“Well Mr. Savage, I am sorry to tell you the results of your tests are not good. If you play your cards right you may have two years, three at best. Play them badly and we are looking at months not years.”
So, I begin this book with the hope and intention to reach the conclusion before you do.
I wasn’t always going to be a furniture maker; that journey is for later. For now, I want to share with you a pair of cabinets that have just been finished. They will help tell a little about who I am. They are made in American cherry, highly figured and among my more successful pieces. However, both the selection of the species and the wonderful figuring are complete mistakes for which I can claim no credit. I wanted these pieces to be made in English cherry. It has a greenish-golden heather honey colour that has an elegance very suitable for bedroom furniture. I am pretty sure I said “English” to Daren, who ordered the wood, and I was sullen and grumpy for a while when the American cherry arrived.
“I can’t get English in these thicknesses,” he said. “This is all I can find, and we are lucky to have that.”
So, we carried on – no point doing anything else – and didn’t things turn out well! I could easily say how hard we looked for this highly figured stuff and how important it was to the concept, but that would be hogwash.
For most of my life I have made furniture for other people. Like the cobbler with poorly shod children, we have furniture in our home that has gone to exhibition but did not sell. What we don’t have is a handmade dining table and chairs or a pair of bedside cabinets. Storage in our bedroom is a moronic piece of furniture design from Habitat that closes two large drawers together and catches them in the centre. Push, just there, and maybe the catch will hold. Push anywhere else, and this aircraft carrier of a drawer springs out toward you, whacking you in the shins. But now we have these made-to-measure cherry lovelies.
They were largely made by Daren Millman, who is the senior cabinetmaker at Rowden. Rowden is our workshop in Devon, where we have been for nearly 20 years. Rowden is also a teaching school where we cover hand-tool techniques, machine techniques, drawing, design and business skills. Rowden is a farm owned by Ted Lott, who has retired and let out the farm buildings to us. During those 20 years, we have built up a workshop with an international reputation for making fine modern furniture to order. Before Rowden, I was in a workshop in Bideford for about eight years where I did much the same, but not quite as well. The end of that, and the beginning of this, is also a story for later. (Juicy one, that is.)
Not made fast, these cabinets. When asked how long these took, Daren would give his standard answer for any serious piece: “Oh, about 400 hours.” Whether it is a dining table set, or a cabinet with secret drawers, 400 hours seems to do it. Estimating times for making jobs is at the very guts of making a living in this biz, and Daren is spookily accurate.
We do price estimates in two ways. I have an arm-waving, general feeling gathered after 40-odd years of making mistakes. “Oh, it’s about three months,” as I visualise the piece being made from timber arrival to polishing. And I do the estimating in days or parts of days. Cutting those rails will be about half a day. I know this, for I have cut similar rails and seen others doing similar rails, and that’s how long it took!
But Daren is much more meticulous. He will settle down with paper and pen to plot the progress of components and processes through the workshop. Like me, he will begin at the beginning with timber ordering, visiting timberyards, making a cutting list. Right through to polishing, packing and delivery. Each will have a time allocation. That time allocation, again, will be based on nearly 30 years’ experience. He will be better than me, but I will have got there faster. So, if I need a quick price, I will use the arm-waving method and I may even ask Daren to wave his arms about. A serious job enquiry needs pen and paper, a nice comfy stool and a tidy bench. And about half of an expensive day.
But this wasn’t being made for a customer so none of that mattered; we won’t be getting paid for the time spent. I was once accused of being very concerned about money by one of those gutless anonymous internet trolls. This stunned me because all of our work has been for pay, but that was always secondary to making something that was special. If we could survive doing it, I would always want to make it as best we can – but to do that you need to know your numbers.
Way back in the early 1980s, I read books by James Krenov that inspired me to take up working with wood, making furniture. He inspired a generation to hug trees and to love wood, and to make as beautifully as one could, but from the position of a skilled amateur. Jim never sought, I believe, to make a living from this. That was my madness.
What Jim did do, however, was touch upon the reason that is at the core of this book. Why do we go that extra mile? Why do we break ourselves on that last 10 percent? This is the 10 percent that most people would not even recognise, or care about, even if it bit them on the leg. This is the bit that really hurts to get right, both physically and mentally.
But get it right and deliver the piece and she says, “Wow, David, I knew it would be good, but not this good.” Get this right, over deliver and soon you don’t need too many more new clients, for she will want this experience again and again. We have been making for the same clients now for most of my working life. They get it, they like it and they have the means to pay for it. Your job is to do it well enough to get the “Wow, David,” have the satisfaction of doing it right, get the figures right and feed your children. Not easy I grant you, but for some of you it will become a life well lived.
This is the quality thing at the centre of our lives. This is the issue that brings people to Rowden from all over the world, each with what Perry Marshall would call “a bleeding neck” (something is wrong, or they wouldn’t be here). Each knowing they can do more with their lives. They come with damage that they feel can be fixed with a combination of physical work and intelligent solutions. Both are essential.
Physical labour is unfashionably sweaty. We generally now sit at terminals in cool offices. We are bound by contracts of employment that would make some 18th-century slave owners seem benign. The only exercise we get is the twitching of our fingers and the occasional trip to the coffee machine. Our bodies, these wonderful pieces of equipment, are allowed to become indolent and obese. We feed up with corn-starched fast food and wait for retirement. Exercise, if we take it, has no meaning; we don’t exercise to do anything. We run or jog, but we go nowhere. We work out in the gym and get the buzz, the satisfaction of the body’s response to exercise, but we don’t do anything.
We don’t use the energy constructively to engage our minds and our hands to make stuff.
White collar work has become what we do, almost all of us in the Western world. It pays the bills and keeps us fed, we get a holiday and our children are kind of OK. And that is fine for most of us. But there are some of you who know that something is missing.
Something creative, some way to spend your day working physically while exercising your body and your mind. Thinking and revising what you are making, as consequence of the quality of your thoughts. This is Intelligent making, this is The Intelligent Hand.
This, then, is written for you. This is to help, encourage and support a decision to leave the world where thought and work are separated. Where they no longer exist together. This is for the brave souls who need to plough a contrarian furrow, where intelligence and making exist together and you are in control of your life. Don’t be scared, but don’t expect it to be dull or easy. A life well lived never is dull or easy.
— David Savage