Editor’s note: Thanks again to everyone who entered our True Tales of Woodworking Contest, in celebration of the release of Nancy Hiller’s new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life.” We enjoyed reading every one of the entries – so much so that we’re sharing some of them here and some of them on Nancy’s blog at Making Things Work – so be sure to tune in there, too! And congrats again to our winner, Bruce Chaffin.
p.s. Jim is a professional furniture maker who lives in England, hence the British spellings.
It’s fair to say that it would not have been my first job of choice as a full-time woodworker. For the past 25 years I had run my own architectural business designing and supervising the refurbishment of whatever jobs came through the door – houses, pubs, hotels.
Over the next few years I became despondent with the standard of work contractors, particularly finishing contractors, were presenting me with. I felt I could do better. I was a keen amateur woodworker and had a lifelong desire to work with my hands. As a result, I took part time classes over several years ending up with a City and Guilds in Furniture and Cabinet Making. The property crash of 2009 forced me to rethink my working life and I became a full-time cabinet maker.
Some years before in my previous life I had designed and supervised the refurbishment of a large Victorian house. The work was carried out and all went well enough for my clients and I to become and remain friends.
They had recently approached me to design a large set of shelving units. They wanted an irregular design, each space to house various pictures, books, and artefacts, painted rather like a ‘Mondrian ‘ painting, with the front lipping picked out in a different colour.
They wanted to know if I knew anyone who could make such a unit. I hesitated but told them that I would be that person – as I already knew the house and we shared an aesthetic. I went to see them and looked at the large living room with very high ceilings and two imposing alcoves either side of a marble fireplace and I felt I could give then what they wanted.
Measurements were taken, sketch designs and costings provided and the approval to go ahead was given.
I did not have the luxury of a workshop at this time but fortunately the ‘site’, the living room where the units were required, was empty with bare floor boards. I measured and drew out the units very accurately and had all of the timber cut to size.
This was my first job for a paying client. It not only had to look good but had to work. The units were over two meters wide each and had been designed to appear random but were in fact strategically sized to provide each shelf with adequate support.
I had worked out that working alone I would have to build the units and then get them into position. There was sufficient room on the floor to build the main outer frame and cross brace it for lifting.
The units were to sit on top of the existing high Victorian skirting boards. I had devised a system of timber rails which were fixed to the existing skirting boards but extended out from the alcoves into the room either side of the fireplace on supports.
The rails were lined up with the top of the skirting boards and were in fact in two pieces – one of which would remain as a permanent support beneath the shelving, the extension being removable once the unit was in place. The extended rails into the room would allow me to work on the units and then slide them back into the alcove without having to lift the finished unit which would be too heavy. I was alone in the house most of the time and it occurred to me for the first time that I could be at risk.
I installed the rails to one alcove to allow sufficient floor space to build the first unit. I laid the pieces out which I had previously spent a whole day sorting. It was like a giant jigsaw. I worked out the minimum pieces I would have to put in place to allow me to lift it without distorting.
Once these were fixed together, I attempted a lift. It was heavier than I could have imagined. I had also made it upside down. It had to not only be lifted, but rotated.
Whilst looking for inspiration and resting my arms there was a knock at the front door. I opened it and nearly fainted. There before me stood a ghost from 25 years ago. A teacher whom I had feared most of my life at school. He had aged, like one of those e- fit police photographs but was still recognisable to me. He obviously had no idea who I was. I was just one of the many children he had no doubt caused untold misery to in a bygone age of stricter schooling.
He had ‘just popped in with the decorator to see how things were going’. Apparently and unknown to me he was my client’s father. “Are you alright ?” he asked as I must have looked pale with shock. At that precise moment I didn’t know whether to tell him about my dilemma with the shelves or punch him. I decided on the former.
At this point two young decorators appeared behind him. Getting over the shock of seeing this now old man I had once feared, I asked them if they would mind giving me a lift as he did not appear fit enough for such activity. The three of us lifted the unit, rotated it and put it on the rails. They stood back. I hadn’t expected an audience as I edged the unit into place. Hoping it would fit and I would not look a total idiot I eased it inch by inch into position. I had that same sick feeling as if I was back in school. I envisaged it not fitting and was waiting for the bellow of how useless I was. As the unit eased in position, I heard the old teacher say “Wow, just look at that. Perfect. That’s how you do it lads, you’re watching a craftsman!”
— Jim Bennett