to go down.”
Consultancy is something he does occasionally, and would like to expand on. The work is varied and complex – legal disputes, timber technology issues, design and construction questions, and workshop safety. And it can pay quite well. Richard is also interested in developing guest teaching opportunities and perhaps speaking engagements, especially in the field of timber technology.
And so he continues on, approaching each day with solid work ethic, great intellect and his simple sense of practicality. And perhaps now, that his book is done, he’ll be able to relax more often, by having a pint and watching some rugby, which he says is, “my big interest outside all things woody.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl